Today – 23 February 2021 – marks the 200th anniversary of John Keats’ death. To commemorate the life and legacy of the young Romantic, The Poetry Society and Keats House, Hampstead, commissioned three poets to write new poems inspired by his work.
Ruth Padel wrote ‘Night Singing in a Time of Plague’ in response to ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, Will Harris wrote ‘This Warm Scribe’ in response to ‘Hyperion’ and Rachael Boast wrote ‘To One Who Has Ceased To Be’ in response to ‘When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be’.
Ruth writes “One night in lockdown I couldn’t sleep, heard a robin sing and thought of Keats’s nightingale. I’d been unable to see my family at Christmas, dear friends and relations had died, there’d been deaths across the road, when the robin began belting away I thought how Keats uses the song of a bird he can’t see to escape into visions of other worlds. Dim woods, summer sun, magic seas. Away from a world where people are dying, which is what we all need just now – and behind Covid there’s the planet, the woods and seas themselves at risk. I love the story of how Keats, after seeing his brother die, scribbled on scraps of paper listening to a nightingale in the garden, and his friend found them and put them together. ‘Darkling I listen’ really summed me up that night. It’s a wonderful poem, I did it for A-Level, it’s haunted me all my life, I never thought it would comfort me years later in a pandemic. Lockdown has made us all aware how much we need nature, and that robin’s song was a little spark of hope. Like poetry. A perfect example of where poetry can take us, why we need it.”
Rachel added “I’ve often wondered about Keats as a medical man, how that may have contributed to his development as a poet of graphic vision, as someone who finds beauty where he can and understands the truth of it, pouring his joys and sorrows into poems that never lose their appeal.”
Will said “As I was re-reading Keats – and, in particular, his attempts to write the myth of Hyperion while his brother was dying – I thought about poetry as a death-aware form of incantation which briefly liberates personal and political agency.”
The three poets will be performing their new poems live on Zoom tonight. Keats200, the anniversary commemoration programme, continues throughout the year.
23 February 2021