Replying to Keats: new poems from three contemporary poets on bicentenary
The Poetry Society has marked the bicentenary of the death of John Keats on 23 February by commissioning three contemporary poets – Ruth Padel, Will Harris and Rachael Boast –to respond to their favourite Keats poems with a new poem of their own.
John Keats died of tuberculosis in Rome on February 23 1821. Ruth Padel has written ‘Night Singing in a Time of Plague’ in response to ‘Ode to a Nightingale’; Will Harris has written ‘This Warm Scribe’ in response to ‘Hyperion’; and Rachael Boast has written ‘To One Who Has Ceased To Be’ in response to ‘When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be’.
Ruth Padel said: “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.” Ruth’s poem begins:
Can’t you sleep either? After a dark year,
many old friends gone, I thought I heard you sing
outside the window
inches from my ear. Who are you singing for
this time of night? Did I dream you?
Will Harris’s poem, revisiting a location in Hampstead familiar to Keats, responded to Keats’s ‘Hyperion’: “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.” Will’s poem begins:
I came to Well Walk
where Keats kept watch
by poor Tom’s bed. There
he dreamed a war up
in his head: the old gods
scared to die, the new
gods scared to live.
& all I did was sit in
bed & drink cold juice
& burn small heaps
of crisped spice wood.
No word rang true.
I could not bear this
thing of time. Be with
me when the old
world dies. Be with me.
Rachael Boast said of her poem, an elegiac sonnet responding to Keats’s ‘When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be’: “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.” Her poem begins:
Above the gorge of the world's wide river
You stand alone – with nothing to think on,
No thought to hold to, no herein and no hereafter,
All that remains of you is Vision;
The new commissioned poems will be performed live at a digital event presented by the Poetry Society at Tuesday 23 February 7PM GMT on Zoom. On the Shore of the Wide World: Keats, 200 years on features poets and scholars reflecting on the anniversary. The commissions were funded by Keats House, and are part of the Poetry Society's Keats200 programme.