‘A sort of prologue to the life I intend to pursue’, by Sylvan Thomson
In the summer of 1818, when he was 22 years old, the poet John Keats walked northward from Lancaster in England to Inverness in Scotland. He went with his dear friend Charles Brown, who I like to think of as a sort of stolid Samwise to Keats’ wide-eyed Frodo. It took them five weeks and they covered a distance of 642 miles (Brown kept a pedantic record of every leg). Together they walked through the well-travelled Lake District, went briefly across to Donaghadee in Ireland, hugged the western coast of Scotland, visited the scattered islands of the Inner Hebrides, climbed Ben Nevis and then, finally, rode by coach to the seaside town of Cromarty, a point north of Inverness, where Keats boarded a smack and travelled back to London by sea. They had intended to go as far as John O’Groats, the northernmost part of Scotland, but Keats, as poor Keats often did, developed a severe cold and, on doctor’s orders, had to go home early.
It was about three and half years ago when I began to write about this walk for my English Literature Honours dissertation. I pompously called the essay “Footing Slow across a Silent Plain: John Keats and Romantic Walking”. I’ve always been a walker and while I was writing this laboured paper on the “rise of Romantic pedestrianism in the early 1800’s” I would often gaze out of the window and think about how I would much rather just do the walk than write a stuffy academic essay about it. This thought stayed with me long after I had finished the essay and graduated. I carried it around in my head but somehow the time never seemed right to actually do it. And then, in August of last year, I finally spent five weeks trudging up England and into Scotland, trying to approximate the journey that Keats and Brown went on almost two hundred years ago.
Before I left on my walk I had a week in London where I tried to get into a Keatsian frame of mind: I went to the Keats House in Hampstead and sat on Keats’ firm, four poster bed; I peered into glass cabinets of Keats’ little things; I looked at the margin notes he had scribbled in cramped cursive in his Complete Works of Shakespeare; I wandered around a sun-bleached and tawny Hampstead Heath where he liked to walk; I went to look at the Elgin Marbles that he once wrote an unsuccessful poem about; I even went to the National Portrait Gallery and peered at the picture of Keats listening to a nightingale that his friend Joseph Severn painted. I tried to go to Kew Gardens where Keats had learned about botany as a medical student but it cost £12 so I just peered between the bars at some distant flower beds. Slowly, I began to understand that it was an impossible undertaking, this attempt of mine to know an historical figure. I began to wonder what it would be like if I put this much effort into knowing, say, my girlfriend, or my father, or even myself. Then I bought myself a billy can, a rain poncho, a series of Ordnance Survey maps and a one way rail ticket to Lancaster.
That first day was the worst day of the whole trip. Fatally hungover, I took the early train from London and stared, head buzzing and guts aflame, out the window as England streaked by. Those close-faced brick houses, the muted browns and greens of the fields, the stretches of dismal suburbia, it all seemed suddenly so unknowable. What was I doing? I thought, and how dare I do it?
It was raining in Lancaster where I shouldered my backpack and began to walk along the narrow towpath that flanks the Lancaster Canal. This canal was only being planned in 1818, just a twinkle in an engineer’s eye when Brown and Keats were walking, but in 2016 it was the closest I had to a route that somewhat mirrored theirs. Unfriendly British people walked small dogs along the towpath and there were swans, turning in slow, imperious circles on the rain-pocked brown water. Every mile or so a stone bridge humped, quaintly, over the canal. It soon began to rain quite heavily and I had only walked for about an hour before I sat down under a tree and systematically ate all the food I had packed for the day.
It rained all of that first leg, straight through into the evening, and it turned out that my rain poncho did not actually fit over both me and my backpack. It turned out that my vintage Fairydown backpack, though very aesthetically pleasing, cut into my back and shoulders like a yoke. It turned out that drinking cocktails until four AM in Shoreditch with my dear friend Miriam and several bizarre MDMA-gobbling businessmen was a bad thing to do before trying to follow John Keats through England.
Late in the day I sat under one of the old stone bridges waiting vainly for the rain to ease. While under the bridge I witnessed a drug deal, transacted by a beautiful teenager straight out of Skins and an emaciated man on a bicycle. I decided to leave the bridge, walked until I was once again drenched through, and went to a pub beside the canal. There, hoping for a hair-of-the-dog effect, I drank a half pint of Guinness and wrote a long diary entry about the personalities of the different businessmen I had met the night before. In the pub an old man with yellow-grey buckteeth that curled like toenails over his lower lip called me “laddie” and slapped me hard on the back for my mettle. He was impressed by the backpack, the wetness. He told me he had been a bombardier in the war. When he told me this I thought, a-hah! Keats had met veterans of the Napoleonic Wars during his walk. And now here I was, meeting my own veterans and walking through the County Lancashire, just like Keats. But then I thought, so what? I wondered what to do with any of this: the businessmen and the rain, my hangover and John Keats, the gaunt, nervy-eyed man buying a baggie from a Caravaggio-faced boy. The Guinness and the swans. I wondered whether Keats would even, you know, like me or whether he would find my tribute faintly embarrassing. Mostly, I wondered whether every day would be so awful.
But after the first day, things got much better. As time ran by I got stronger and my bag became less yoke-like. It rained but, like Keats and Brown, I got used to being damp. I saw countless beautiful things. I met wonderful, eccentric people. I bathed naked in streams and camped in empty, moon-lit valleys. I picked wild raspberries and became adept at flicking slugs off the side of my tent and having strangers buy me pints. Sometimes I was exhausted and lonely and bored, sometimes I skipped bits of the walk, or I hitchhiked, sometimes I walked for days on paths Keats and Brown wouldn’t have walked. I nearly always slept in a tent, whereas they stayed in inns and guesthouses. I ate pasta with a tomato sauce almost every night for five weeks, and a lot of cheap, sugared custard donuts, and I drank a lot of Guinness, whereas they consumed mostly eggs, whiskey and oat cakes. In their knapsacks they took Dante’s Divine Comedy whereas I took Middlemarch, the diaries of Benjamin Robert Haydon, a battered copy of Madame Bovary, another of Macbeth. I kept a journal (not just about businessmen) and read and re-read Keats’ letters and Keats’ poetry. I tried as hard as I could to think about the lofty things that Keats’ thought about, things like inspiration, ambition, nature. And those other big things: truth and beauty, beauty and truth. Sometimes I felt like I was getting close to something to do with Keats, like the walk was at the very least a feint toward him, but most of the time I was just myself, alone in Scotland, sometimes ravenous, sometimes bewildered and sometimes full of joy.
Now, about six months later, I have been re-reading Keats’ letters, Keats’ poetry, and consulting a number of books about walking and about Keats. Two of them are about both of these things. One is called A Walk After John Keats. It was published in the 1930’s by a man called Nelson Sherwin Bushnell who re-traced Keats’ steps, very thoroughly and then wrote a book about it, in boring yet oddly strident prose. Another book, in a similar vein, Walking North with Keats by Carol Kyros Walker, an American academic. I ripped the centre of this book out to take with me on the walk, because it had an itinerary and well-annotated copies of the letters and poetry that Keats wrote while walking. Carol didn’t do the walk like Nelson and I did, but she did do a lot of day hikes to the more picturesque sites that Keats and Brown visited. In the 80’s she hired a Morris Minor and drove the route, stopping to take photographs and to talk to locals about where so-and-so pub used to be, whether Keats was referring to the Old Kings Arms or the New Kings Arms in his letter. I did the walk a little differently to these two. I wanted my walk to be about what I conceived of as the spirit of the walk, rather than a re-enactment, or a fact checking exercise. Though I wanted to approximate the distances covered by Brown and Keats, and see the landmarks they wrote about, I wasn’t hung up on getting things exactly right, especially because, 200 years later, so very many things were so different that it seemed futile to attempt any kind of true analogue.
When Keats was planning his walk he described it in a comically grandiose way: he wanted his summer holiday to be a sort of setting of the tone for the rest of his life. Writing to Haydon, whose diary I took with me, he said: “I purpose within a month to put my knapsack at my back and make a pedestrian tour through the North of England, and part of Scotland — to make a sort of Prologue to the Life I intend to pursue — that is to write, to study and to see all Europe at the lowest expence.” Then, tongue-in-cheek, he elaborates grandiloquently: “I will clamber through the Clouds and exist. I will get such an accumulation of stupendous recollections that as I walk through the suburbs of London I may not see them — I will stand upon Mount Blanc and remember this coming Summer when I intend to straddle Ben Lomond — with my soul!”
This is what I kept coming back to as I walked, the idea of being able to retain an experience, to carry its principles and its feelings onward into the rest of your life. If I were lucky this walk could be like setting a metronome for the pace of the rest of my life. Walking each day until I dropped, exhausted into my tent, reading Keats, seeing beautiful things, encountering other people in the fleeting, heart-warming way you do when you travel on foot… like Keats, I wanted this to be a foreword to what might come after.
It’s funny the things writers give you, things that you get to keep forever if you choose to. Whenever I catch a glimpse of a swift stream moving through trees I think, “streaming silverly”. Whenever I feel leaden with apathy I think of Keats writing to his friend Benjamin Bailey, “I am in that temper that if I were under water I would scarcely kick to come to the top.” If I am feeling particularly in need of wine I want to cry out:
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
And when I find myself thinking, snobbishly, about some thing or other that I don’t particularly like then I recall Keats’ thought while at a highland dance rehearsal: “if I had pleasures they knew nothing of, they had also some into which I could not possibly enter.”
While I was on my Keats walk I kept reminding myself that Keats, too, had been on a writerly pilgrimage of sorts. In his case the walk, as well as hopefully being a “prologue” to his later life, was an attempt to commune with one of his heroes, the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns. He wrote three poems inspired by Burns on this walk; visited Burns’ tomb; went to the house, now a museum, where Burns lived in his later years; he stood in the low-roofed, one-room cottage where Burns was born and composed a sonnet. He took a pinch of snuff on the keystone of the Brig o’ Doon, the bridge in the climax of Burns’ poem “Tam o’ Shanter”. And I went to these places too. I tried to look at them as Keats had done. I read what Keats wrote about them and I realised that, much in the same way that I was reading the landscape for insights into Keats, or how I had visited the Keats’ landmarks in London, Keats, on his walk, had been trying to puzzle out something about Burns, about creativity and admiration and the act paying tribute.
When Keats visited the Burns’ cottage he was struck by the contrast between the solidity of the physical place and the vaguer but more powerful sense of Burns as a writer and a source of inspiration:
Yet can I stamp my foot upon thy floor,
Yet can I ope thy window-sash to find
The meadow thou hast tramped o’er and o’er,–
Yet can I think of thee till thought is blind,–
Yet can I gulp a bumper to thy name,–
O smile among the shades, for this is fame!
Keats spent much of his walk exploring what seem like inchoate, immense feelings. He writes a lot about blindness, about mist and confusion, about trying to respond appropriately to an often overwhelming sense of grandeur and inspiration. “What do I do with all of this?!” is what Keats seems to ask himself, over and over. On top of Ben Nevis, standing in the mist, he described himself as a “witless elf”. The mist, as he saw it, was everywhere – not just on the slopes of Ben Nevis but in his head as well: “all my eye doth meet / Is mist and crag, not only on this height, / But in the world of thought and mental might!”
In another poem about the slow approach to Burns’ cottage he concludes with a plea that: “man may never lose his mind on mountains black and bare; / That he may stray league after league some great birth-place to find / And keep his vision clear from speck, his inward sight unblind.”
But Keats, being Keats, sparkly, elusive, silly, clever Keats, is never in this weighty mode for long. Alongside these fearful and frankly kind of confused poems are the doggerel verses he scribbles for his sister, the lovely ballad “Meg Merrilies”, a number of comic complaint-poems written about blisters, midges, bagpipes and bad food. He comes up with a lot of groany puns, makes fun of Brown’s orderliness (Brown took everything out of his backpack in the same order every evening, and returned it in the reverse when he was finished).
I think my favourite thing that Keats wrote on this walk is a long, silly poem for his sister Fanny. He calls it “A Song About Myself” and it begins like this:
There was a naughty boy,
A naughty boy was he,
He would not stop at home,
He could not quiet be-
It goes on in this vein for a while, lists the contents of his knapsack, pairs some quite dubious rhymes and then concludes:
There was a naughty boy,
And a naughty boy was he,
He ran away to Scotland
The people for to see-
There he found
That the ground
Was as hard,
That a yard
Was as long,
That a song
Was as merry,
That a cherry
Was as red,
Was as weighty,
Was as eighty,
That a door
Was as wooden
As in England-
So he stood in his shoes
And he wonder’d,
He stood in his
Shoes and he wonder’d.
On the last night of my walk I camped in a clearing far up the western flank of the Great Glen. The next day I would walk 15 miles to Inverness and call it a day. I was in a smooth, earth-floored clearing, surrounded by small pine trees. Pine trees covered the eastern side of the valley too, which was in shadow, the points of the trees hatching the hillside with a dark hounds-tooth pattern. Far below I could see the silvered water of Loch Ness. The sun went down, slowly slowly brushing a broad stroke of gold over my campsite. As the sun descended I sat on a log and cooked my pasta and drank a miniature bottle of pinot noir. The next night I would be taking a bus back to London, from there to Berlin, from there to Michigan where I would be for the next three years, trying my best to be a writer.
I can’t tell if the walk might end up functioning as a sort of prologue for the life I intend to pursue. Probably not, though it is a lovely idea. And sadly it didn’t end up being that way for Keats, who died in Rome less than three years after heading back to London. In the end what I think I’ve learned, from my reading and from my walking, and my sniffing along at Keats’ heels for five weeks is that, for me, there is a wild and almost vicious joy in being outside, in being exhausted, in allowing mountains and hillsides and rivers and long-dead poets to talk to me. At the end of my walk, like Keats, I was still not sure quite what to make of all this. In many respects things were, things are, the same as they’ve always been. But so long as I am standing in my shoes and continuing to wonder about it then I’m hopefully doing my job.
What Sylvan Read