Suzi Feay

Romantic Afterlives

Written in Water: Keats’s Final Journey, Alessandro Gallenzi, Alma Books, 2022, pp.320, £16.99 (hardcover)

Starlight Wood: Walking Back to the Romantic Countryside, Fiona Sampson, Corsair, 2022, pp.368, £20 (hardcover)

John Keats embarked from London on 17 September 1820 aboard the cramped, sweaty Maria Crowther on a voyage to Italy to regain his health. It turned out to be a vain hope. He was pointlessly wrenched from his friends, his home and everything that he loved, yet the friendship of his travelling companion Joseph Severn, the liveliness of their Naples sojourn, the jolting carriage ride to Rome, the death house on the Spanish Steps, the forlornly worded gravestone (‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’) in the lovely cemetery devoted to non-Catholics who die in the Eternal City are all indelible portions of Romantic myth. It wouldn’t be the same if he’d died in Hampstead, surrounded by admirers and holding the hand of Fanny Brawne.

Every biography relates the tragic tale in its own way, and some elements are as well-polished as the stone given to the poet by his love, which he took comfort in passing from hand to hand in his final days. After 200 years, can any new details be uncovered to give a different tint to the accepted picture? Italian publisher, poet and translator Alessandro Gallenzi thinks so, and even contends that prior biographers got things wrong. He takes the position that even the tiniest readjustment is valuable. Despite being only a slight acquaintance of the poet, Severn was the only person in his circle who was sufficiently footloose to embark upon the long journey, Keats being too ill to travel alone. Besides, a trip to Rome was virtually de rigueur for young artists; Severn could combine his sickroom duties with sketching and self-improvement. While not yet being the towering poetic figure he was to become post-mortem, Keats was impressive enough as a person to merit close attention. Severn seems to have had some idea of the momentousness of the days he was living through; he kept a rough journal at the time, and subsequently worked it up into a fuller narrative, My Tedious Life. To what extent there is slippage and embroidery in the later account is one ticklish issue for the biographer, Gallenzi fleshes out some of the minor characters in the story, such as Keats’s London doctor and the captain of the brig, Thomas Walsh, sketching their lives after their brief brush with literary fame. The account of the voyage itself is largely unchanged. One figure is as poignant as Keats himself, the young Miss Cotterell, like the poet stricken with TB and heading to Italy as a last resort. On re-examining the documentary evidence, Gallenzi disagrees with previous biographers that another Naples-bound passenger, Mrs Elizabeth Pigeon, was the girl’s companion (Andrew Motion’s Keats calls her a ‘chaperon’). Unknown to each other, the landlubbers quickly made friends, which was just as well. The suffocatingly cramped quarters in the heaving brig are well evoked.

Maria Cotterell tends to fade out from the story once the Keats connection is severed, but in this retelling her brother Charles becomes a major character. He was so grateful for the pair’s attentions to his sister on the voyage that he extended many kindnesses during their stay in Naples, when Keats was still well enough to sightsee and even visit the opera. Gallenzi adds the poignant detail, overlooked by other biographers, that Maria died in Charles’s arms only a few months after Keats’s death, aged twenty.

Often neglected by biographers is the turbulent and complex state of Italian politics at the time. Gallenzi particularly relishes this aspect, underlining the volatility and militarism that were a feature of life in Naples. By focusing intensely on their subject, biographers tend to magnify them, making other characters puny in comparison. Gallenzi does the opposite, widening his viewpoint to include soldiers, residents, dignitaries, diplomats and travellers, to the extent that we often lose sight of the poet altogether. The effect is to render Keats as he surely was at the time, an insignificant figure to the bustling wider world. It makes him seem more brave; and more vulnerable.

In his afterlife, when the poet had become famous, those who had known him or even encountered him briefly, were keen to add their recollections to the pile. The testimony of one such is forensically dissected by Gallenzi. Charles Macfarlane, in Reminiscences of a Literary Life, described meeting both Keats and Shelley (separately) in Naples. His account of visiting the ruins of Pompeii with the latter is contradicted by Shelley himself, in a letter the existence of which Macfarlane could not have known. However, his charming Keats story, Gallenzi decides, has ‘the ring of a second-hand after-dinner anecdote… and warrants further inspection’. Gallenzi duly concludes that the story does at least render ‘a plausible picture of [Keats’s] state of mind’.

Gallenzi has diligently researched routes, conveyances and costs, and gives a thrilling account of the poet’s journey to Rome. He makes generous use of contemporary travellers’ accounts of bad beds, shocking food and creaking inns, as well as a fear and suspicion of Italians that borders on the racist. The most innocent smile of a passerby becomes a snarl of sinister intent or a signal to lurking banditti. British travellers had evidently read far too many Ann Radcliffe novels. One detail on the final approach to Rome over the Pontine marshes is unforgettable: from their carriage, Severn and Keats spot a cardinal in a red cloak shooting songbirds with the help of an owl tied to a stick. Gallenzi delves deeper into this curious sighting, plausibly identifying the killer cleric as hunting-mad Annibale della Genga, the future Pope Leo XII. Such mini-biographies form an incidental delight of the book.

Gallenzi dismisses one major source as being largely fabricated: the ‘fifty-odd pages’ in William Sharp’s 1892 Life and Letters of Joseph Severn that form, he contends, ‘a fraudulent account of Keats’s final months… a crude pastiche’. Working from original material, Sharp embellished, elided, and even invented ‘gratuitous details out of thin air’. The discussion of Sharp’s own life and character as a late-Victorian literary chancer forms a fascinating interlude to the main story.

For the last section, covering the time spent in the famous house on the Spanish Steps, now the Keats-Shelley museum, Gallenzi draws heavily on Severn’s letters and diaries, with extensive, page-long excerpts. In his biography, Andrew Motion covers the span between the preparations for the voyage and the death of Keats in roughly thirty-five pages out of a mighty 575, whereas Gallenzi devotes 250 to the same time-span. His substantial notes are worth studying in their own right. Beyond excision of the Sharp material, there’s no dramatic re-casting of the accepted story but anyone who relishes the chance to spend a little more time with John Keats (I’m one) will find this an affecting read.

Fiona Sampson’s Starlight Wood, with its title taken from Shelley, comprises ten British walks prompting a series of meditations on Romantic and post-Romantic writers. Although ordnance survey references are given, the walks are more mental than physical. This is as much a personal record as a literary meander. Sampson’s father died in his nineties during lockdown, his last words to his daughter in a video call unconsciously echoing those of Elizabeth Barrett Browning; a Romantic sensibility is one where the past continually resurfaces in the present, different yet the same.

On her walks, Sampson is frequently accompanied by her dogs, Dee and Zed, and her partner, P (well, she could hardly call him Pee). Her discursive method can best be indicated by taking one walk as an example. The fourth excursion, entitled ‘Eating’, nominally travels from Great Wood to Crowcombe Park, near Bridgewater, but this is not a guide book. Sampson leaps straight in with Robert Browning’s poem ‘Memorabilia’ (‘And did you once see Shelley plain, / And did he stop and speak to you?’), hazarding a guess that the person Browning is addressing, who I’d always assumed was male, was Mrs Hoppner, wife to the Consul in Venice in 1818 and a confidant of Lord Byron. Years later, she told the Brownings about tempting the sickly vegetarian Shelley to take a slice of beef at dinner: ‘He was so thin.’ The incident is recorded in the avid letter Elizabeth Barrett Browning subsequently wrote to her sister. Taking memory as a theme leads Sampson to a consideration of the recording of Robert Browning’s voice on a wax cylinder and a discussion of Byron’s menagerie of pets. (Remembering to look about her, Sampson notes the crab apples, and the harvesting of beets and potatoes.)

From there we leap to Smithfield meat market as viewed in Oliver Twist, the two female academics who in 1901 claimed to have been transported back to the Versailles of Marie Antoinette, a Shelley ghost-story session in 1814, the more famous one at Villa Diodati two years later, then back to ‘Memorabilia’ via Maria Tsvetaeva; the Mass, the Last Supper, the hymn ‘We plough the fields and scatter…’, eating pheasants, ‘The Roast Beef of Old England’, and so on and on. This is comically reminiscent of Keats’s encounter with Coleridge on Hampstead Heath. Keats summarised Coleridge’s monologue in a letter:

‘Nightingales, Poetry – on Poetical sensation – Metaphysics – Different genera and species of Dreams – Nightmare – a dream accompanied by a sense of touch – single and double touch – a dream related… Monsters, the Kraken – Mermaids – Southey believes in them – Southeys [sic] belief too much diluted – A Ghost story – Good morning!’

Rapid thought and leaps of intuition are hallmarks of Romantic writing, and Sampson’s merely following the programme. This intellectual dashing about is appealing, and her insight that the slender Shelley’s vegetarianism ‘seems like trouble with food itself’ is worth pondering. ‘His food fetishes may not quite have been anorexia by proxy, but they don’t seem far removed from it,’ she states, regarding his proselytising for a raw diet. (Today he might be a wellness Influencer.)

In the same essay Sampson performs an interesting swerve of interpretation, as if to underline Gallenzi’s misgivings about biographers. She frames Mrs Hoppner’s ‘Dear Mr Shelley, you are so thin’ as ‘a flirtatious challenge, with its teasing reference to the body itself, [which] would have cut through the formal good manners, the splendid silver and glassware, of that Consulate dinner’. Twenty pages later, the roles are reversed and it becomes the ‘handsome young poet’ who ‘flirted between the cut glass and gleaming cruet sets’. It’s a strangely confident assertion to make three times removed and over two hundred years on from the original event. Even for a scholar, it seems it’s hard to resist projecting emotions onto these long-dead, but somehow still lively figures.

Walk Two features the Elan valley, where a reservoir drowned not one but two Shelleyan homes in the interests of supplying Birmingham with water. A walk through Romney Marsh not only commemorates Sampson’s grandfather, the Rev W.T. Sampson, who had a parish there, but also traces the Military Canal, a reminder of the Napoleonic threat underlining much of the Romantic period. Military uniforms were as much a part of the backdrop as daffodils. Keeping company with Shelley are Rousseau, Keats and Byron, Mary Shelley, Constable in Essex, George Crabbe and Benjamin Britten in Aldeburgh, Wordsworth and Ruskin in the lakes, J.M.W. Turner, Goethe, and William Blake.

Constantly stimulating, it’s not a book for anyone unfamiliar with the terrain. Unlike the Gallenzi, there’s no index and few notes, and Sampson’s own personal connections regularly push through her literary ruminations. But it’s by such interweaving that the great Romantics remain our contemporaries, forever asking uncomfortable questions, demonstrating human failings and, above all, expressing our deepest conundrums in lines that will live as long as the language.

Suzi Feay is a London-based literary journalist with a particular interest in fiction and poetry. She writes regularly for The Guardian and The Financial Times, among others.

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