Season of golden opportunity

20th October 1995 at 01:00
On my shelf I see editions of the poems marking three clear stages of my own fascination with John Keats. The first (going in reverse order of acquisition) is an old Oxford standard edition of the Poetical Works, with Keats's face as frontispiece, emaciated and passionate in a drawing by his friend Joseph Severn. This book was the lecturer's tool, with untidy scribbles and speculations in the margins, which served me in teaching Keats in a college of education and a polytechnic (remember those?).

My second Keats is a school textbook, J H Walsh's frequently reprinted Selected Poems and Letters, from the years I taught in a boys' grammar school (it should have gone back to the stock room when I left). The pencilling on the flyleaf lists the pages the Cambridge Board prescribed for A- level in the early 1960s: a generous tranche of the letters, nothing of Endymion, all the greatest poems Keats published in his lifetime, and The Fall of Hyperion. Walsh didn't include La Belle Dame sans Merci. I wonder why? From that period I recall a gratifyingly warm response to Keats's poetry and personality from sixth forms.

My own devotion had started accidentally about 15 years earlier, when I was myself still in the sixth. My third Keats edition I picked up for a shilling in a second-hand bookshop, experiencing instant conversion to a poet not set for my exams. This toughly-bound Victorian volume had odd, misty engravings covered with tissue paper: the "knight-at-arms" in La Belle Dame sans Merci looking as old as Don Quixote. No matter. I read that poem, the odes, and the whole of The Eve of St Agnes on the bus home.

My sensations on reading that last one, in particular, still remain with me: of being carried along by its narrative speed and gripped by the suspense; of feeling stirred by the thought of love succeeding through audacity. And of shock at Keats's master-stroke in changing from present tense to past again in the final stanza: aye, ages long ago These lovers fled away into the storm - reminding of mortality: the lovers themselves are dead, as well as "Angela the old" and "the Beadsman", even as their love triumphs.

Was that pleasure at discovering Keats still felt by young readers today, whether they came to him by chance themselves, or with the help of teachers? Seeking an answer, I met an inexplicable obstacle - a dearth of Keats's poems set this year for GCSE and A-level.

The Friends of Keats House in Hampstead had written in 1992 to all the examination boards to enquire about - "and partly provoke them into" - the setting of Keats in his bicentenary year of 1995. Keats is among the pre-1900 poets for key stages 3 and 4 in the national curriculum Orders. And yet the poet actually appears less in the current syllabuses than in previous years. A trick has been missed. Radios 3 and 4 have collaborated with BBC 1 on a striking series of programmes close to, and on, the anniversary itself (October 31), ranging from plays, talks and readings to a re-creation of Keats's final journey to Italy by Andrew Motion, his latest biographer.

I visited five schools - two outside London and three close to Keats's Hampstead home - speaking to pupils and teachers there, and to numerous other teachers. The schools could only help by trying out certain poems on their present students before my arrival, or calling in pupils who had studied The Eve of St Agnes for last year's GCSE. "It was the best moment in my teaching career so far," a teacher at Springwood School, King's Lynn said, "when I passed the boys' cloakroom and heard someone quoting Ah, bitter chill it was!

The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold.

Girls now in her lower sixth said they liked "the ornate detail" of the poem, "the strong romantic story", and "the way the two lovers 'got together' and made their escape". This teacher, in a Norfolk comprehensive, differed from the one in a girls' public school who thought her pupils "in general found Keats lacked the 'street cred' of Eliot, Larkin, Hughes, Heaney".

The 70-minute session I conducted with a mixed upper sixth group in King Edward VII High School, another King's Lynn comprehensive, gave them their first encounter with Keats. I wasn't sure how much La Belle Dame appealed to them: the feared adjective "flowery" was one reaction. Did they appreciate from any comparable experience of their own what the poem was saying about being enslaved to an overwhelming emotion? The question seemed too personal to ask: the great Odes were probably less alarming ground.

To Autumn elicited a fuller understanding, and a very positive response, as did Ode to a Nightingale. "I've had the feeling myself of something lasting for ever and yet simultaneously fading away," said one student. Another was moved to see that Keats had expressed her own fascination with the idea that we ourselves must be sharing many sights, sounds and experiences with people alive in other times: the nightingale's song being: heard In ancient days by emperor and clown.

The year 10 form I met from University College School, quite near to Keats House, showed an eager appreciation of the Autumn ode, sensing the delicacy of the shift from fruitfulness and ripeness to the hint of winter in the migration of the swallows. Reading aloud: And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep Steady thy laden head across a brook one remembers F R Leavis's marvellous observation on the line-division there, which enacted the balancing movement of the gleaner. The lower sixth, studying the "Gothic" tradition, spelt out mature, splendidly alert reservations about the diction of La Belle Dame, but gave it full credence as the decription of a recognisable state of mind. I played philistine's advocate. Melodramatic, surely? Over the top? Not at all. Enchantment happened in fact as well as fantasy. Keats knew what he was writing about.

In the second of my London visits, to a local authority selective girls' school, Henrietta Barnett, students in the sixth mentioned personal discoveries and favourites: a translated Lebanese writer, poets in the Bloodaxe New Poetry anthology, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Larkin - and Keats. Here La Belle Dame was acknowledged as a powerful poem of "love-obsession" and of "resignation" to it. Keats's diction and imagery, questioned elsewhere, "helped the imagination". But the narrative impetus of The Eve of St Agnes (or for that matter what a teacher from another boys' public school described as "the eroticism of the 'warm gules' and the 'cinnamon'") had not kept more than a couple of readers going on to the end. Still, To Autumn was warmly admired for pictorial vividness, subtle use of personification, and - perceptively - for leaving the reader feeling "secure" in its evocation of the season.

I went last to one of Hampstead's several inner city comprehensives, Haverstock School, for a thorough, vigorous, off-beat discussion with upper-sixth boys and girls who had explored Ginsberg, Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas and the American Charles Bukowski for themselves, but hadn't looked closely at Keats until sitting down with La Belle Dame and To Autumn (again). The first poem impressed this group less than it had their peers in other schools. It was "just a snapshot" to one, to another "like going through a box of cotton wool looking for a Malteser". They sensed, from internal evidence, that this was a Keats simply less mature as a poet, less in command of technical resources, than in To Autumn - though questions were raised abut the sheer quantity of detail there. What impressed me was the group's willingness to get intelligently to grips - showing respect and iconoclasm in equal measure - with matters of subject, tone, structure and length in an unfamiliar poet.

Students in all the three London schools, in parties or individually, had found their way to Keats House, though only one pupil had lighted upon Keats's poetry for herself. I began by thinking this disappointing, ended by realising it was not so important. There were other discoveries to make, and numerous young readers had made them, most often being drawn to poets writing in the language of their own time. The greater disappointment was in finding that in his bicentenary year Keats was not being set as a matter of course, and wondering why more of a national sense of occasion hadn't been created around the event (the Post Office declined Keats House's idea of a stamp). Anniversaries flash past so rapidly, and this one could have had a bigger build-up in advance. Keats as the romantic hero cried out for celebration, and when students were presented with knowledge of Keats and his poems by enthusiastic teachers they responded with enjoyment, and the sense of a genius hugely worth knowing and arguing about. Keats House was seeing at least as much enthusiasm from abroad as from this country, most prominently from the United States (60 per cent of its foreign visitors) and Japan (10 per cent). Teachers who brought one school party in 1993 compiled afterwards a "John Keats Colouring Book" for young children, with drawings and testimonies from pupils: "his writing made me wonder about life and yes, even dream", "Keats's name is not writ in water". Touchingly innocent and unsophisticated, it all the same signifies recognition, appreciation, involvement, when the opportunity was opened to these pupils. They and their teachers came not from anywhere in Britain but from Orlando, Florida.

Alan Brownjohn's latest poetry collection is In the Cruel Arcade (Sinclair-Stevenson).

Keats House 0171 794 6829 0171 435 2062.

The BBC season starts on Sunday and includes Omnibus: the Last Journey of John Keats on October 30, starring Michael Maloney who also reads six Odes and appears in The Vale of Soul Making, based on Keats' letters on Radio 4 (October 31).

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