The investigation is over. Have the last six weeks been worth it? Time to wax a little philosophical ……
There was an iconic book in the 1970’s – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – involving a 17-day journey of a father and son by motorbike from Minnesota to California. The story pivots around a series of philosophical discussions. One exploration I recall, through the blurred memory of time, is the nature of a brick wall. The essence of the discussion is about what emerges in terms of insight, knowledge, understanding in the process of analysis to an increasingly detailed level – from the wall to the brick to the lumps and bumps to the grain to the crystal to the atom etc.
In the wall of the history of Keats the address of his lodgings is one of those atoms, so can anything be learned in this six-week journey to the infinitesimal? For me, apart from the satisfaction of perhaps resolving a debate that has rumbled on over the past 120 years, there are three possible insights: the first is the passion for Keats; the second is something nebulous around ‘knowledge, belief and truth’ in history; and the third is the relationship between Keats and Teignmouth.
When I embarked on this investigation I truly did not appreciate how much passion there has been for Keats over the past 200 years. I have been amazed at the number of biographies that have been written about him; the extraordinary analysis not just of his poetry, which you would expect, but of his other writings – most significantly his letters; and the speculation this has engendered into his thoughts and his relationships with others.
For me this suggests a Keats who was far more than just a poet; he appears as a person with a mind in overdrive, thinking deeply even at his young age about profound issues in the psyche of humankind. But rather than writing philosophical treatises he chose perhaps to express those thoughts through sublimation into his poetry, his chosen medium. Maybe one of the roles of poetry is simply to make people think.
Knowledge, Belief and Truth
One of Keats’ most famous quotations is:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”
Which leads me neatly on to knowledge, belief and truth in historical research. The past six weeks have shown how many differing views can be held (sometimes vehemently) about the same subject and how much inconsistency and contradiction there can be in arguing or substantiating those views.
Taking this investigation as an example and based on all the evidence that is available to me, what I feel I can confidently say is that: I know that Keats spent a couple of months in Teignmouth in 1818, I believe that he stayed at No 20 Northumberland Place but I can not confirm that that is the absolute truth.
Having a scientific background I can see an interesting parallel with scientific method – the ‘belief’ in history is analogous to the ‘theory’ in science – neither can definitely claim to be absolute truth, each can be valid at a point in time but both can equally be overturned by a single new piece of evidence. The other interesting parallel between history and science is that views in the framework of each are always relative to the observer – two different observers will have different views of the same event and may draw different conclusions (most famously stated by Einstein for physical systems in his theory of relativity).
So how important is it, knowing that something is true as opposed to believing it to be true?
Wilfred Owen came on a pilgrimage to Teignmouth in 1911. Keats was a hero of his and he wanted to visit this small town where Keats had once stayed. Who knows what Owen wanted from his visit? Was he, by being in the same place as Keats, trying to re-live the thoughts and emotions of Keats? Was he trying to absorb the residual spirit of Keats captured in the litho-memory of the buildings and the streets that Keats had wandered through? We don’t know. What we do know, from his letters, is that he spent a long time standing in front of the house he believed to have been the one where Keats lodged and he seems to have come away inspired. He wrote some fragmentary verse whilst he was here, just before starting to read the biography of Keats, but he also started and later completed his famous sonnet to his hero Keats, ‘whose name was writ in water’.
What if Wilfred Owen had actually been standing, unknowingly, in front of the wrong house? Would that have changed the impact that the pilgrimage had on him? Probably not. He would have still been inspired because his thoughts and actions were based on his belief, not on the absolute truth of the house. If someone told him a year later that he had stood in front of the wrong house would that have made a difference to him?
Keats and Teignmouth
When I started this whole blog-site about four years ago I was sceptical about the emphasis that was placed locally on Keats as a part of the history of Teignmouth – after all he had stayed here for only two months and yet the town claimed him as a significant historical figure. I looked for other poets associated with Teignmouth and other verse written about people and events related to the Teignmouth area. Four years on I have collected over 150 pieces of verse from upward of 100 contributors which sets Keats correctly in terms of historical context if you base any claim to importance on purely numerical contribution.
However, the investigation of the last six weeks has substantially changed my view on the importance of Keats to Teignmouth. We need to move away from the fact that he happened to stay here for a couple of months, or that he wrote half-a-dozen poems whilst he was here; instead, we need to be a different observer and take a different view by turning the question around and asking “what was the importance of Teignmouth to Keats?”
I have a theory, which is that his stay in Teignmouth was a pivotal moment in Keats’ life, for the following reasons:
- Teignmouth gave Keats time and breathing space. If you read his letters for the six months or so before he came to Teignmouth his life seemed to be a constant whirl amongst the literatti – there were his usual friends in London but also Wordsworth, Shelley, Lamb were thrown into the social mix. This would have obviously been a stimulating time for him but I wonder whether Teignmouth was almost like a period of rehab away from that intellectual whirl. In Teignmouth he was essentially on his own with time to think. From his letters he appears to become more introspective, he starts to question the worth and role of poetry in his life, he starts to plan the next stage of his life – seeking new experiences perhaps in Scotland, perhaps Italy.
- For the previous year he had been absorbed, perhaps almost ‘shackled’, by the enormous undertaking of ‘Endymion’. In fact he delayed coming to Teignmouth because he wanted to finish Endymion before coming down but that was not to be because his brother George, who was looking after Tom in Teignmouth, needed to be back in London for his wedding and subsequent emigration to America. So Keats came to Teignmouth slightly prematurely and completed the final copy of Book IV of Endymion early on in his stay here. That must have been an immense relief to him and also freed him up to take stock and move on.
- Although his father and mother had both died when Keats was relatively young I believe that this was the first time that Keats was really confronting death close up. His brother Tom, who did die later that year, was in the final stages of TB and Keats must have realised that Tom had little time left. The emotional turmoil that would have created in Keats is evident through his letters and would have undoubtedly caused him to think about his own mortality and future.
- Reading what others say about his poetry it appears that he went through a metamorphosis in his style of writing and emerged from Teignmouth as a stronger writer as a result. Following on from the completion of Endymion he wrote Isabella in Teignmouth which was the first ‘story’ he had written in poetic form. Analysts suggest that he also used Isabella for experimentation in style and that affected his subsequent writing.
So for all these reasons I believe that Teignmouth was an historical confluence, a fulcrum of change for Keats and that that is the true significance of his association with the town. It’s not the fact that he just happened to stay ‘serendipitously’ in Teignmouth for two months, it’s the notion that Teignmouth allowed Keats to flourish that Teignmouth should nurture and be proud of.