Elizabeth, William and the gift of poetry at Christmas…
One of our most precious items in Elizabeth Gaskell’s House is the Keats poetry book (pictured open, on the left in the photo above) given as a gift, fondly inscribed by William to Elizabeth on December 25th 1854.
The book was sold in the 1914 auction and was donated to the House by Walter E. Smith, a Gaskell scholar, and Doris Kerr. It is kept on the desk securely along with other objects in the Morning Room.
I thought about that little book on our recent Gaskell Society trip to Rome, following in the footsteps of Elizabeth, who travelled there in 1857 with her family, and her friend Catherine Winkworth, when we visited the Keats-Shelley house.
It was such a poignant experience: knowing that Keats, cared-for devotedly by his artist friend Joseph Severn, drew his last breath in a room decorated with colourful flower motifs on the ceiling. We were told by the guide that the decorations had recently been restored.
It was brought to mind also when we saw Keats’ grave in the Non-Catholic Cemetery For Foreigners. Catherine Winkworth later writes to her sister Susanna describing it as ‘the most desolately beautiful-burying ground I ever saw…’
John Keats was born in London in 1795. The curse of tuberculosis (TB) begins to ravage his family. In 1814, his mother dies from the disease, four years earlier his father has died from a fall – two of his brothers are destined to die from TB. The threat of developing TB himself overshadows the rest of his life and he suffers periodically from depression. But by the time he is 14 and although bright yet not particularly well-educated, he develops a keen interest in classics and history.
In 1811 he is apprenticed to a surgeon; he later works at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals and in 1816 becomes a licensed apothecary. However, his passion for reading and his literary talents assert themselves and he devotes the rest of his life to writing poetry.
Keats is now considered to be one of the greatest lyric poets England has ever produced, yet during his short lifetime beset by bouts of ill-health, he found his poetry criticised, even ridiculed – difficult to believe that now! As a consequence, sales of his works were poor: his financial woes persisted throughout his life, but he was supported by a group of devoted and generous friends, who loved him and recognised his genius. He feels he is unable to offer a future to his beloved fiancée and muse, Fanny Brawne, and writes to her: ‘I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death’.
By February 1820, his health had deteriorated further and he was advised by his doctors to spend some time in a warmer climate. The following September, Keats, accompanied by Joseph Severn, sail for Italy, and rent an apartment in the Piazza di Spagna, close to the Spanish Steps. His time in Rome is short – he dies of tuberculosis on 23 February 1821.
Such a tragic story – however, his stature as one of the significant later poets of the Romantic Movement has grown steadily since his untimely death. So back to the little book of Keats’ poems in the Morning Room of Elizabeth Gaskell’s House.
What led William to give Elizabeth such a gift?
In 1848 Richard Monkton Milnes, a friend of the Gaskells, had published The Life, the Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats, and William had given the Winkworth girls a copy in 1850. Elizabeth doesn’t mention the poet in her letters. However, in her short dramatic story, A Dark Night’s Work, it is clear that Elizabeth Gaskell had read The Eve of St. Agnes, and a scene in the story craftily reflects the point in the poem where Porphyro claims Madeline. Also, there are lines from his poem Hyperion as an epigraph at the beginning of Chapter 22 in her novel Mary Barton:
‘There was a listening fear in her regard,
As if calamity had but begun
As if the vanward clouds of evil days
Had spent their malice, and the sullen roar
Was, with its stored thunder, labouring up.’
I like to think that William and Elizabeth became admirers of the young, beautiful and brave yet doomed poet because of his lyrical verse on love, passion and romance. The little Christmas gift of a book of poetry from William to Elizabeth with its affectionate inscription demonstrates my belief perfectly.
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know…’
Blog written by Diana Ashcroft, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House