February 23, 2018

Keats, Burns and the Gatekeeper

On this day in 1818, John Keats visited the first home of Robert Burns in Alloway and composed his sonnet, "Written in the Cottage Where Burns Was Born." Keats was twenty-two years old, barely published, and on a summer-long walking tour of the North Country -- twenty or thirty rugged miles a day and "No supper but Eggs and Oat cake," which corrects the wan-and-weary side of the Keats myth. Virtually all his best poems would come in a nine-month burst beginning the next January; he would cough blood for the first time on February 3 of the following year ("That drop of blood is my death warrant"); he would die on February 23 of the following year. These dates are linked to the Burns sonnet because of its opening line, which seems to be the premonition of a death which came just 43 days short of the estimate:
    This mortal body of a thousand days
    Now fills, O Burns, a space in thine own room,
    Where thou didst dream alone on budded bays,
    Happy and thoughtless of thy day of doom!
    My pulse is warm with thine old Barley-bree,
    My head is light with pledging a great soul,
    My eyes are wandering, and I cannot see,
    Fancy is dead and drunken at its goal;
    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!
The bumpers of "Barley-bree" allude to Burns's "Willie Brew'd a Peck o' Maut," in which Willie, Rob and Allan pledge themselves to an all-nighter:
    Here are we met three merry boys,
    Three merry boys I trow are we;
    And monie a night we've merry been,
    And monie mae we hope to be!

    It is the moon, I ken her horn,
    That's blinkin in the lift sae hie:
    She shines sae bright to wyle us hame,
    But, by my sooth, she'll wait a wee!

    Wha first shall rise to gang awa,
    A cuckold, coward loun [rogue] is he!
    Wha first beside his chair shall fa',
    He is the King amang us three!
Keats thought his poem a bad effort, blaming it not on the barley-bree but on the old man who had acted as guide and gatekeeper at the cottage. In his letter to a friend, Keats says "The Man at the Cottage was a great Bore with his Anecdotes. . . -- he is a mahogany faced old Jackass who knew Burns?e ought to be kicked for having spoken to him. . . his gab hindered my sublimity -- The flat dog made me write a flat sonnet."

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