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Picture of John Keats, poet


 
July 11, 1818
Robert Burns, John Keats
 
Keats, Burns and the Gatekeeper
 
by Steve King

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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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»   Robert Burns Stories, Books & Links
»   John Keats Stories, Books & Links
 
Related authors:  John Keats, Lord Byron, William Saroyan, William Wallace, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Burns
 
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