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."