Walking North with Keats

At the age of twenty-two, John Keats set off with his friend, Charles Brown, on a walking tour from Lancaster to John O’Groats. It was a turning point in Keats’s life. His brother George had married and cast off for America; his brother Tom was dying; he himself considered the tour a “prologue” to the artistic life he intended to pursue. The experience was, in fact, reflected in the poetry which followed. It also ruined Keats’s health (he died three years later).

WALKING NORTH WITH KEATS includes an introduction that recaps the life of Keats, especially in relation to Brown and the various recipients of Keats’s travel letters, and describes the author’s attempts to find and follow Keats’s footsteps through a landscape that has changed surprisingly little in 174 years. The photographic section is followed by an annotated selection of Keats’s travel letters, which reveal a young man’s painful disillusionment with women and Wordsworth, a poet’s love of nature, an older brother’s concern for his younger siblings, and a reckless speller’s relentless punning.

Plate 74 is captioned “Keats: ‘The Banks of the Clyde are extremely beautiful.’” The banks of the Clyde are now concrete. There are sailboats in the harbors, and the sixty-one ancient kings with their stone effigies have left St. Oran’s Churchyard for less picturesque quarters in the local museum. Yet Walker’s photographs reveal an unchanging country, tranquil and distinctly druidic in its wildness. Its unchanging face is probably illusory. Yet sheep still graze where Keats rejoiced to hear the barking of sheepdogs in the misty crags of Glen Croe. It is an illusion cherished by every anglophile, and Walker serves it up beautifully alongside the eternal youth of Keats.