John Keats (1795-1821) died aged 25 thinking himself a failed poet. Today he is revered as a great. I mine his poems for evocations of nature, the nightingales, the bees ‘bustling down in the bluebells’, and his recurring musk rose. For these moments, from a wet and gloomy winter, I find great pleasure in peering back 200 years to Keats’s descriptions of a London that had not yet swallowed Hampstead entirely, or my borough, the 800-year-old parish of Lewisham. In Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, he describes much of what makes birdsong a cure for human pains, the continuity of wildlife and nature gives us a place in the world, for we are not the first to hear a blackbird, song thrush or nightingale sing, nor will we be the last:
Thou was not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown (p. 220[i])
Birds do not discriminate against any audience, their songs can be heard by any person who happens to be passing, be it the song of a robin singing at midnight in central London or a nightingale firing in the morning from a blackthorn hedge in a Dorset field. And perhaps real nature conservation has this at its heart, though often unsaid from a fear of sounding eccentric or elitist. Nature is vital to humanity in many ways, humanity is inseparable from nature, but in dealing with dissonance and social discord brought about by contemporary austerity and financial inequality, its inclusiveness is what makes it most relevant to us living in the 21st century. The song of the blackbird can be heard by anyone who might happen to hear it, more so if conservation is supported by communities and authorities.
On a recent visit to Dumfries and Galloway in south-western Scotland I brought Andrew Motion’s hefty biography of Keats with me. It appears more and more that it is not so much Keats’ poems I like the most, but the many aspects of his story, which poetry seems such a big part of. He lived a very short and full life, his published poems barracked by what we might today equate with critics or journalists of the propagandist right’s ilk. And many people thought that he had died from the heavy blows of his critics. Motion points to his wildly ambitious walking tour of Scotland and Ireland, arguing that it was the conditions a weary and exhausted Keats experienced on the Isle of Mull that began his descent into critical illness. Keats had embarked on a mission to collect experiences to influence his writing, and he was astounded by Scotland’s sublime mountains and wild landscapes. He ‘forgot himself’ and found that nature took away all resentment he might have for other people, or his critics, at that time:
The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance. I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever, for the abstract endeavour of being able to add a mite to that mass of beauty which is harvested from these grand materials, by the finest spirits, and put into ethereal existence for the relish of one’s own fellows. […] these scenes make man appear little. I never forgot my stature so completely – I live in the eye, and my imagination, surpassed, is at rest. (p. 269)
Keats has been knocked down by nature’s visual power and, eventually, by its impacts on his body. He cracks open the heart of the genre of nature writing. Surely the whole point of casting nature as the central theme in anything is so that ‘these scenes make man appear little.’ In the face of the sublime image of Scottish mountains, human problems are made to feel minute. It’s the same feeling people experience today in British woods, on those same Scottish mountains and by the sea. Surely if Keats were alive today his thoughts might have turned to conservation of larger landscape areas – in the same way that his biographer, Andrew Motion, once Poet Laureate, now works for the Campaign to Protect Rural England, defending National Parks from a development lobby which seems to hold sway with government. National Parks are an idea created by John Muir, the Scottish adventurer who helped to found Yosemite National Park with his grand and flawed ideas of wilderness. In Scotland, protected landscape areas such as the Trossachs National Park, Cairngorms National Park and Galloway Forest Park are key to preserving the impact of those places on the human mind, at the same time protecting their prehistoric ecosystems and wildlife. A National Park or protected landscape area is an admission or celebration of the fact that nature can show us how small we really are. For John Keats and visitors to mountains today, if underestimated or not treated with respect these landscapes and their conditions can kill.
[i] The Complete Poems of John Keats, Wordsworth Poetry Library, 2001