On 20th January 1849, Christina Rossetti sat down to write a poem. The result, not unfittingly, was a sonnet on John Keats that she called, also not unfittingly, ‘On Keats’:
A garden in a garden: a green spot
Where all is green: most fitting slumber-place
For the strong man grown weary of a race
Soon over. Unto him a goodly lot
Hath fallen in fertile ground; there thorns are not,
But his own daisies: silence, full of grace,
Surely hath shed a quiet on his face:
His earth is but sweet leaves that fall and rot.
What was his record of himself, ere he
Went from us ? Here lies one whose name was writ
In water: while the chilly shadows flit
Of sweet Saint Agnes’ Eve; while basil springs,
His name, in every humble heart that sings,
Shall be a fountain of love, verily.
Rossetti was just 19 - a year older than she had been when her brother Dante Gabriel sketched her portrait (see above). Rossetti’s ‘On Keats’ may just be the greatest poem inspired by Keats’ epitaph. And as such was the perfect subject for this episode of the Keats-Shelley Prize Podcast exploring John Keats’ epitaph – ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’.
Our guest is Dr Dinah Roe, Reader in 19th century literature at Oxford Brookes University. Dinah has edited Christina Rossetti’s Selected Poems for Penguin Classics (and also an anthology of Pre-Raphaelite Poetry), and is now editing Rossetti’s complete poetic works for the prestigious Longman Annotated Series.
We spoke on the evening of the 23rd February 2021 - the bicentenary of Keats’ death in Rome. The conversation begins with a little background about the Rossetti family in general – something Dinah has written about in her biography The Rossettis in Wonderland. Keeping one eye on Keats, she examined the significance of the family’s Italian heritage and their connections to the Romantic writers through Christina’s maternal uncle, John ‘The Vampyre’ Polidori.
From here we sharpen our focus to examine Keats’ particular influence on Christina and her brother Dante Gabriel. As Dinah also notes, Keats had a slightly different impact on a third Rossetti sibling, William Michael. We also ponder their fraternal debate about who was the greater poet: Keats or Shelley?
Dinah widens her scope to examine how both poets helped to shape the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, before focusing ‘On Keats’ in the final part.
Stay tuned to the very end: after the credits, the Keats-Shelley Podcast pays tribute to John Keats with a somewhat unplanned reading of two short poems.
You can also listen to Dinah read and discuss Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s own ‘Writ in Water’ sonnet, ‘John Keats’ – and chat a little about their Cockney rhyming.
Read about 2021’s Keats-Shelley Prize.
Read about 2021’s Young Romantics Prize.
Subscribe: the Keats-Shelley Podcast.
This podcast was written and presented by James Kidd. The KS Podcast theme tune is ‘Androids Always Escape’ by Chris Zabriskie. Visit http://chriszabriskie.com/