On a sunny Wednesday, the remainder of the 6.2 English students ventured to Winchester, accompanied by David, Julia and Magnus, to explore the area that influenced so much of Keats’s later poetry, and to follow the walk he took along the River Itchen that inspired him to write his ‘Ode to Autumn’, often described by critics as the perfect poem.
We began in the Winchester College Fellows’ Library where Dr Richard Foster, curator of the college’s collection, showed us a first edition of Keats’s 1820 Poems which included the ‘Ode to Autumn’. We also saw a First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623. The we had a talk by Dr Gary Farnell from the University of Winchester about Keats’s stay in Winchester in 1820.
We then retraced Keats’s route from the Hospital of St Cross to the cathedral close, and then to Colebrook Street, where Magnus’s friend Amelia Ashton hosted us in her garden for a picnic lunch and another talk by Gary, this time focussing on The Eve of St Agnes, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and Ode to Autumn. We ended the afternoon with a sonnet writing competition.
Not only did this allow us a fresh set of eyes on the texts we had been studying for months, but allowed us to build up a greater picture of the surrounding world of Keats’s poetry. Thank you so much to the English department and Magnus for a wonderful day.
For the past two years, I have been in the unusual position of teaching a whole cohort of A Level English students. What a privilege this has been; first to get to know you all last year through studying the contemporary Poems of the Decade and an evening with Julia Copus, and then to guide you through some of the pressures of online learning.
Certainly, my most fulfilling teaching moments last spring involved supporting many of you as you wrote your coursework essays. We worked together, adopting university-style tutorials that were really conducive to the task at hand. In this intimate learning environment, you rigorously dismantled and reassembled your analytical arguments, embedding close textual analysis and context into essays, and become young but impressive scholars of Seamus Heaney, and Arundhati Roy. It is wonderful that I have taught one or two of you since Block 4 and that a number of you are now determined to study English at university: what more could a teacher want?
In the autumn term of this academic year your focus and determination were remarkable. At times as a teacher managing the new COVID secure protocol on site was tough; but it was worth it so that I could introduce you to Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf in person and watch you draw comparisons between this novel and her older sister Wuthering Heights. Both novels deal radically with early forms of mental health, a subject on which you often edify me.You demonstrated such maturity and sensitivity in November, embracing hybrid teaching early on so that those of you at home self-isolating could stay part of the class discussion. You make me very proud and are a credit to your parents.
I believe passionately that we learn much from creating peak experiences inside and outside the class room and I had hoped to take you on a weekend trip to Haworth in Yorkshire, to visit the Parsonage where Emily Bronte died and to walk up onto the Moors to Top Withens, a remote, abandoned farm considered to be the inspiration for her only novel. Instead we returned to our homes and computer screens and I have had the challenge of trying to inspire you with the poetry of John Keats.
A poet of the senses, he is a joy to teach in the winter and early spring in Steep, ideally in the Meditation Hut or the Lupton Hall, where two years ago I launched the first ‘Eve of St Agnes Experience’ with Lucy McIlwraith.
This year I asked you to work on collaborative creative responses to the poem and I have been amazed at what you have achieved from homes many miles apart. Your original work neatly coincides with the publication of an essay entitled ‘Weavers of Dreams in The Eve of St Agnes and A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘ in the English and Media Centre EMAG, co-authored with my partner in Keatsian crime, Lucy. I’ve decided this will be my third and last Keats’ experience, and hope to teach Shakespeare next year. It makes sense to end on such a high.
To all of my 6.2 English students: thank you. “St Agnes moon hath set.”
This half term Block 3 have been using their English composition lessons to read and write poetry about nature and the seasons. Naturally, John Keats’ To Autumn proved an inspiration for many with phrases that everyone half knows, even if only from the Mr Kipling advert! We’ve also read Seamus Heaney’s Personal Helicon,in which he muses on the way that nature creates and reflects artistic inspiration and helps us to know ourselves better.
Our local favourite is Edward Thomas, who many Block 3 students know from visits to The Poet’s Stone – a hop, skip, and very steep trek up Shoulder of Mutton Hill. The poems But these things also and The penny whistle evoke the landscape around Bedales and students gained a clearer insight into the subtlety of nature writing from the detailed imagery Thomas uses.
I’ve been really impressed with the poems that the Block 3 students wrote in response. You can read a selection below:
Autumn is the soft dying days when the light fades into mysterious night; Autumn is the cold seeping into your cheeks making them go a rosy pink; Autumn is the sharpness of the cold in your lungs and the chilly nip of the crisp air; Autumn is the cosy afternoons by the fire and the musty November smell; Autumn is the silence in the sky; Autumn is the path from summer and the bridge to winter.
The autumn came that year, too fast, too soon. The rolling winds whipped in from the west. And all that was in light, shadow overtook. The late summer fruits lay rotting in the fields, As if summer itself had forgotten them. More harvests failed with every looming day, As the thunderclouds crowded low, drenching the ground.
Where there should have been leaves, golden and red, There was the black rot of decay. Where the autumn grass once would have lain, Bear rock, earth and mud had overtaken.
Standing tall, silent, sturdy, They loom above you, The pines are straight and thin, They have stood for tens, hundreds of years.
Needles drop, crunch underfoot and rot, Branches fall only to be replaced many years later, Squirrels hop from tree to tree, escaping from some unknown.
Winter is coming Winter is coming thick and fast The earth is getting hard and frosty The sun has hidden behind a cloud And you may be thinking what is happening And I tell you Winter is coming It doesn’t matter what you think It doesn’t matter what you do Winter is always coming. When the leave stand strong Then Winter is just around the bend. When the hedgehogs are curled up in their dens And the rivers are freezing up The wind blows hard on my face And I know Winter is coming.
The trees shiver naked in the blowing wind, The cool rush of a fresh breeze, Leaves scattered across the floor, With little wellies splashing
The winter bounds stick to the paths With the mud rushing on Nowhere is safe from the weather Not even the warmth.
A Level English Literature students were transported back in time on Monday when they took part in a practical exercise designed to reinforce their understanding of one of the course’s key texts – The Eve of St Agnes by John Keats – following the success of last year’s experience day centred around the same poem.
The Eve of St Agnes, which is set in the Middle Ages, was inspired by the legend that unmarried women could see their future husband in their dreams if they performed certain rituals on 20 January, the evening before the feast of St Agnes.
It follows the young maiden Madeline as she escapes a loud and festive family party to go to her bedroom and perform the rituals, hoping to see her lover Porphyro in her dreams, despite being from opposite sides of two rival families.
Madeline does see Porphyro that evening, but her dreams morph into reality as her lover – having snuck into her room while she was at the party – emerges from his hiding place in the closet and attempts to rouse her by laying out a feast and playing the lute.
To bring them closer to Keats’ poem, 6.2 English students were asked to work in groups across two classes to produce tableaux representative of the poem. They sought the help of the school’s costume department to find appropriate attire and recreated the scenes in various locations – including the Lupton Hall, the sand quarry and All Saints Church in Steep, with some venturing as far as Midhurst.
On the Eve of St Agnes – 20 January – 6.2 English Literature students were invited to Head of English David Anson’s house to listen to a reading of John Keats’ poem of the same name, which was inspired by the traditions and superstitions surrounding the date. St Agnes’ Day falls on 21 January.
Traditionally, girls wishing to learn who their partner would be, performed rituals on the Eve of St Agnes, hoping that their future lover would be revealed to them in a dream. Keats took this idea and created his poem, a fantastical tale which merges dreams and reality, ending with two lovers disappearing into the night. It links the ideas of the Gothic with Pagan rituals and witchcraft which surround St Agnes.
On the evening itself, we made our way down Church Road on a suitably frosty, starlit night, in keeping with the “bitter chill” described at the beginning of the poem. Greeted with a warming fire, we gathered round a feast, much like the one which Porphyro lays out in The Eve of St Agnes, to listen to the poem. There were “jellies soother than the creamy curd”, “lucent syrops”, “manna and dates”, served “on golden dishes and in baskets bright / Of wreathed silver”. Eating these delicacies while listening to the reading of the poem, we were transported into Keat’s imagined and magical world.
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