Great (and graphic) Keats
By MICHAEL CAINES
On April 23 the Institute of Ideas hosts the first in a proposed series of literary evenings on the subject of “great books”. They’re certainly beginning with greatness: not only Keats’s poems but his letters, too, with their deep stores of delight: “I will clamber through the Clouds and exist”, for example, his way of describing to Haydon, in 1818, his plans to “see all Europe at the lower expence”; or, the following year, his demand to Fanny Brawne to ask herself “whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom”; or, a year on again, his lament that he cannot “leave my lungs or stomach or other worse things behind me”.
The illustration above, however, comes from quite a different kind of tribute or commentary on Keats: the first in a four-part comic by P. M. Buchan and Karen Yumi Lusted inspired by "La Belle Dame Sans Merci". It has a modern setting, and comes with a “back-up essay” by Miranda Brennan on Keats and feminism, and a link to a soundtrack by Brendan Ratliff. So it’s a far cry from asking, with Jonathan Bate, “What was he really like?”, as in this TLS piece from last year, or from following Keats through his correspondence, towards the clouds.
Instead – intriguingly, and on some pages wordlessly – this graphic Belle Dame draws on Keats's poem for its power. In the middle, Buchan quotes those deadly simple lines from the fourth stanza, the first spoken by the “palely loitering” knight:
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful – a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
The first issue merely sets up the story, but I'm hoping its creators are considering a sequel – perhaps a sequel based on a sequel – i.e., on “The Enchanted Knight” by Edwin Morgan, with the rust “Flowering his armour like an autumn field”:
Lulled by La Belle Dame Sans Merci he lies
In the bare wood below the blackening hill . . . .
Edwin Morgan! Now there's a writer of great books for the Institute of Ideas.