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Friday, 6 September 2013

Going down The Keats Road

The Golden Triangle (Butleigh to the left)

In my previous post, Fecundity and Desire – a flirtation with the concept of a sadomasochistic landscape - I began ruminating about To Autumn before admonishing myself. DON’T GO DOWN THE KEATS ROAD! I wrote in my notebook.
But why ever not? To avoid kitsch and cliché, I suppose, but I like to think I’m cute enough to give the former a wide berth and, as a Latin Catholic, I think the former should be embraced, not eschewed. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense, even if I felt a little like Aragorn – or maybe Legolas – traversing the Paths of the Dead; would walking The Keats Road open a can of worms or a Pandora’s Box?
Well both, as it happens, but not until I’d entered The Golden Triangle.
Enough already! Let me explain.
My first port of call was obviously To Autumn, even though summer was fighting tooth and nail and to maintain its grip on the year. Fighting tooth and nail but not quite succeeding; it took a while for the mist to clear the Cathedral City and when it did the ‘swelling gourds’ and ‘fruit with ripeness to the core’ were all too evident. Summer had tucked her bat under arm and was heading back to the pavilion. 

Season of mists ...
But To Autumn isn’t just a sensual elegy to the passing of the year, it invokes a contested landscape; how you perceive it depends on whose side you’re on. Jerome McGann accuses Keats of deliberately ignoring the political landscape of 1819 - the poem is ‘an exercise in political reactionary’. Rather than addressing social and political unrest Keats devotes himself to ‘the idealised view of nature’. McGann’s criticisms have been refuted by, amongst others, Andrew Motion but he has a point. When academics start lamenting the decline of peasant rebellions in Latin America the prospect of any sort of rural revolution in the English countryside seems impossibly remote; in the deserted or Anglo-Saxonised villages of continental Europe, too. Does To Autumn give the middle classes permission to perpetuate this rural idyll, sanitised and made banal?

... and mellow fruitfulness
As if by magic, the Keats Road led me to The Golden Triangle in search of an answer. The Golden Triangle, to the uninitiated, is a product of modern mythology, though I’m not sure whether Keats would have approved or not. Its points lie in the South Somerset villages of Butleigh, Barton St David and Baltonsborough, none of which, according to local hearsay, have ever possessed any sort of council housing. Its fame – or, perhaps, infamy – is enhanced – or exacerbated – by the influence of the £33,000-a-year Millfield School, sometimes mocked – perhaps unfairly - as an educational establishment for the ‘sporty but thick’. Academic prowess or no, its presence pushes up already-inflated house prices by another percentage point or no.
The result? A pastiche, in places, though not of Poundbury proportions; we must be thankful for small mercies. Somerset rural chic has a dynamic of its own, the peasant replaced, to a certain extent, by the artisan and the academic and a steady flow of creative refugees fleeing the capital. And now we have a Waitrose in Wells I expect to see more of them on my doorstep.
More of them on my doorstep. What on earth am I saying? I am one of them.
From agriculture to astrology: what would Keats say?
Whilst studying Geography and Landscape Studies at Weymouth University (aka Dorset Institute of Higher Education) back in the eighties, my best friend – then a dedicated Marxist - refused to enter stately homes and country houses because they effectively celebrated poverty, inequality and the abuse of power; he wanted them all pulled down. I wonder what he’d make of the Golden Triangle, the hovels of the peasantry now sought after by Guardianistas and neo Kulaks at inflated prices. I like them but then again, I tutor their children so I’m part of the same system. 

Organic peasant chic: the old and the new
Meanwhile there has emerged a current of rural functionalism that has shaped the landscape of the Golden Triangle in the last few decades, village infilling and small housing estates; homes for locals and the less well-off. It started with bungalows but has progressed – if I can use that participle – to become more ‘Somerset’. It’s less bland, but it’s still bland and it tries too hard to be both less bland and more ‘Somerset’; I left the Golden Triangle wondering when – and where – the new Somerset might emerge because we sure as hell can’t go on rebranding the past, Golden Age or not.

Bungalows and rural functionalism in The Golden Triangle
 Next post: Landscape and Negative Capability 
Meanwhile, back in Über-Somerset ...
Jerome McGann: Keats and the Historical Method in Literary Criticism, MLN (1994)
Andrew Motion: Keats, University of Chicago Press (1999)
Nicholas Roe: John Keats and the Culture of Dissent, Clarendon Press (1998)

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