THOUSANDS of poetry lovers who pay pilgrimage to John Keats and his Ode to Autumn on Winchester water meadows have
been going to the wrong place, according to new research.
Academics say the real inspiration for the great 19th century poem should be St Giles Hill where today stands the Chesil multi-storey car park.
They say references in the poem to “stubble fields” means it is unlikely to have been the water meadows which at that time were grazed by cattle.
Prof Richard Marggraf Turley of Aberystwyth University says Keats was inspired by banking crises, rising prices and striking workers.
Many of the images in the poem were more likely to have been seen at St Giles Hill than the water meadows, he argues. The claims could be seen as a blow to city council tourism bosses who deny they
have been leading anyone up the wrong path with their promotions.
Ellen Simpson, head of tourism, said: “We know Keats did walk along the meadows and that he wrote the poem after doing that walk so people are not being duped when they are walking the Keats Walk.
“It is quite possible that St Giles Hill was occasionally part of the route which he took, and that’s where these stubble covered fields were.
“If so, maybe our Sunset Walk, which takes in St Giles Hill, could also make reference to Keats.
“Our historical knowledge is being updated all the time, so this is fascinating information – the debate rages on.”
Don Bryan, a city tour guide, said he thought Keats could have got inspiration from all around Winchester, both St Giles Hill and the meadows.
“I think all of the city inspired him.
He walked in all directions.
“I don’t think he was here long enough (summer 1819) to get involved politically.”
But academics have support locally.
City councillor Fiona Mather who lives near the meadows told the Daily Echo: “I learned that poem off by heart at school. I have never been able to reconcile it with the water meadows. I can’t
believe it was his inspiration. The poem is all about thatched cottages, orchards and vines. St Giles Hill seems more plausible.”
• John Keats (1795-1821) is regarded, with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, as the greatest English Romantic poet of the 19th century.
• He lived in Winchester from August to October 1819, staying in a house close to the present-day Wessex Hotel near the cathedral.
• Keats suffered from TB and enjoyed Winchester “where the air is worth sixpence a pint”, he wrote in a letter to a friend. But with his health in decline he moved to the warmer climate of Rome
in 1820 where he died the following year.
• His poetry is characterised by soft, sensual imagery. Today his poems and letters are some of the most popular and analysed in English literature.
Editor Ian Murray has a stab at what Keats might have composed had he been standing today where he is now believed to have composed his Ode to Autumn: atop the Chesil multi-storey car park.
‘Oh Chesil from your vantage high, your parking tower so lofty,
Across Winchester I spy, a Greggs and Costa Coffee.
Our tickets paid the car remains, here we can safely park it,
As shopping bargains draw us on, the lure of farmers’ market.
Round cathedral strong, past Alfred Great, up hill makes going hard,
Our bags do bulge, our purchase made, on Visa credit card.
With tired feet, annoying kids, to rest now they must let us.
A drink, a snack, a welcome break, thank Lord for Slug and Lettuce.
Then back to car, but tears do fall, like city’s river swollen.
Left motor there on level four, returned to find it stolen.
You can read the original Ode to Autumn by John Keats on the Daily Echo website.