Keats, 'To Autumn' and the New Men of Winchester

Type Article
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)797-817
JournalThe Review of English Studies
Volume64
Issue number259
DOI
Publication statusPublished - 21 Mar 2012
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Abstract

It is generally accepted that John Keats composed his ode ‘To Autumn’ following leisurely daily walks along the water-meadows south of the market city of Winchester. The present article brings together new archival evidence to suggest that the ‘eastern extremity’ of Winchester, St Giles's Hill—cornfields in 1819, we show, as well as the site of a major fair—in fact provides direct inspiration for the sights and sounds of the famous ode. This new topography enables us to see hitherto unsuspected dimensions to Keats's engagement with contemporary politics, in particular as they pertained to the management of food production and supply, wages and productivity. Furthermore, we suggest, this hill and its ancient market offered Keats a trenchant conceptual frame with which to reflect on his own poetic process. The article also examines the rise of what we might call the ‘new men’ of Winchester: financial figures—enclosers, landlords and bankers—who found their ideological counterpart in the city's printer-publisher, James Robbins. We consider ‘To Autumn’ alongside land lease records, Robbins's guidebooks to Winchester, as well as previously unidentified textual sources, to show that ‘To Autumn’ not only resists a concerted ‘capitalist’ reimagining of Winchester and its agricultural heritage, but also takes its place in a wider contemporary debate around labour and ‘idleness’, surplus and profit.