Marking the bicentenary of John Keats' visit to Chichester

The Keats sculpture
The Keats sculpture

A day of special events is being held to celebrate the bicentenary of the visit to Chichester of one of the country’s best-loved poets, John Keats.

After visiting the Cathedral and the Vicars Hall in January 1819, Keats was inspired by the medieval architecture and atmosphere to begin writing one of his most famous poems, The Eve of St Agnes, a romantic tale of love and conflict in the tradition of Romeo and Juliet. A year later in 1820, Keats left England for Rome for the last time.

Taking place on Saturday, January 18, St Pancras Church will host a talk about the short, tragic but productive life of Keats and a reading from his inspirational letters and poetry. The special event takes place near the site of the city’s statue of the poet by Chichester sculptor Vincent Gray, which is situated in Eastgate Square opposite the house where Keats lived. Entrance is free and everyone is welcome to come along for any part or all of the programme.

The events are being jointly organised by the University of Chichester and the South Downs Poetry Festival in partnership with the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association.

SDPF director Barry Smith explains: “The idea is to breathe life into the wonderful poetry Keats bequeathed us.

“We felt that the bicentenary of his leaving England for the last time, just a few months before his tragic death, needed to be marked in a way that would help people appreciate what Keats was like as a man and what inspired him to write. Keats is the absolute image of the romantic poet – dying so young but writing words that still mean so much to people today.

“The highlight of the day will be a dramatic reading of the romantic poem La Belle Dame sans Merci and the personal letters of John Keats and the love of his life, Fanny Brawne.

“The part of John Keats will be played by local writer, Jerwood/Arvon Award winning poet James Simpson, while his lover Fanny Brawne will be played by London-actress Emily Rose Smith.”

They will be assisted by South Downs poets Stephanie Norgate, Naomi Foyle and Barry Smith, along with film actress Chloe Salaman.

Barry added: “The university is contributing a talk by Professor Fiona Price on the letters of Keats, aimed at illuminating the short but significant life of the poet, to make him come alive for people living in the modern world.

“The script for the dramatic reading has been reconstructed from surviving letters to give new insights into Keats’ life, his battle for survival against a debilitating illness and the triumph of his brilliant writing in the face of adversity.”

Barry added: “One intriguing feature is the poetry happening. At a previous celebration, we had a duel of bells and poems, with Town Crier Richard Plowman in full costume ringing the bell while the poets countered with gems from Keats’ verse.

“It all went so well that we’re giving in to requests to stage an outdoor happening again. It’s all a bit of fun, especially as Keats himself sits on his bench in Eastgate Square to oversee proceedings!”

The evening begins at 5.30pm with the talk. There will be breaks with refreshments. Admission free. Sat 19 January, St Pancras Church, Eastgate, Chichester, PO19 7LJ.

Further information can be found on www.sdpf.org.uk

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