Ode to a lumberjack

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The Independent Online
As part of the John Keats bicentenary celebrations, I am working on a new play about Keats which concentrates more on his work as a doctor and a pharmacist than his better-known career as a poet. It deals chiefly with the time he spent as an apprentice pharmacist in Edmonton, and throws much new light on the interplay between poetry and medicine in his work.

Here, for your delight, and for the interest of any theatre impresario who may be reading this, is an extract from the first act.

The scene is a dispensary in far-off Edmonton. Young Dr Keats is working away at his mortar and pestle, while the elderly Dr Cruickshank grumpily oversees his progress. He is looking at some papers that Keats has incautiously left lying around.

Cruickshank: Just a moment, laddie. Are these some notes you've made on your pharmaceutical work? If so, it must be a completely new kind of pharmacy, because I can't make head nor tail of them!

Keats: Why, sir, what do they say?

Cruickshank: This one says, "Darkling I listen, and, for many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death...."

Keats: Gosh, sir, no, I am sorry, that's not pharmacy - those are some verses I have been working on.

Cruickshank: Verses? Verses? I cannot have you doing this kind of stuff in office hours, Keats. And if you must do it, I cannot say I approve of you being half in love with easeful death. It creates quite the wrong sort of impression to the patients.

Keats: How do you mean, sir?

Cruickshank: How must they feel if they come in here, at death's door, looking for a bit of comfort and curing, and they find my apprentice moping around saying he feels like death himself? What are they going to think?

Keats: I don't actually think that, sir - it's just a poetic fancy.

Cruickshank: I'll tell you what they're going to think. They're going to think: Yon Dr Keats is an old misery-guts - we'll awa' to the next pharmacy doon the road!

Keats: Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.

Cruickshank: I'm away out on my rounds, now. Look after the shop till I'm back. Ye ken fine what to do with the patients. If they're ill, cure them or let them die. If there's nothing wrong with them, take the credit for their recovery.

Keats: Yes, sir.

Cruickshank: Right. Back in a wee while. Tell Janet I'll have my lunch at one.

Exit Dr Cruickshank in a blast of snow. After a moment, enter a tall cadaverous lumberjack. Lumberjack: Are you the doctor?

Keats: I'm Dr Keats. Dr Cruickshank is out. What seems to be the trouble?

Lumberjack: It's my heart, I think.

Keats: Good heavens. What's wrong with it?

Lumberjack: It aches. And there's a sort of numbness.

Keats: What sort of numbness?

Lumberjack: It's a sort of drowsy numbness.

Keats: That's wonderful!

Lumberjack: What's wonderful about it?

Keats: Oh, nothing, nothing. But just let me get that down on paper. "My heart aches and a drowsy numbness...."

Lumberjack: My eyes are giving me trouble too.

Keats: In what way? Can you see all right?

Lumberjack: I can see straight ahead all right, but I cannot see what flowers are at my feet.

Keats: That may not be your eyes. That might be a stiff neck.

Lumberjack: I hadn't thought of that.

Keats: Anything else?

Lumberjack: I don't think so.

Keats: You're complexion is as white as a sheet.

Lumberjack: I'm not surprised. Where's the cheek that does not fade, when too much gazed at?

Keats: You may be right. I'll just make a note of that .... But you must get very cold, being out in the woods so much. Doesn't that affect you at all?

Lumberjack: Well, we all get cold sometimes. Even the owl for all its feathers sometimes looks half perishing. But if you wrap up warm, and take a draught of something cheering, it's all right. It's solitary work, that's what I hate worst, all alone and pale and loitering ....

Keats: Stop, stop! You're going too fast! I can't get all this down, and it's all such poetic stuff!

Lumberjack: Poetry? Are you accusing me of writing poetry? We don't take kindly to that sort of talk here in the backwoods of Canada, mister . ...

A reader writes: Hold on! Keats wasn't trained in Edmonton, Canada! He was trained in the Edmonton in north London! You've got the wrong place!

Miles Kington writes: I'm sorry. There has been a terrible mistake. All copies of this play are being withdrawn for rewriting. Do not attempt to stage it. It may be dangerous. Thank you.

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