Ode to mud and sodden bonfires

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A recent study showed that if John Keats had lived his short lifespan today, training under modern NHS conditions, he would never have had time to write any poetry at all.

Actually, there never was any such study. I made that up. But it doesn't undercut my basic point, which is that today's junior hospital doctors don't have time to produce great poetry. I challenge you to name one junior hospital doctor currently writing great poetry, especially one suffering from a lung condition who is scheduled to die at the age of 27. Nobody? I think that proves my point.

Anyway, there is nothing wrong in making things up. Keats did it all the time.

Remember what he said about autumn? All about the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness? Conspiring with the sun "how to load and bless/With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run." Baloney! If you did a study on what autumn is like, you would have established one thing at least: autumn is rarely like that. Keats should have got out a bit more! Autumn is all about mud, and damp, and sodden bonfires that won't get started on 5 November, and cars that won't get started in the morning, and children who lie abed until nearly schooltime, and the evenings fair drawing in, and forgetting to give the lawn its last cut and forgetting to put the lawn mower in for its winter overhaul.

OK, I give you mists. There are mists around in the autumn. Keats got one thing right. But mellow fruitfulness? Conspiring to load the vines? Not in a hundred years!

My neighbour has a vine that grows picturesquely over her wall (no thatch- eaves) and into my front yard, and right now it is loaded with grapes which she never comes round to pick. Do you know why she doesn't? (And why I do not nick any of them as they dangle temptingly by my car door?) Because she knows (and I know) that they will be inedible. Grapes grown outdoors in England go straight from the interesting baby stage to the toothless granny stage without any attractive maturity in between, unless they are growing indoors or in vineyards, and even then the outcome is not particularly hopeful. Nothing mellow or fruitful about them, I fear.

I think I heard this line about mellow fruitfulness being quoted on Radio 4's Today programme yesterday, as if it were true, and I think I also heard someone say that a thing of beauty is a joy forever. Another famous line from Keats. It is also another untruth. There are very, very few things which remain beautiful. The only constant rule is that people's ideas of beauty change. If Keats had written that a thing of beauty is a joy for 50 years, or maybe 100, or - in the case of actresses and supermodels - about seven years, it would be much nearer the truth.

Unfortunately, it wouldn't be poetry. Poetry is concerned a lot with feelings and beauty. It isn't concerned much with the truth.

I have a lingering feeling that HL Mencken may have been right on this matter. HL Mencken was of the opinion that poetry and the truth were opposed to each other, and that a lot of what sounded true when written poetically clearly turned out to be bunkum when written out in the superior medium of prose. The two examples he gave, as I remember, were:-

God's in his heaven,

All's well with the world


I am the master of my fate

I am the captain of my soul.

They both have a good ring, he said, but if you think about either statement for five seconds you can see it is the denial of the truth.

The trouble is that poetry is a young man's game, and most poetry is written by young people short of 30, so it contains young men's ideas, that is to say, no very great ideas at all, only some delightful sounds.

"Poetry", said Mencken, succumbing to the temptation to define it, "is a comforting piece of fiction set to more or less lascivious music." Wait till people grow up a bit and get out of poetry into something grown-up like prose, that was his feeling.

"I have been told," wrote Mencken, "that the average age of the men who made the Authorised Version of the Bible was beyond 60 years. Had they been under 30 they would have made it lyrical; as it was, they made it colossal."

I have just remembered that I set out today to examine why John Keats, although medically trained, is always referred to as John Keats and not Dr Keats, whereas Ian Paisley, who seems trained for nothing in particular, calls himself Dr Paisley. Tomorrow, I hope.

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