It’s 200 years since the death of John Keats in Rome on February 23rd, 1821. While Liz Lochhead’s poem about the Romantic poets playfully skewers many of the tropes associated with Wordsworth, Coleridge and Byron, in its final lines the poem dispenses with those and ends on a distinctively Keatsian note, as she addresses the work of poetry: the ‘fugitive colours’, from which she takes the title of her 2016 Makar collection, are unstable dyes or paints that fade and alter over time. It calls to mind Keats’ epitaph, ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’, as it conjures in the same way the ephemerality of life and embodied utterance, and poetry as the best medium to capture it.
How to Be the Perfect Romantic Poet Liz Lochhead Be born male. Begin your career as a poet early. Take advantage of your nursemaid’s momentary distraction by – not yet a twelvemonth – crawling to the fire and snatching out a live coal, flamed and glowing, learning to brand Promethean sensation to your flesh and brain. (This will also initiate you nicely into the twin satisfactions of rousing the whole household with your shrieking and getting a maid into trouble.) Be orphaned ere you grow to double figures. Ever after, idolise your father, disappoint your mother. Have a sister (every Romantic poet worth his salt most certainly has a sister). She’ll be the one to hearken when you sing Then come my Sister! come, I pray, With speed put on your woodland dress; And bring no book: for this one day We’ll give to idleness. Even if you are not Lord Byron be mad and bad and dangerous to know. Be faithful to your Muse and marry the wrong woman. Your Muse will most fulsomely reward you. When in London, lodge at the Salutation and Cat, that hotbed of sedition. Thrill to that. Leave your long black hair unpowdered, wear your blue topcoat with a white swansdown waistcoat, your mudded stockings most spectacularly bespattered – but most vehemently refuse to change them just to please your wife. Dream, but ere you’re older (if you want to get much older) attempt to wean yourself off your predilection for laudanum, opium, brandy, drop the Kendal Black Drop for the more sedative stimulants of egg-nog and Oronoko tobacco. Soar, escape the real world of gruel, sulphur-ointment, haberdashery, pig-iron, cotton manufactories and silk mills; worship all winged creatures – Angels, Harpies, the starling, sea-mew, ostrich, owl, canary, vulture, the nightingale, sparrow, thrush, bustard, tom-tit, dove, duck, linnet, lark and, ah, the albatross . . . Dread, above all, becalming, stasis. Love the wild wave, the humble bird-limed thornbush; let nature be your teacher but be a library cormorant, dive deep. When it thunders run bareheaded, harebrained, out into the rain. Miss all deadlines – write all night, tempt and court the Nightmare and the Succubus in pursuit of the green radiance, in pursuit of the fugitive colours of the day.
Or listen to Liz reading it herself at the 2015 Edinburgh International Book Festival.