John Keats: Boxing Fan, Cricketer and Lover of Word Games

Cricket-Ball-photo-by-Hashmil

Photo: Hashmil

It’s National Poetry Day on Thursday and the theme is “Games”. Nicholas Roe from the Keats Foundation tells us about the games Keats loved. Take our Keats challenge and see if you can compete with his rhyming gamesmanship to win a copy of his Selected Poems.

Boxing, cricket and fencing were his first loves. He once pummeled a butcher for so long that his burly opponent had to be led away. Cricket at school and on Hampstead Heath was a life-long passion. As a child he fearlessly brandished a real sword, terrifying his mother.

In 1818 Keats followed his Fancy to the great Prize Fight between Jack Randall and Ned Turner at Crawley. The fight began at 1pm on a wet Saturday. Randall ‘peppered the face of his opponent, like a footman’s stylish knock at a door – it was ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto, till Turner went down covered with blood’. A ‘flush knock-down blow’ to the left of Turner’s head ‘floored him’.

‘Ever let the fancy roam / Pleasure never is at home’. Keats relished the Fancy-full pleasures of poetry and boxing alike. He measured his poetic ‘reach’ like a boxer landing a jab, and thought of his great poem ‘Endymion’ as a ‘test’ or ‘trial’ like a bout in the ring. For Keats, the ‘stretch’d metre of an antique song’ was equivalent to the thirty-four rounds of the Randall/Turner match. Perhaps Byron or Wordsworth would be floored too.

Keats also began his poetic career with a game.

As a small child, instead of answering questions he would make a rhyme to the last word people said, and laugh. Many children play this rhyming game; few go on to become poets. We can hear the six-year-old Keats delighting in words, instinctively dodging a question to make a rhyme.

These quick-witted couplets were the seeds of every poem Keats would write.

When critic John Wilson Croker sneered that, in Endymion, rhymes led the poem’s sense, he unwittingly captured the defiant spirit with which the six-year-old ‘made a rhyme’ and led the story in his own direction. Keats’s fanciful ‘poetic romance’ was his boyish game at full-length – technically termed ‘bout rimes’, that is, ‘rhymed ends’, like a great boxer’s stylish ‘ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto’.

Take Our Keats Challenge

Write down five questions you are asked in your day – could be mundane questions, “Did you sleep well?”, “Would you like tea?” or you could focus in on the most bizarre questions from your day, the ones which make no sense taken out of context!

For each question, we want you to write a one line rhyming reply.

Example question and answer:

Why do some animals have webbed toes?
So they can make a loud splat wherever they go.

John Keats Selected by Andrew Motion

If you’re stuck for question ideas here are a few examples you can use:

Why do the planets move round the sun?

How much milk do cows yield in a year?

What has happened to all the bees?

Why are there dimples on a golf ball?

What would you do if you were made mayor?

Congratulations to Catherine Hodgson won our copy of John Keats Selected by Andrew Motion for her response to the challenge. You can read her poem below.

Why do the planets move round the sun?

They run away from each other for fun.
How much milk will a cow yield in a year?
I can honestly say I have no idea.
What has happened to all the bees?
Nothing, as far as I can see.
Why are there dimples on a golf ball?
So that it doesn’t hurt itself when it falls.
What would you do if you were made mayor?
Do something stupid like cut off my hair.

The competition has now closed but you can still have a go and share your Keats Challenge responses by posting them below.

Keats House photo by Laura Nolte

photo: Laura Nolte

Professor Nicholas Roe’s new biography of Keats, A Young English Poet, will be published next year. Nicholas Roe is chair of the Keats Foundation which looks after Keats House.

Keats House is a thriving museum dedicated to the poetry of John Keats and to poetry in general, based in Keats’ former home in Hampstead, London.

Published September, 2011

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