Chichester marks poet Keats' bicentenary

The Keats sculpture in Chichester
The Keats sculpture in Chichester

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, 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 & Juliet.

Taking place on Saturday, January 19, which is the eve of the Eve, St Pancras Church will host talks, lectures, a dramatic reading about the short, tragic but productive life of Keats and a reading of his famous poem.

Also featured will be a ‘poetic happening’ staged around the city’s famous statue of the poet by Chichester sculptor Vincent Gray, which is situated in Eastgate opposite the house where Keats lived. All events are free and everyone is welcome to come along for any part or all of the programme. The highlight of the day will be a dramatic reading of a brand-new script by film-maker Peter Phillips which will lead into The Eve of St Agnes.

The part of John Keats will be played by 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.

The events are being jointly organised by the University of Chichester and the South Downs Poetry Festival.

SDPF director Barry Smith said: “The idea is to breathe life into the wonderful poetry Keats bequeathed us. We felt that the bicentenary 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.

“One intriguing feature is the ‘poetry happening’. At last year’s 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 the duel again.

“It’s all a bit of fun, especially as Keats himself sits on his bench in Eastgate Square to oversee proceedings!

“The University is contributing a talk by Professor Fiona Price on Keats and history, while distinguished academic, Professor Nicholas Roe, will give a lecture on Keats and the Eve of St Agnes. These talks are aimed at illuminating the short but significant life of the poet, to make him come alive for people today.”

The evening begins at 5.15pm with the talk and lecture. The poetry happening takes place at 6pm and the dramatic reading starts at 6.30pm. There will be breaks with refreshments.

Admission free. Saturday, January 19, St Pancras Church, Eastgate, Chichester, PO19 7LJ. Further information can be found on www.sdpf.org.uk.

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