11 Bealtaine 2010

Keats and Chapman 4

A fishy business

Captain Horatio Hill RN, retired, was a popular member of the gentleman's club in which Chapman was an habitué. The captain could and, whenever he was given half a chance, did boast of his family's long and almost unbroken tradition of naval service since 1758, the year in which young Herbert Hill, third son of a Devon squire, was taken up by a press gang as he emerged from a house of ill-repute in Portsmouth.

Herbert's true identity was not established until after his return from a voyage to the West Indies, by which time he had become enamoured with the seafaring life and procured himself a place as a midshipman. Remaining in the service after peace returned, the first of the naval Hills served with distinction throughout the sadly mismanaged campaign to restore constitutional government in the revolted American colonies, before losing his head to a French ball in the Chesapeake Bay action of 1781. Herbert's son, Hamilton, rose to command a ship of the line in the Napoleonic war and laid the basis for his family's eminence by using his prize money to build Trafalgar Hall, the country seat where Horatio Hill still lived for a few months each year.

After a promising start, Horatio Hill's own naval career come to a premature end when he was observed in the company of a fellow officer's wife in circumstances that were capable of being misconstrued by those of a prurient disposition. The captain's prompt resignation from the service preserved the reputations of all concerned and his subsequent trading on the stock market prospered to such an extent that he was shortly enabled to design and construct a ten-berth yacht, the Victory, which he normally moored in the Bahamas and on which he frequently invited friends and acquaintances to join him for short cruises.

In due course, an invitation to holiday on the Victory was extended to Chapman, whose relationship with the captain was cordial rather than close. While the classicist would eagerly have accepted such an invitation had a cruise been proposed for the Aegean rather than the Caribbean, he inclined to the view that one palm tree is very much like another and pleaded a prior commitment to holiday with his friend Keats when declining the sailor's invitation. Hill responded by including the poet in his invitation. Four weeks of torrential rain and a further offer of free air-tickets to Nassau accomplished the rest and the literary friends joined the captain, his daughter Harriet, and a crew of three on board the Victory.

The contrast between Keats's and Chapman's behaviour afloat could not have been more marked: while the latter passed the time reading in a deck chair, a jug of iced water at his elbow and a parasol carefully adjusted to afford maximum protection from the ultraviolet rays, Keats entered enthusiastically into the holiday spirit: he stripped to his bathing trunks, consumed prodigious quantities of alcohol, loudly declaimed poetry composed by himself and others, and regularly dived overboard. The cause of the poet's unusual behaviour quickly became apparent to his friend: Keats was deeply smitten by the charms of Miss Harriet Hill - he drank rum and lime in her company, played quoits with her, and displayed his prowess as a swimmer only when she was on deck to observe.

As the Victory rode at anchor on the third day of the cruise, Keats was languidly performing the backstroke some ten yards adrift of the yacht's stern while engaging in a vapid conversation with Miss Hill, who was leaning over the rail at the yacht's stern, her arm hooked around the flag staff for support. Two crew members had gone ashore for provisions and the third was washing dishes in the galley. Captain Hill lay snoring on a sun bed and Chapman, who had been working on a critical essay on the Satires of Juvenal, was himself drifting in and out of sleep in his deck chair.

Suddenly he was jolted back to wakefulness by Harriet's hysterical screams. Rushing to the girl's side, he immediately saw the cause of her alarm: the dorsal fin of a shark was moving towards Keats in a zigzag fashion. Already alert to the danger, the poet was swimming as fast as he could towards a rope ladder which hung amidships on the port side of the yacht but it was all too evident that he had little chance of reaching it before the shark overtook him. Chapman was rooted to the spot as he tried to absorb the horrifying implications of the scene before before his eyes.

'Forget the bally ladder!' roared Horatio Hill, who had suddenly appeared between his daughter and Chapman, 'get over here and we'll haul you in!'

Keats obeyed the captain's instructions, but even as he altered course the shark abandoned its zigzag approach and bore down directly on its human prey with terrifying speed. The poet reached the stern of the yacht a few yards ahead of the shark and flung his arms in the air in what seemed like a last despairing gesture. Instantly, Chapman and the captain grabbed an arm each and pulled the imperilled swimmer upwards and inwards with all their strength. Keats hung suspended in mid-air for a brief eternity and a loud thud was heard as the shark collided with the hull inches below his feet, then the poet's centre of gravity crossed the mid-point of the railing and he fell head-first onto the deck of the Victory.

'By Jove, that was a bit too close for comfort!' exclaimed the captain after a few moments.

'Idiots!' hissed Keats angrily as he rubbed his forehead, 'you blithering idiots! What on earth did you think you were playing at?'

'Steady on old boy,' said Chapman, convinced that his friend was suffering from the effects of shock or concussion: 'that shark would have had your legs for lunch if we hadn't fished you out.'

'Nonsense! You've just ruined everything' moaned the poet, his face a picture of frustration and disappointment. 'Together, you snatched the feet from the Jaws of Victory!'


  1. Sheer Lunása! (as Keats remarked earlier this month, when looking over the Cliffs of Moher)

  2. (You may be wondering why I misplaced that mark - it's because I have a very bad Irish accent)