Illustrating Keats

Meg Merrilies illustrated by John Lechner

This spring I was inspired to do more ink drawing, so I decided to illustrate a poem by John Keats called Meg Merrilies. I also decided to turn it into a little book that I could print and take to festivals and events.

I began by researching the poem, its origins, and its setting. It was written by Keats in a letter home to his younger sister while he was hiking across the Scottish countryside. The imagery and textures reminded me of classic book engravings of the 19th Century, which I wanted to emulate. I experimented to find the right art style, settling on ink and brush with a watercolor wash.

Although not a long poem, I treated it as I would any other book project. I created a sketch dummy, followed by many revisions. To fill out the book and give it context, I also wrote an introduction, and added a glossary at the end (that was my sister Marie’s idea.) Finally came the finished artwork.

Meg Merrilies art by John Lechner

One of the most interesting parts of the project was designing the character of Meg herself. Keats based her on a character from a book by Sir Walter Scott called Guy Mannering, a book that Keats himself had never read, but which his friend Charles Brown described to him as they walked through the picturesque countryside where the book was set. As a result, the character in Keats’ poem is as much from his own imagination as it is from Sir Walter Scott.

The original Meg Merrilies, inspired by a real person, is the tough matriarch of a family of thieves and smugglers, whereas Keats’ creation is more of a gentle nature-lover, weaving branches and communing with rocks and trees. Since I was illustrating Keats and not Scott, I depicted my character as described in the poem, adding my own artistic vision. It’s interesting to think how a story or character can evolve when passed along from one artist to another, over many years.

Meg Merrilies art by John Lechner

The 12-page printed booklet came out nicely, and I still have some copies. If you are interested in purchasing one for $5, send me an email at john@johnlechner.com.

You can also see the entire illustrated poem online here.

Meg Merrilies book photo

This wasn’t the first project I’ve done involving Keats. Last year I created a moving panorama, or “crankie” inspired by his poem Endymion. I’ve also been inspired by his nature poems for my own nature blog The Untended Garden. I hope to continue exploring his work in future projects.

Also this summer I participated in a fun book reading at Legacy Place in Dedham, along with some other fine authors — Julia Denos, Peter H. Reynolds, Paul Reynolds, and Josh Funk. We each read from our work to an enthusiastic group of children, and it was a fun event.

Little Library Book Reading

Also this summer, my book Sticky Burr: Adventures in Burrwood Forest, was reviewed on a teacher’s blog called The Indigo Teacher, with feedback from a young reader. You can read the review here.

I’ve also continued working on some old manuscripts that have undergone many revisions over the years. Hopefully they will someday see the light of day. Ernest Hemingway reportedly changed the ending to A Farewell to Arms forty-seven times before he was satisfied. I haven’t quite reached that number, but I’m optimistic.

Meg Merrilies art by John Lechner

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