When I was at school the Romantic Poets, Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, Shelley and Byron, formed the backbone of the English curriculum. But, being a somewhat tomboyish sort of teenager, I found them decidedly ‘soppy’, whether it was Wordsworth wittering on about daffodils or Keats about his nightingales. Coleridge and his Ancient Mariner was a bit better but on the whole, if I had to study poetry, I preferred to battle with the tortuous syntax of Gerald Manley Hopkins than ‘wander ‘oer the clouds and hills’ with Wordsworth.
And such is the prejudice of youth that I have never seriously revisted those first impressions. So I was all too ready to move quickly on when, walking up to the heath from South End Green yesterday, I passed the Keats outdoor exhibition displays. However, thinking that they might make a good topic for a post on this blog, I stopped to read the displays and the poems featured on them. And, somewhat belatedly, I started to see why people got so enthusiatic about Keats.
This year is the 200th anniversary of Keats’ early death in Rome aged only 25. Yet another victim of the early 18th century’s version of COVID, consumption, or what we know as tuberculosis. Born in Moorgate on the outskirts of the City of London, John Keats was the eldest of three brothers and one sister. His family were moderately prosperous and he was sent to an enlightened school in Enfield which ‘awarded prizes for good behaviour instead of punishing bad’. His father died from a fall when he was eight and only five years later, his mother contracted consumption and died soon after. Keats had nursed her during her last illness and maybe, wanting to understand this dread disease, he started to study medicine. (The display includes images of his medical notebooks.) But he had also started to write poetry and soon the poetry was taking precedence over the medicine. In 1816, at the age of 20, he abandoned his medical studies to devote himself to poetry.
In 1817 Keats, with his two younger brothers George and Tom, moved to Well Walk in Hampstead both to benefit from the healthier air (Tom Keats was already suffering from the consumption that had killed his mother, which would kill him the following year and John himself four years later) – and so that Keats could join the literary circle that had gathered in and around Hampstead. (Millfield Lane, as I have reported before, was nicknamed Poet’s Lane after the poets who walked there discussing the literary topics of the day).
Two of those friends, Charles Dilke and Charles Brown, lived at Wentworth Place, now Keats House, two adjoining houses just beside South End Green. On the death of his brother Tom John was invited by Charles Brown to come live in Wentworth Place – and there it was that he met Fanny Brawne, his muse and inspiration. Her family were renting the house next door. Not that Fanny was immediately elevated to muse status – in one of his earlier letters to his brother George he says:
“Shall I give you Miss Brawn[e]? She is about my height—with a fine style of countenance of the lengthen’d sort—she wants sentiment in every feature—she manages to make her hair look well—her nostrills are fine—though a little painful—he[r] mouth is bad and good—he[r] Profil is better than her full-face which indeed is not full [b]ut pale and thin without showing any bone—Her shape is very graceful and so are her movements—her Arms are good her hands badish—her feet tolerable—she is not seventeen—but she is ignorant—monstrous in her behaviour flying out in all directions, calling people such names—that I was forced lately to make use of the term Minx—this is I think no[t] from any innate vice but from a penchant she has for acting stylishly. I am however tired of such style and shall decline any more of it.”
However, despite this rather harsh judgement, John soon fell head over heels in love with Fanny. His affection was in due course returned although Fanny’s mother was less than enthusaistic about her daughter’s suitor’s prospects. Maybe even less so as Keats was not only penniless but already in poor health. Had he caught TB from his brother as he nursed him? More than likely as by early 1820 he was already coughing up blood which he saw as his own death sentence. Consent to their marriage was finally obtained but only when John had already set out for Italy in a desperate attempt to combat the consumption that was already ravaging his system.
None the less, the four years that Keats lived in Hampstead were an incredibly fertile period for him and saw the composition of his most famous works: that Ode to a Nightinglate that I had so crassly dismissed, The Eve of St Agnes, La Belle Dame sans Merci, Hyperion, Ode on Grecian Urn. The handwritten original of the Ode to a Nightingale forms on the of the displays in the outdoor exhibition.
The exhibition will be in place for a month, until the 3rd October – and of course Keats House remains open for both touristic and scholarly visits. I do recommend that you give yourself an extra 10 minutes to look at the displays as you walk up onto the heath – while I go away and do some serious reading and revise some of those teenage prejudices.