I have an odd relationship with poetry. As a child I enjoyed poems for their playfulness but as I grew into my teenage years, I began to feel that poetry put such unfortunate restrictions on the expression and exploration of ideas that most things would be better expressed in other ways. Nowadays, I enjoy some individual poems but still find I like poetry in theory more than I do in practice.
Even odder is my relationship to romantics and romanticism. I discovered the idea as a teenager while reading ‘Sophie’s World’ and fell in love with the idea of the subjective and introverted search for meaning. Studying philosophy at university, I began to find romantic tendencies to be loose and baseless, producing statements that often sound like they mean more than they do. As I got older and further into Samuel Johnson and the earlier eighteenth century, I find myself gravitating to enlightenment ideals more than romantic ones. That said, I’ve enjoyed a lot of romantic poetry I’ve read and I really enjoyed the ‘Lyrical Ballads’.
With all this in place, I’ve had a particularly prejudicial view of John Keats. My image of him was of a fey, affected wan youth, quietly dying and pretending to feel things. I pictured him as a drip. My visit to Keats’ House changed that view utterly.
I went on a glorious day in the now usual late September sun, having wandered there through Hampstead Heath. There were people flopped all over the lawn, relaxing in the beautiful weather which created the perfect mood to get into the heightened emotions of Keats’s poetry.
The visit starts downstairs with a video. This was projected on a screen that looked like a summer’s window and gave a quick run-through of Keats’s life and the house’s part in that. Despite the name, the house was never actually Keats’s. He lived there for a while, wrote some of his most popular poetry and met the love of his life. This was also the house when he discovered he was dying.
The leaflet then suggested going back up the stairs, going through those rooms, back down to the basement and then up two pair of stairs to the top floor. This sounded stupid to me, so I went round the basement rooms first. They contained a number of kitchens which looked like many of the same kitchens I have seen in most other historic houses. It didn’t help that these kitchens had the same pots, pans and fake food as every other historic house (there must be a catalogue somewhere). The downstairs also had the obligatory dress up section, though this was quite a weak-sauce version of the idea, with the same naff tricorn hat I wear for my youtube videos.
The rest of the of the house was more distinctive, with the different rooms dealing with a different aspect of Keats’s life, related to the original function of the room. The room he used as a study contains many of his books. One thing I particularly liked was an annotated copy of ‘An Anatomy of Melancholy’, there was also a set of ‘Orlando Furioso’ books on a shelf. I didn’t feel the same shiver I would have felt standing in a room of one of my favourite writers (or even as I did standing in the room where Newton formulated the rules of gravity) but it was a lovely room to write in and I appreciated his reading habits.
His friend’s study dealt with his ability to make friends. Keats was not a fragile introvert who kept himself to himself. He was fond of bodily pleasure and friendship, describing a great life as being full of ‘women, wine and snuff’. His ability to make people feel at ease was described by one contemporary as ‘like a spell’. In his short lifetime, Keats published three books of poetry and the first two did very poorly but were fondly received by those friends.
Upstairs, there was a room dedicated to his relationship with Fanny Brawne. He gave her an engagement ring, which is in a case with some of their love-letters. They would never actually marry, as Keats could never gain a solid wage with his poetry but the love was strong. When he died, Fanny Brawne wore the ring for the rest of her life.
Another room included a selection of paintings inspired by subjects that also inspired Keats. I had a chat with a volunteer in this room, who told me the story of ‘The Pot of Basil’ in a very entertaining way. A line in this poem was the one that surprisingly caught me. The poem includes a description of how the woman ignores the world to wallow in grief, one of the things she stops noticing is, ‘The blue above the trees.’ I’m not sure what it is I love about the line - something about the way the line captures the pleasure of suddenly noticing an everyday beauty like the sky.
The last room was the one Keats was staying in when he realised he was going to die. In the hallway before that room, there is the unusual exhibit of a life mask and a death mask. Morbidly, the visitor is asked to guess which one is which.
While my previous image of Keats had him as permanently weak and ailing, he was extremely active most of his life, including a walk of 700 miles that took in Ben Nevis. Keats had studied hard to obtain a medical licence, a training that involved physical dexterity and strength but he gave this up to write poetry. It was in the bedroom in Keats House that he had a coughing fit. When he looked at his handkerchief, his medical training kicked in, he knew the colour of the blood meant that he only had months to live. There’s something extremely poignant and chilling about a medical person who knows exactly how terrible the next few months will be - and their ultimate end.
One of the things Keats House does especially well, is exposing the visitor to snippets of his poetry. There are lines painted onto the walls and each card describing the room also has a quote. I knew I would recognise some (‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’ - something the volunteer at the shop also said to a customer) but there were many I didn’t. Some I very much liked but others were self aggrandising. Keats definitely liked writing about how great writers are, the example I chose to write down being; ‘A fine writer is the most genuine being in the world.’
I arrived at Keats House with a rather dismissive view if the man but now, I see him as a vigorous and energetic person. The man did far more in his first (and only) twenty-five years than I did with mine and I will definitely be checking more out about him.