Under appreciated during his lifetime, John Keats became one of the most revered English Romantic poets in the decades following his tragic death from tuberculosis in 1821. Keats died in Rome (where visitors can view and even slumber in his former quarters, now known as the Keats-Shelley House) , shortly after moving there at the urging of his doctor. Prior to settling in Italy, the poet resided in a Regency-style semidetached house on the edge of London’s Hampstead Heath. Today, the house reopens to the public after undergoing an extensive restoration program that has returned its rooms to their original condition.
Keats House was the poet’s home from 1818 to 1820, and it was the setting which inspired some of his most memorable poetry, including Ode to a Nightingale. “In the spring of 1819, a nightingale had built her nest near my house,” recalled Keats’ roommate and friend, Charles Brown. “Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast table to a grass plot under a plum tree, where he sat for two or three hours. ” In honor of the moment when inspiration struck, a plum tree has been replanted where the original once stood (photo at right).
The house proved to be propitious for romance as well as writing: While living there, Keats met the girl next door, Fanny Brawne, with whom he fell passionately in love. (Their affair inspired a new film by Jane Campion, Bright Star, due for release this autumn.) Fanny’s own bedroom is among those opening for the first time in the restored house, along with the basement room where he and his Charles Brown dined, across the passage from a wine cellar. Among the items on display will be the garnet engagement ring Keats presented to Fanny (the poet’s tuberculosis prevented the two from ever wedding) and a gold mourning brooch in the form of a Greek lyre with strands woven from Keats’s hair.
The reopening of Keats House will be marked tonight with a picnic performance of the play “Keats in Hampstead”, which celebrates the poet’s love for Fanny. After the show, guests can move inside to inspect the poet’s refurbished home. Performances run until August 9 on Fridays at 6.00pm, Saturdays at 3.00pm and 6.00pm, and Sundays at 3.00pm.
If you do visit Keats House, I highly recommend a stop at the nearby Spaniards Inn, an atmospheric 400-year old tavern which Keats and other literary figures once patronized. –Joni Rendon