Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Keats and other treats

On May 28, I visited Keats House in Hampstead, a part of London far enough away from the center of the city that it feels almost like a smallish town. In any case, it's away from the bustle and crowds of the city.

A couple of days later I sent my students in the Study Abroad program an e-mail, from which I provide excerpts here.

First, on the National Portrait Gallery:

"I love the National Portrait Gallery because it focuses on people's faces and gives a rich sense of English culture and history. It's also a manageable museum for a single visit--you can see virtually everything in 1 1/2 or 2 hours. You could even do a rush job in one hour. The National Portrait Gallery includes portraits of many famous British politicians, artists, musicians, philanthropists, scientists, and WRITERS, from Tudor times through the present, including just about all the writers we're studying in our class.

"I strongly encourage you to make the National Portrait Gallery one of your options for fulfilling the site visits checklist for our class.

"Nearest tube stops: Leicester Square and Charing Cross. Entry is free."

Then I reflect on my visit to Keats House:

"Along with most of you, I visited Keats House on Friday. My trip each way, including walking to the tube stop and walking from the tube stop to Keats House, took 50-55 minutes, probably close to 52-53 minutes each time. I stayed at the house for an hour and 20 minutes--longer, probably, than any of the rest of you. I revisited most of the rooms three or more times. I'm a bit of a Keats fanatic. Most of you probably took half the time I did or less.

"But I hope you had a good visit. I wanted to share some of the things I noticed and thought about, just in case you missed them. If you found anything memorable I haven't mentioned, please share it with me.

"In the time of Keats, the house was really two adjoining houses. They had separate entries but were joined by a wall, which has now been opened up, so that they formed a single building. The movie Bright Star is very accurate in most respects. However, in suggesting that Keats's bedroom was right next to Fanny Brawne's (with just a wall separating them), the film takes some liberties. They would have had rooms at the same level, each in a separate house, but whether the rooms were right next to each other, we don't know.

"Keats probably first met Fanny Brawne while visiting friends, possibly in the room where you paid for entry, before he himself moved into the house.

"In the Brawne rooms on the ground floor you should have seen a bust of Keats putting him at his accurate height of 5 foot 1 inch. There's also a painting of Keats, a photo of the sonnet "Bright Star" in Keats's handwriting, and THE ACTUAL ENGAGEMENT RING he gave Fanny. (He wanted to break off the engagement when he became ill, but she refused. There was still hope they might marry after he returned from Italy, but he died there.)

"Other literary connections in the room include a book on display by Leigh Hunt called Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries (it includes one of the early discussions of Keats after his death) and another book called Keats's Relics showing a photo of the copy of Paradise Lost that Keats gave to a friend,

"Keats's Parlour: It is set up to match a painting by Severn (also in the room) of Keats sitting in the room. Also hanging on the wall is an engraving of a likeness of Shakespeare Keats is known to have had on the wall at that very spot and a picture of Milton dictating Paradise Lost to his daughters. In the book cases in the room are books Keats is known to have owned and read (though not necessarily the same copies he had)--books by Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and many others.

"Keats often sat in the room, looked out the window, and doubtless read and wrote. He is said to have composed 'Ode to a Nightingale' while sitting under a mulberry tree that used to stand in the yard outside the house.

"Brown's Parlour: Keats shared the house with his friend Charles Brown (the arrangement is depicted in the film Bright Star). In this room the two probably entertained friends. (Either here or upstairs--I forget which--Brown put a sofa where Keats could lie and look out the window after he became ill.) Now located in the room is a painting based on Keats's poem 'Isabella' and a picture of the blind Milton playing the organ. This room also has pictures (and a bust, I believe) of many of Keats's friends, including the poet Shelley and others.

"In the Chester room (added to the house by a later tenant) is a portrait plaque of Keats by Giuseppe Girometti, considered the best likeness of Keats, as well as a painting by Keats's friend Severn depicting Keats on Hampstead Heath (near Spaniards Inn) listening to the nightingale that inspired the famous ode you read.

"Upstairs in the Brawne side of the building is Fanny's room, set up to indicate her interest in fashion (something the film depicts). In the other side of the building is Brown's bedroom (including some 'Tassie Gems' of the sort that inspired Keats's poem 'On a Leander Gem') and of course Keats's bedroom, to which his fatal illness often confined him. Keats's bedroom includes a copy of the death mask made in Italy. You can, in other words, see the actual contours of his face as it appeared shortly after his death.

"Also in the various rooms are copies of some of Keats's poems and excerpts from his letters. I was intrigued to discover some poems I didn't know, including 'To My Brother George' and 'To My Brothers' (which mentions his brother Tom, who died of tuberculosis--John Keats apparently contracted the disease while nursing his brother). Another poem I discovered is 'What can I do to drive away . . .' The letter excerpts included some you were assigned to read, but many that are not even in our book, including several to and about Fanny Brawne. It's interesting that initially Keats didn't get along with Fanny. They had little 'tiffs' and he called her a 'Minx' (look it up). But before long he was smitten."

As I note at the end of my e-mail to my students, if you want to read some of the poems and letter excerpts, you can find them here:
"To My Brother George":
"To My Brothers":
"What can I do to drive away":
Letters to Fanny Brawne: (13 Oct. 1819) (?Feb. 1820)
(for others, see
(for more on their relationship:

I should add that, though I've always liked Keats, my time in London--teaching some of his poetry and visiting the house--has deepened my appreciation. I've especially been impressed by "Ode to a Nightingale." Yes, the desire to fade away--through poetry, drink, or death--is escapist and ultimately a denial of what makes us human. But I think Keats is at least partly, if not fully and deeply, aware of that. The poem itself ends by noting that the imagined escape is only that--imagined--and that we necessarily return to our station of being ourselves.

The poem's references to human suffering are moving, especially as they set Keats's own experience, seeing his brother waste away with tuberculosis and then die, in the context of the many generations who have gone through similar experiences.

Note these lines:

The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs . . .

The "youth" who "grows pale" alludes certainly to his brother. And then there are lines about the "hungry generations" and about the "sad heart of Ruth," lines I ponder in a recent blog post (

In one of his letters, Keats considers whether such suffering is a necessary part of our existence--if in fact, it fulfills the very purpose of life, which he speculates to be the gaining of an identity or "soul" through experience: "Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school and intelligence and make it a soul? a place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways."

Keats's letters are great treasures, filled with insight and sometimes whimsy and humor.  The letters show that he is a much deeper thinker and much more sensible about life and its purposes and responsibilities than a superficial reading of his poems might suggest.  The letters help attune us to the moral and intellectual dimensions of his poems that it's possible to overlook if we're caught up in their rich imagery and music.

Keats was remarkable, especially considering how young he was and the short time span during which he wrote his greatest poetry.  As many of you will know, he died at age 25.

Speaking of "Ode to a Nightingale," my wife has just brought to my attention a beautiful Youtube video created by our friend Dia Darcy, with the poem read by our nephew Brian Sabey:

1 comment:

Dia D said...

I read this post with voracious interest--thank you for detailing the interior of Keats' house so that those of us who have never visited could experience it. I read "Ode to a Nightingale" for the first time in my British Romanticism class THIS semester (how did I miss it before?!?!) and have developed a beautiful, obsessive adoration. Thank goodness and repetition, both Brian and I found we had memorized it when the video was finished! Thank you for such an interesting and detailed blog post. I truly enjoyed reading it.