17 February 2010 by Published in: Features Tags:, No comments yet

The last two years of Keats’ short life were spent in Hampstead, a seminal period witnessing his evolution as a poet. Amanda Hodges retraces his steps.

‘The great beauty of Poetry is that it makes every thing, every place interesting’, John Keats wrote with characteristic enthusiasm. Today his Hampstead home stands as a museum celebrating his enduring status as one of the finest Romantic poets, one whose innate sensitivity to Nature found creative expression in ‘the humming of the bee, the sight of a flower or the glitter of the sun.’

“The great beauty of Poetry is that it makes every thing, every place interesting, the humming of the bee, the sight of a flower or the glitter of the sun.”
John Keats

It was here Keats’ poetic genius blossomed, here too where he met his beloved Fanny Brawne. ‘ I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination,’ he declared; though poverty and ill-health would sorely test this creed his passionate commitment to life inspired all.

Keats and his brothers George and Tom had briefly lodged in 1 Well Walk but, after Tom’s death from consumption in late 1818, the exhausted Keats, then twenty-three, was invited by good friend Charles Brown to share his Wentworth Place home close to Hampstead Heath. Keats was ‘small in stature and well proportioned.’ His greatest asset- apart from his generous disposition- was his vitality. ‘There is no magic equal to that of an ingenious countenance and I never beheld any so ingenious as his,’Brown recalled.

Wentworth Place comprised two semi-detached Regency houses sharing a garden, one owned by Brown, the other by Charles Wentworth Dilke. Paying £5 monthly rent Keats, who’d eschewed an embryonic medical career, now had an elegant home where he could develop his poetic ambitions in congenial surroundings. Contemporary guidebooks commended Hampstead’s ‘ happy situation..abounding in delightful vales and elegant mansions’; a ‘suburban nirvana’ thought novelist Wilkie Collins.

In Hampstead Keats was susceptible to the charms of the eighteen-year-old daughter of the widow who regularly visited Dilke. Initially, vivacious Fanny was dismissed as a fashionable, flirtatious ‘minx’ but swiftly Keats became deeply attached. ‘ The more I have known you the more have I lov’d ‘ a letter testified. Affection caused pain and pleasure: pain since his poverty threatened their relationship and pleasure in the delight of her company. Mrs Brawne’s lease of Dilke’s house from April 1819 meant that Keats and his beloved now lived in tantalising proximity. During summer months away (Brown leased out Keats’ lodgings at this time) the impassioned poet, already showing advanced signs of fatal consumption, wrote to Fanny ‘ I love you too much to venture to Hampstead, I feel it is not paying a visit but venturing into a fire’.

Many of Keats’ famous poems like La Belle Dame Sans Merci were composed during this momentous period, one in particular evoking Hampstead. Brown recalled its gestation. ‘ In spring 1819 a nightingale built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song and, one morning, took his chair.. to a grass plot under a plum-tree where he sat for hours. When he came in I perceived scraps of paper in his hand..these contained Ode to a Nightingale.’ 1819 was pivotal, a year in which Keats made great progress as both man and poet. ‘Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul,’ he opined, a philosophy evinced by his maturing poetry.

Despite deep mutual love and a tacit engagement Keats’ bad health exacerbated his insecurity until the last month in London when, ravaged by illness, he lived happily at the Brawnes’ until his departure for Italy, a last attempt to restore his failing health. ‘ Mr Keats left Hampstead ‘ was all Fanny could note in her copybook after their distressing parting. Hearing of his demise in February 1821 she wore mourning for years. Keats’ fear of poetic oblivion proved groundless for, as he’d.conceded in Endymion, ‘a thing of beauty is a joy for ever, its loveliness increases, it will never pass into nothingness,’ time only enhancing the reputation first forged in Hampstead.

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