IIt is testimony to the hold John Keats has on the English imagination that although he died in 1821 at the age of 25 and left only two volumes of his poetry in print, 10 or 12 plaques or stones commemorate the geography of his short life from birth in Moorgate, London, to death beside the Spanish steps in Rome. Taken together, they form the basis of a pilgrimage route which I have always found interesting and which brings me back, again and again, to Keats House, just off Hampstead Heath in London.
My grandparents – my father’s mother and father – were both committed pilgrims and I have so many memories as they journeyed through the sacred sites of Gujarat and Rajasthan of being trained and not never really understand what it was for. In my twenties, however, following in the footsteps of Keats, I felt something like what they must have felt in this encounter of Jain iconography and encounter with place. The cinematic quality of Keats’ writing places us in the landscape alongside him, and piece by piece the landscape is transfigured by his vision.
There’s a two-mile walk in Winchester, for example, where you can retrace the steps of a daily route he took in September 1819, a melting pot of inspiration that would find expression in his ode to the fall . On a good day, “the rosy-hued stubble”, the “lamentable chorus [as] the little gnats weep / among the willows of the rivers”, the celestial omen of the “gathering of the swallows [that] twitter in the skies” are sensations we can see, hear, inhale with Keats in moments that convey connection through landscape and time.
Margate, Teignmouth, Bognor Regis. For Keats, the cold waters of the south coast of England were a place of exaltation that fueled the imagination. He once compared the process of creating his first long poem, Endymion, exactly to that of swimming in cold water, writing that with it he had “jumped headlong into the sea”. I think of that phrase almost every time my four and six year old daughters (more intrepid than me) reluctantly drag me through cold water at Start Point or Mothercombe in South Devon. Once inside, I feel my imagination tending, with Keats, to “the polls, the quicksands and the rocks”. Everyday landscapes, in his company, become electrified.
There is no scene that evokes this sense of connection, and the young man’s inner drama, more vividly than the place he called home in December 1818, after the death of his younger brother Tom (de tuberculosis), until August 1820 when, then living with tuberculosis himself, he left for Rome to avoid another English winter.
Wentworth Place in Hampstead – now Keats House at 10 Keats Grove – was then a new build twinned with a garden – a manifestation of early North London suburbia. It was probably here, above the gate, that he first saw the girl next door, Fanny Brawne.
The weeks following Keats’ return in August 1818 from a long journey on foot through the Scottish Highlands had been difficult, for he had returned to 1 Well Walk, just up the road, to find that in his absence, her brother’s condition had deteriorated. In December, Tom was buried. Now grieving and alone, Keats moved in with his friend Charles Brown in Wentworth Place and fell in love with Fanny Brawne. (Their romance is the subject of Jane Campion’s 2009 feature, Shining star.) Under a plum tree that stands in the garden, he wrote perhaps his most famous poem, Ode to a Nightingale. It was here, after an overnight journey through the city in torrential rain, that he first spat blood into a handkerchief and glimpsed his own fate.
A stone’s throw from the moor, the area has become one of London’s wealthiest, but Keats House is a shrine and sanctuary that can transport you to another era, the months of Keats’ greatest poetic achievement. The garden is free to access. There is no cost to the experience of sitting under the plum tree, we have grown up in this place for 200 years since Keats invited us, with him and with the song of the birds, to “faint in dark forest”. The house is also free for those under 18, leaving children free to roam inside and out, making it a great place to spend time with the family. Volunteers are welcoming.
The place has been laid out with such elegant simplicity that while so many historic homes or heritage sites almost become parodies of themselves, for me this one never fails to evoke a sense of presence with the beating pulse of Keats poetry.
Other houses of interest
Shandy Hall, Yorkshire
JB Priestley called Tristan Shandy the home of author Laurence Sterne “the medieval house where the modern novel was born”. The room is still inhabited, a changing tribute to the writer and his work.
Back to Back, Birmingham
Court 15 is a tribute to a way of life rather than an individual. It is the only courtyard of townhouses in Birmingham, a style of housing once ubiquitous here. Court 15 preserves the lives and work of families in this working-class area, including the only UK archive of the work of a Caribbean tailor – George Saunders, who had a shop here from 1974 to 2001.
Freud Museum, London
Sigmund and Anna’s last home was opened to the public in 1982 after his death. Much of the house is preserved as a family home, including Sigmund’s study with his famous sofa and his collections.
Mr Straw’s House, Nottinghamshire
A fascinating house not for what has been done there but for what has not been done there. The Straws bought this semi-detached in 1923 and hardly any upgrades have been made since. A fascinating time capsule and insight into a family that refused modern conveniences.