My first visit to the Keats House in London was made just following college graduation in July 1998. I was bright eyed and armed with a rigorous itinerary of literary sites to see throughout England. My good friend Eric and I braved the Underground and followed the Northern Line up to Hampstead. We navigated through the quaint, upscale district and found ourselves standing before the home of one of the greatest poets ever to live. Keats had only lived in that particular house for about three years, but wrote some of his most influential poems and letters there.
I was anxious to tour the house, and left absolutely shattered upon finding out that it was closed indefinitely for repairs. How could this be? The disappointment began to sink in and we turned to walk back toward the subway… until I noticed a small library adjacent to the house that was open to the community. I told Eric to wait for me, while I wandered in. As fortune would have it, there just happened to be a young gentleman my age working behind the counter. I batted my eyes a bit and asked him if there was anything he could do to get me into the Keats House… I had traveled so far for just a glimpse. He smiled and discreetly motioned for me to follow him. We walked through a side door, crawled over a short fence and emerged into the glorious garden that had inspired innumerable odes.
This very spot was where Keats was inspired to write Ode to a Nightingale. This was it! The gardens were in full bloom, the trees bright leafy green, it was silent and poetic . . . I swear music was playing. I stood there with this kind boy and was transformed back to 1818 in a moment I’ll never forget.
“HEY! What are you doing here!?” A woman’s shrieking yell broke us out of our momentary trance and harshly rushed us back to reality. “You must leave,” she said. “This is off limits!” I’ll never forget the urgency of her commands, as if we had been caught strangling one of the poor nightingales. My librarian friend waved to her in acknowledgment and we laughed our way back to our acceptable place. Eric had waited patiently for me and as we walked back to the station, we stopped in a tiny little bookshop and I bought a small book of Keats’ poetry bound in a red fabric cover.
While I was disappointed not to make it into the house during that trip, it was the perfect introduction to a place that would become one of my favorite pilgrimages. I cherish that moment of sneaking into the backyard of Keats’ house and think of it often.
I’ve returned to the house three times since then. In March of 2000, I visited with Peter, a man who would later become my husband (now former, but still good friend). Again, the house was closed. But I expected it that time so the disappointment was mild. I actually wandered back into the library, but my librarian friend was no longer there and I didn’t think the dowdy woman behind the counter would respond so well to my flirtations.
In August of 2003, Peter and I again trekked to Hampstead. We arrived just in time for the house to open for the day to visitors. For reasons I can’t recall, we were forced to wait an hour before being admitted. I remember sitting in a coffee shop waiting and feeling anxious, knowing that I was so close to finally reaching my goal.
As I stood at the base of Keats’ bed, in the sanctuary of his bedroom, I could feel his presence. I could sense his footsteps in the hall, hear his foreboding cough, and grasp the extremes of joy and hopelessness that he experienced in this place. There is no feeling that compares to the awe of standing in the midst of these ghosts.
Just last year I returned to Keats’ House to find it changed but also more accessible than ever, thanks to Campion’s recently released film, which brought the Keats story back to life. More about that next time . . .