Today, I’m back to Mr. Keats. My fourth and most recent pilgrimage to the Keats House in North London happened just last fall, in November 2009. Upon my arrival in London, finding I had a free day to explore, I hopped on that familiar Northern Line and made my way up to Hampstead. Funny how I’ve only made that voyage a few times but it’s still so familiar to me.
I exited the tube and knew exactly the route to take. I meandered through the village shops, remembered a stop at the coffee shop on the corner during an earlier visit years prior. I was sad to find the bookshop where I purchased my red fabric covered book of Keats poetry closed. As I turned to walk down Keats Grove, I felt that that sense of excitement return.
The house was in relatively good shape, but the garden was more sparse than I remember, though at least the grass was green from all the rain. I entered through the front door and chatted with the gift shop attendant who gave me a brochure about the history of the house (the Keats House website has a good guide to the rooms). The house was much more busy than I had ever experienced, much in part due to the popularity of the recent Bright Star film, which beautifully chronicled the romance between Keats and Fanny Brawne, who, for a time, lived in the same house adjacent to the rooms he shared with his friend Charles Browne. (This website tells their story nicely).
I walked briefly through the lower levels, and knowing I would soon return, moved to the second floor. A lovely display of costumes from Bright Star was on display. Since I was insanely obsessed with the film, I was glad to have visited while the display was on. While admiring the costumes, I met an older woman whose warm smile instantly reminded me of my Aunt Helen, who we had lost earlier that year. We chatted briefly and moved to an adjacent room together. She shared with me that she worked for another historic home just a few streets away, where they apparently filmed one scene from Bright Star (a fact of which she was quite proud). We walked through Browne’s bedroom and I was glad to be in the company of this woman who shared my understanding and passion for the house.
As we walked into Keats’ bedroom, a silence fell between us. The woman excused herself from room, mentioning to me that she knew I would want a few minutes on my own with the spirit of the great poet (exactly something that my Aunt Helen would do). Though I thought we would reconnect later, I never saw the woman again.
I stood at the foot of his bed, gazed out his window, looked uncomfortably at the plaster death mask displayed in a large case against the wall, and and communed with the genius that inhabited this space nearly 200 years ago. Would he ever have dared to imagine the legacy he would leave behind?
I thought about the last night he spent in this room before leaving for Rome, on what would be his final journey. The physical agony of tuberculosis must have paled in comparison to the pain he felt leaving the love of his life behind. He knew chances were slim that he’d return.
The remainder of the house captured me in different ways. I’m always moved by Keats’ Parlour and the large window that opens out onto the garden (the same garden I sneaked into eleven years prior). There is a painting of him in this room (painted after his death by a friend), and it’s easy to imagine the inspiration he would have gathered by gazing out onto the garden, the trees, and of course the nightingales. From the parlour, I walked out into the garden and out to the front of the house. This is where Keats and Fanny spent afternoons, and perhaps where they first fell in love. They knew each other for a short time (17 months), but established a deep love for each other. Keats’ letters to Fanny are ridiculously intimate and filled with heartbreak and longing. I could gush for hours, but for an example, take a look at this website, which has digitized a great collection of the letters, undoubtedly some of the most romantic words ever written.
I entered the house again and spent more time in the lower rooms, investigating closely the collections of memorabilia, manuscripts, books and art displayed throughout the rooms. I had never been in the lowest-level kitchen before, or maybe I just hadn’t remembered it. The space features rather prominently in Bright Star, and I felt an affinity for it, knowing that it had many stories to tell.
Back in the upstairs hallway, the easily distinguishable voice of an American man caught my ear. He was scholarly and asking many questions of the docent, inquiring about Keats’ time at the house, his history and inspiration. I was fascinated by their conversation and lingered in the rooms to hear more. I overheard the man mention that he was an English professor from Spokane, Washington. I wanted to strike up my own conversation with him and followed him into Brawne’s Parlour, where he sat on the sofa facing the picture window looking out onto the front garden and pulled a notebook from his pack. Just as I was about to join him, a swift elderly man came out of nowhere, pushed past me and took the vacant seat.
Not knowing quite what to do with myself, I stood and spent a few more minutes looking at the displays in the now quiet room. To my relief, the elderly man stood from his seat and I began to make my way to the sofa, just as two women ventured to do exactly the same.
Feeling this must be a sign of some sort, I gathered my things, bid adieu to my man Keats and closed the chapter on another successful pilgrimage. I hoped that the handsome English professor might glance at me as I walked past his window, but perhaps the romance of the place had gotten the best of me. There is a lush richness to the air that Keats breathed, as if the depth of his romantic spirit still permeates the walls.
I took one last photo in my traditional spot, nodded to the library that served as my initial gateway to the house a decade prior, and walked the familiar roads back to the Hampstead tube station. Until next time . . .
Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors–
No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.