16 February 2021
Born in London in October 1795, Keats was the eldest of the four surviving children of Thomas and Frances Keats, who ran an inn at Moorgate. Thomas and Frances died when their children were young; Keats was 8 when his father died in a riding accident, and 14 when his mother died from tuberculosis. Keats and his two brothers, George and Tom, attended a good school in Enfield, where he was introduced him to some of the literature which would go on to inspire his own writing. However, Keats continued down a different path when he chose to study medicine for six years – a longer time period than he ever spent writing poetry. During his medical studies, his interest in literature re-emerged and he wrote his first poem in 1814. On qualifying as an apothecary after many years of study, Keats decided to turn his back on medicine and devoted himself to poetry instead – a brave decision for someone without much money to support himself.
Over the next few years, Keats produced a total of three volumes of poetry. He had moved to Hampstead in 1817 with his brothers, lodging with the local postman at Well Walk. The brothers hoped it would improve Tom’s health, as he was showing signs of tuberculosis (known then as consumption, it claimed the lives of one in three adult Londoners). It was also ideal for Keats to be in the leafier surroundings of Hampstead, to both inspire his work and so that he could visit fellow writers and artists who lived nearby. In 1818, George moved to America, so John was left to nurse Tom as his condition worsened. Sadly, Tom died in December 1818, a few weeks after his 19th birthday. Keats, now on his own, was invited to live with his friend Charles Brown at Wentworth Place, which is the building we now know as Keats House. The house had only been built a few years before, and although it was designed to look like one building, it was actually split into two houses. Keats rented two rooms here from Brown, which gave him a space of his own to write and reflect.
In the spring of 1819, the Brawne family moved into the other half of the house. The eldest daughter, Fanny Brawne, became the love of Keats’ life. They were secretly engaged, and the ring Keats gave to Fanny is on display at the house today. The timing of the Brawnes’ move coincided with an astonishing outburst of creativity for Keats, in which he wrote five of his famous Odes in the spring and summer months. The best known of these is the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. According to a story later told by Charles Brown, Keats heard a nightingale singing in the garden, so he carried a chair out and sat underneath a plum tree for hours. When he returned inside he hid his scraps of paper away on the bookshelves, and Brown had to encourage him to recover the scraps and edit the poem properly. It later went on to become one of the most famous verses ever written.
Sadly, Keats and Fanny could not be officially engaged or realistically hope to marry at that time, due to Keats’ lack of finances and signs of poor health. The poet suffered a haemorrhage in February 1820, the first sign of the tuberculosis which would claim his life a short time later. Confined mostly to his side of the house, he and Fanny exchanged notes from one side of the building to the other, which was both a comfort and a source of anguish. That summer, Keats’ friends paid for him to travel to Italy, where it was hoped that the milder climate would aid his recovery. Both he and Fanny knew that he would probably not return from this journey, and that they would never marry after all.
Keats left London in September 1820, and after a long journey by sea and land, arrived in Rome in November 1820. His lodgings overlooked the famous Spanish Steps, and the building there is now a museum dedicated to Keats and Shelley. His situation did not improve, and he died on 23 February 1821, aged 25. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery, and requested the simple epitaph, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Shelley was buried in the same cemetery a few years later.
Keats was not famous during his lifetime and received no contemporary critical acclaim. He died believing that he had failed in his ambition to be a poet, but his lack of success was not the reason for his early passing. Rumours persisted that he was weak-spirited; a true ‘Romantic’ suffering for his art, when in reality he was a lively young man who suffered from disease. His name only became known beyond his friendship circle after the formation in 1848 of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who based many of their early works on Keats’ poetry. Through their initial notoriety, and then gradual acceptance in the Victorian art world, Keats’ name became better known, and now he is loved around the world.
Wentworth Place was bought in 1838 by an actress named Eliza Chester, who updated the building to her own tastes and knocked the two small houses through to form one large residence. She added an extra room and changed the layout of the building, which is how the house has been preserved today. The house remained in the hands of private owners until it was threatened with demolition in the early 20th century. Fortunately, a fund was put together to save the building, and it opened as a museum in 1925. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that most of the events celebrating the ‘Keats200’ anniversary have taken place online, but in normal times, a broad programme of events take place at the house – ranging from tours, poetry readings and late night openings to school workshops and outdoor performances.
Although Keats House is the only museum in the UK dedicated to Keats, there are many other places where you can follow in the poet’s footsteps. He travelled quite broadly, including a long walking tour of the Lake District and Scotland in 1818. There are places which commemorate his stays in Chichester, Teignmouth, Winchester and on the Isle of Wight. Closer to his home in London, there is even a plaque at Enfield train station to mark the location of the school he attended. A portrait showing Keats in his parlour at Wentworth Place hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, painted by his friend Joseph Severn, who travelled with him to Italy. There is a statue of Keats in the grounds of Guy’s Hospital, close to the Old Operating Theatre Museum which gives an insight into the medical practices Keats would have experienced during his training. Although not filmed at Keats House, the film Bright Star is set during his time there, and portrays the relationship between Keats and his beloved Fanny Brawne.