Keats in Hampstead, how the fledgling poet found love and inspiration 200 years ago
- Credit: Nigel Sutton
On the bicentenary of the poet's death, The head of English at North London Collegiate School reflects on his transformative three years in the north London village.
February 23 will mark the bicentenary of John Keats’ death at the tragically young age of twenty-five. Whilst he had only been seriously writing poetry for six years, he continues to be regarded as one of the most distinctive voices of the Romantic movement and is beloved by the reading public.
In 1995, when the BBC surveyed its listeners and viewers for ‘The Nation’s Favourite Poems’, whilst Kipling’s ‘If -’ almost inevitably topped the charts, only Keats had two poems in the top 10 – ‘To Autumn’ and ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.
Keats may be associated with various areas of London and, inevitably, with Rome, where he died of tuberculosis. But even though he lived in Hampstead for less than three years, his name and legacy have become indelibly associated with the village and Heath.
Born in Moorgate, Keats lost both parents in childhood and, having been apprenticed to Thomas Hammond, a surgeon and apothecary, aged 15, he registered as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital, embarking on his studies in October 1815. But at the same time, Keats increasingly came to feel that his true vocation lay in writing poetry rather than practicing medicine, eventually abandoning his studies in March 1817.
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It is with this absolute commitment to writing poetry that Keats’ relationship with Hampstead begins. Suffering from a series of colds, which he attributed to the damp rooms that he shared with his two brothers in Southwark, they collectively relocated to rooms in 1 Well Walk, in what was truly a village at the time. Hampstead was especially attractive to Keats as it was close to the home of Leigh Hunt in The Vale of Health, who was largely responsible for publishing Keats’ early work.
Being in Hampstead also meant that Keats would be close to other figures he revered, such as Coleridge, at that time living in Highgate. Indeed, in a letter of April 18 1818, Keats wrote to his brother George that he and Coleridge had a long walk on the Heath, talking of 'nightingales, poetry, poetical sensation, metaphysics'.
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Later that same year, Keats’ brother, George, would emigrate to America, leaving Keats, himself not well, to nurse his other brother, Tom, exposing him to the ‘consumption’ that was then little medically understood.
As it did for their mother - and eventually George and his wife in America - tuberculosis would prove fatal for Tom, and he died in December 1818. Following Tom's death, Keats moved down the hill into the newly built Wentworth Place (now Keats House), half of which was owned by a friend, another member of the Hampstead artistic circle, Charles Armitage Brown.
Having lost the companionship of both of his brothers and enduring financial difficulties, this winter of hardship nonetheless gave rise to a spring of extraordinary creative output in 1819.
Keats composed five of his six celebrated odes at Wentworth Place in April and May of 1819, the most famous of which perhaps are ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’. According to Armitage Brown’s own journals, Keats took a special delight in the song of a nightingale that had nested near the house, and that ode was written beneath an old plum tree in the gardens of Wentworth Place on a spring morning of 1819. Regardless of the veracity of this account, the poem is a profound meditation on mortality and beauty, which would be reimagined by another of Hunt’s luminaries, Percy Bysshe Shelley.
In this ode, Keats expresses anguish at ‘the sorrow and leaden-eyed despairs’ of man, admitting to have been ‘half in love with easeful Death’. Whilst the hardships of the recent winter doubtless informed the pain expressed, this sadness is also the universal fate of man. Conversely to the melancholic lyricism of the poem, the nightingale’s song is borne of natural instinct, and the ‘plaintive anthem’ serves to temporarily alleviate the pain of man - a symbol of the possibilities of transcendence through art and of the immortality that can be endowed through artistic creation.
A similar contemplation of transience and permanence, of mortality and art, is seen in ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’, written that same spring after Keats had seen the artefact, taken from the Acropolis, at the British Museum. The poem famously concludes with the aphoristic ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’, proclaiming that this is ‘all ye need to know’. But it contains a similar ambivalence to that of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ or the later ‘To Autumn’, whereby only the experience and pain of life can truly give rise to human art, as these poems so wondrously exemplify.
Wentworth Place was where in that same Spring of 1819 Keats’ relationship with neighbour Fanny Brawne would burgeon, if only to be overwhelmed by the more powerful consumption of his illness. Whilst Keats agreed to his doctors’ advice to seek the warmer climate of Rome in September of 1820, he knew he would not escape his fate. He died five months later, leaving behind the immortalising poetry he so intently aspired towards.