Keats' poetry lives on 200 years after his death

Crocus' at Keats House.

Spring at Keats House where the poet lived when he produced some of his famous odes - Credit: Nigel Sutton

The romantic poet John Keats died in Rome 200 years ago of tuberculosis.

Although unlauded by the literary establishment at the time, the 25-year-old left behind some of our best loved verse, including Ode to a Grecian Urn, Ode to Autumn and the sonnet Bright Star.

The Hampstead home where he lived while writing many of his famous lines will be closed on the bicentenary, but Keats House has been collaborating with The Poetry Society and Keats-Shelley Memorial Association on several celebratory events including a Zoom evening of 'poetry thought and discussion' on February 23.

And this month, tube and train riders can enjoy two Keats extracts and one from Adonais which his friend Percy Shelley wrote about him, as part of the 35-year-old Poems on the Underground series. 

Judith Chernaik a Hampstead poet who co-founded the scheme which places poems on ad hoardings, has written articles about Keats' productive time at Wentworth Place from December 1818 until May 1820.


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"We have always taken those opening lines from Endymion 'A thing of beauty is a joy for ever' as a kind of motto for our project," she said. "Keats just seems to represent poetry. He believed in 'the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of imagination.' His idea of poetry as a form of healing offering a balm to suffering  - and the poet as 'a sage, a humanist, a physician' - seems especially meaningful in these grim days when people are turning to nature and whatever joy they can find in the things they love." 

Judith Chernaik, founder of poems on the underground, 25th anniversary

Judith Chernaik who co-founded Poems on the Underground has selected two Keats passages to mark the bicentenary of his death - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Apprenticed as a teenager to a surgeon at Guy's Hospital, Keats ended his medical training when a modest inheritance allowed him to pursue his poetry. He first moved to Well Walk in April 1817 with his younger brother Tom who was suffering from TB.

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"Hampstead then was very rural and the brothers moved to get away from the fumes and noise of the city. Keats had seen a lot of suffering in his medical training and TB was a plague at that time affecting young people. His poetry seems very contemporary and close to our times now there is a plague affecting old people." 

Keats took daily walks across the Heath, visiting poet and mentor Leigh Hunt in the Vale of Health where he took part in sonnet competitions with Shelley, his friend Charles Wentworth Dilke at Wentworth Place, and even a stroll with Highgate resident Samuel Taylor Coleridge who complained about the nightingales keeping him awake. Charles Brown lived in the other half of semi-detached Wentworth Place and invited Keats to live with him after Tom's death in December 1818. There he fell in love with neighbour Fanny Brawne and they became secretly engaged. Brown maintained that Keats composed his famous Ode to A Nightingale while sitting under a plum tree in their garden.

Joseph Severn's painting of Keats 'Listening to the Nightingale on Hampstead Heath', c1845. Picture:

Joseph Severn's painting of Keats 'Listening to the Nightingale on Hampstead Heath', c1845. Picture: Keats House Hampstead - Credit: Archant

"They are very secretive birds and it's unlikely there was one nesting in the garden but there were nightingales in the Heath woodland and he used to go for long walks," says Chernaik. "He was short but muscular and very robust when he was healthy. He wrote about the nightingale because it was a poetic bird that existed in ancient times not just because there was one singing. But he did write all those great odes at that time one after another. A year later, he had this terrible rush of blood from the lungs. He had nursed his brother and with his medical training he knew what it was."

Realising his fate, Keats released Fanny from their engagement and embarked for the warmer climate of Rome in September 1920.

"She was his first great love. He had always thought that love was overdone but when he fell for Fanny it was an all consuming passion. Before he died he was so ill he couldn't write and was in despair. His bitterness that they could never be together was such that he couldn't even bear to read her handwriting or her letters."

Keats who regularly tops lists of the nation's favourite poems, was buried in Rome's English Cemetery, but his association with Hampstead is immortalised in the names of Keats Grove and, Keats House.

Chernaik adds: "Teenagers often discover poetry through Keats because he was so romantic and tender and evocative of the emotions he was feeling at the time. You feel tearful at the sadness of knowing that he died so young, yet his poems celebrate life and beauty and have a wonderful sense of joy."

On The Shore of the Wide World is a free zoom event on the bicentenary of Keats' death. death https://poetrysociety.org.uk/event/on-the-shore-of-the-wide-world-keats-200-years-on/

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