National Theatre stages poetry recital to mark 200th anniversary of Keats poetry

John Keats listening to the Nightingale on Hampstead Heath c1845 by Joseph Severn

John Keats listening to the Nightingale on Hampstead Heath c1845 by Joseph Severn - Credit: Archant

200 years after John Keats published his first poetry volume, Hampstead actress Ruth Rosen marks the occasion

Two centuries ago, John Keats published his first book of poems, which included classics such as I Stood Tiptoe, and Sleep.

But Poems 1817 was disastrously reviewed, which left Keats almost penniless and unrecognised for the rest of his short life.

Following his death from tuberculosis at just 25, his friends even referenced “the bitterness of his heart at the malicious power of his enemies” on his tombstone.

“The terrible reviews called him a vulgar cockney balladeer. He was completely devastated,” says Hampstead performer Ruth Rosen who marks the bicentenary with a reading of Keats’ verse and letters at The National Theatre.

The dramatised reading will paint a literary portrait, offering a window into the poet’s mind, says the former RSC actress.

“I never speak about the writer or the poet, everything is through their own words,” she adds.

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“TS Eliot said Keats’ letters to his friends and family were the best any poet has ever written. As he is thinking so he writes. They are extraordinarily revealing of his most beautiful nature. You see his identity growing as he examines himself while he writes.”

Rosen, who devises and researches all her readings, has created similar performances for subjects ranging from James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Bronte to Gandhi, Leonardo da Vinci, and Blake. On March 2 Rosen will quote from an 1817 poem On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer which shows how: “Keats discovered an idiom for himself.”

“After spending all night poring over this book with his friend Cowden Clarke, the line that grabbed him was Chapman’s description of Ulysses struggling onto the shore, “the sea has soaked his heart through”.

“As he walked home through the empty streets towards Hampstead, the lines of the sonnet were beating in his head.”

Rosen also recites Keats’ famous later works including La Belle Dame Sans Merci and his odes to a Nightingale and a Grecian Urn.

“Keats wrote most of his major body of work in those three years up to 1821. You get a sense of a young man discovering the world.”

Keats first lived in Well Walk while nursing his brother Tom, but when he died from consumption, the poet moved into Wentworth Place – now known as Keats House – and famously fell in love with his next door neighbour Fanny Brawne.

Madly in love with her, during a visit to the Isle of Wight he penned passionate love letters calling her his ‘fair star’ and later wrote the sonnet Bright Star for her.

“He had never wanted to get married. He wanted to spend his life alone but he met her in 1819 just after his brother died and wrote to his other brother that she was elegant, beautiful, silly, strange and fashionable.”

As a penniless poet, Keats could not marry but hoped that studying medicine and writing a play might give him an income.

“When he sat in that garden at Wentworth Place in May 1819 and heard a Nightingale singing he had just met Fanny and had hopes for the future. Then one evening in Wentworth Place he coughed up blood and knew immediately what it meant,” says Rosen.

“As the year closed, his throat got worse and his letters to Fanny are full of the agony of love and frustrated passion.”

Aware that an English winter would be the death of him, Keats left for Italy with his friend Joseph Severn and died in Rome in 1821.

Rosen believes his genius and the tragedy of his short life have led to his enduring status as our “most loved poet after Shakespeare”.

Ruth Rosen’s Keats tribute is in the Cottesloe Room in the Dorfman Theatre on March 2.