Bright Star - on the trail of John Keats

By Mark Sheerin | 13 November 2009
A a photo of couple in period dress looking into each other's eyes

(Above) Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish star in Keats biopic Bright Star

When not striding over dale and moor, diehard romantics were queueing at their local multiplex during the "season of mists and mellow fruitfullness" in 2009 to catch Bright Star, the Jane Campion biopic of John Keats and Fanny Brawne.

A photo of a 19th century dressed woman in a field of bluebells

The film tells the story of Keats' love affair with Fanny Brawne

With so much tragic love, consumption and genius, the movie was enough to put anyone in a Keatsian mood. So we compiled a few poetic heritage sites for you - just leave the laudanum at home.

The vanishing years

Londoner John Keats was born in 1795 and his father ran a livery stables at the Swan and Hoop Inn. Now renamed Keats at the Globe, the pub at 85 Moorgate lays claim to being his birthplace.

An oil painting of a poet in his study

John Keats by Joseph Severn. © National Portrait Gallery. A painting currently on display in Room 18 of the National Portrait Gallery.

Keats went on to live in a North London road which is no longer there, Craven Street, and attended an Enfield school which has been demolished. There was a blue plaque at the site at Enfield Town station, but that too has gone missing.

Gone too is the house in Church Street, Edmonton, where Keats became apothecary apprentice to Dr Hammond. There now is Keats Parade, where a pharmacy bears his name but possibly no other relation.

Dropping out of Med School

Guy's Hospital is thankfully still with us and it was here that Keats became a medical student in 1816. The grounds became home to the world’s first statue of the poet in 2007.

Major surgery was already on the syllabus at the South East London hospital, but you would not have wanted Keats as a physician. From the age of 18 all his thoughts were of poetry.

An old fashioned operating theatre with seating all around

Keats may have trained in this operating theatre. Photo courtesy Old Operating Theatre Museum

"My last operation was the opening of a man's temporal artery," he wrote to a friend. "I did it with the utmost nicety, but reflecting on what passed through my mind at the time, my dexterity seemed a miracle, and I never took up the lancet again."

The Old Operating Theatre Museum, which recreates the sharp end of medicine in the days before anaesthetic, is found in the garret of St Thomas's church near the hospital. It is possible Keats himself operated here.

A blue plaque with the name John Keats

Keats' lodgings in St Thomas's Street. © Tara Deal

Close by is a blue plaque where the poet once had student digs on St Thomas’s Street. He also lived at 76 Cheapside, and at 8 Dean Street, now called Weston Street. (Even at the time, this address was hard to find. Keats writes in a letter that Borough was "a beastly place in dirt, turnings and windings").

The epic life of a poet

A first book of Keats' poems was published in 1817 to mixed reviews, inspiring the author to begin work on his epic Endymion. He did so on the Isle of Wight, where local hotels now boast of the view he would have enjoyed over Keats Green and Shanklin Bay.

He also made two trips to Margate and if estate agents are to be believed, he wrote poetry in a room on desirable Hawley Square. A local legend also claims he stayed at The Northern Belle pub, writing his way through an opium binge.

A plaster cast mask of the poet's face

Joseph Severn's sketch of Keats on his deathbed in Rome - displayed in Keats bedroom at Keats House. © Richard Moss

Brothers Tom and George joined him at lodgings in Well Walk, Hampstead, where the parish church boasts a memorial to the poet. The bust was given to the church in 1894, although ironically Keats disdained Christianity.

Another working holiday found Keats in Oxford, a guest of his friend Benjamin Bailey at Magdalen College. In between boating on the Isis and a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, he found time to finish Endymion.

Keats comes to stay

In 1818 he moved in with old friend Charles Brown, who might have been surprised to learn that his home would one day be called Keats House. The Regency building, in Wentworth Place, Hampstead, is now a museum, which thanks to extensive research and refurbishment looks much as it would have done in the poet's time.

The facade of a Regency house

Keats House at Wentworth Place. Photo courtesy Keats House

No less important are the gardens, which have been replanted in keeping with the period. Keats is reported to have written his famous Ode to a Nightingale here and today there are borders representing Melancholy, Autumn and the one-time resident bird. The poem was also inspired by a Claude Lorrain landscape, which he would have seen at the National Gallery.

A garden with planted border

Looking out to the garden at Keats House, where Ode to a Nightingale was composed. © Richard Moss

Meanwhile, the British Museum inspired another famous poem: Ode to a Grecian Urn was written after visiting an exhibition of the Elgin Marbles. The said vase has never been identified, but lines do mention a "heifer lowing at the skies". This is believed to be the Young Cow and Herdsman from South frieze of the Parthenon in Room 18.

A young woman in period dress

Fanny Brawne, seen here in Bright Star, was the girl next door at 'Keats House'

The Bright Star years

It was at Wentworth Place that Keats met and fell in love with girl-next-door Fanny Brawne. More interested in fashion than poetry, she would be pleased to know the costumes worn by Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish, who play the doomed lovers in Bright Star, are now on display at the house.

A poem in handwritten manuscript form

The unfinished autograph manuscript of Hyperion. Photo courtesy of The British Library

During his 17 months here the poet also caught tuberculosis, a condition made worse by a gruelling trip up North.

Keats himself liked a spot of heritage tourism, visiting Wordsworth Country in Cumbria, Walter Scott country on the Scottish borders and Burns country in Ayrshire. He also climbed Ben Nevis, crossed to Ireland and visited the Mull, Iona and Staffa. The rugged landscapes inspired his later epic Hyperion.

His not so easeful death

Though sick, 1819 was a productive year. Keats returned to the Isle of Wight, visited Chichester and spent Autumn in Winchester. This he called "an exceedingly pleasant town, enriched with a beautiful cathedral and surrounded by a fresh-looking country". It was a time of relative peace, which inspired the poem To Autumn. Today a helpful map and leaflet from tourist information lets you retrace one of the poet's daily walks.

A leaflet with autumn leaf on cover

Visitors to Winchester can follow the local Keats trail

Upon returning to Wentworth Place he was nursed by Fanny Brawne until doctors recommended he seek medical help in Rome. This was to prove Keats' final voyage, during which painter Joseph Severn was his last companion. He died in 1821 aged 25 and is buried in the Italian capital's Protestant cemetery.

Keats related art

His loyal friend until the end painted two important portraits, which can be seen at The National Portrait Gallery, together with 11 further likenesses of the poet, including these spooky life masks. Another Severn portrait, painted for Fanny Brawne, is at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

A painting of a couple in medieval garb creeping past sleeping guards

The Eve of St Agnes by William Holman Hunt. Photo courtesy of the Walker Art Gallery where the painting forms part of the collection

Before inspiring New Zealand film directors, Keats inspired Pre-Raphaelite artists. William Holman Hunt based at least two works on his poems and you can view the results at The Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle and The Walker Art Gallery Liverpool. Millais painted the same subjects and his versions can be found at Tate Britain.

Keats manuscripts

The Fitzwilliam Museum also keeps several Keats manuscripts, including a draft of Ode to a Nightingale, a book of poems with notes by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and another book printed in 1894 by William Morris, erstwhile Pre-Raphaelite and founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

A handwritten letter

An important letter from Keats to his sister. Photo courtesy The British Library

More manuscripts can be found at The British Library. Get hold of a reader's pass and you can inspect a draft of Hyperion, a first edition of Nightingale and a famous letter from the poet to his sister Frances. Alternatively, you can take a virtual tour here.

Keats online

Finally, the poet whose name was, according to his epitaph, "writ in water" is also writ large in cyberspace. Useful resources can be found at englishhistory.net, john-keats.com and keatsian.com. For such a short life, there is a lot out there.

Keats House is open 1pm-5pm Friday to Sunday. Admission is £5 (£3 concessions) and children enter free. For all other museums and galleries mentioned see websites.

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