Hi again. After a few days getting my body clock readjusted to Pacific Coast Time, I find my brain is awake enough to finish telling you my experience of Keats House. I'll start from the very beginning and provide as much detail as I can. As I said earlier, we visited Keats House on Friday afternoon. The house is only open to the general public from 1-4PM Friday-Monday, I believe. (The rest of the week, it is open only to booked tours and school groups.) My friend Connie and I took the tube to Hampstead and arrived at about 12:30pm. As we emerged from the Hampstead station, I realized I had little clue about which way to turn to get to the house. I remembered when I was there 14 years before, that after I got off the tube, I climbed a hill and turned right onto Keats Grove. Unfortunately, I also remembered getting properly lost before finding it! Just like last time, I got lost again.
At the top of the hill, thankfully, there was a map that showed us that Keats House was to the right and all the way at the *bottom* of the hill. This made sense to me, when I saw the map, as I remember in Aileen Ward's biography she told of how, when Keats left Hunt's house after receiving the letter from Fanny with the broken seal, he had planned to climb the long hill to Well Walk but was compelled, instead, to turn the corner that led to Wentworth Place. As Connie and I waked down the long hill, I saw the turn off to the Vale of Health, where Hunt once lived and a little further on, I saw Well Walk--very near the top of the hill. It was interesting to walk this hill and imagine Keats turning onto Well Walk and into the house where he'd lived with his brothers and where Tom had died--the house where he had started Hyperion and written some memorable letters. It was hard to imagine it, now that the place was all built up and there were cars out on the street; but I did sense a little of Keats's history there.
We walked along down the hill, and finally, at the *very* bottom, we saw the sign that led us down Keats Grove. I noticed at the corner of Keats Grove there was a hairdresser's shop and it seemed odd to me that Keats House would be on the same street. We walked about half a block past Keats Close and then found the house sitting silently on the left side of the street. The gates were still closed--we had about 15 minutes before opening time--but we took a few pictures over the gate and then decided to spend some time walking along the heath, which was only just across the street from Keats Grove.
It was a beautiful, sunny day--although a bit brisk. I walked slowly along the path near one of the large open spaces on the heath and contemplated what it might have been like for Keats to walk here. It was somewhat difficult to reconcile the bustling Hampstead of 2009 with the pastoral countryside Keats must have been acquainted with. Yet, as we turned off the main path and onto an unpaved trail leading into a wood, I felt the echo of Keats's spirit in the trees and in the earth beneath my feet. I could begin to imagine how he could become inspired by such a place. Even in crowded and busy London, where everybody walks with a grim, sharpened sense of purpose and a body posture that compels a visitor to keep pace or step out of the way--even here with the rush of traffic and the blaring of car horns, there is still "a bower quiet for us / Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing". It echoes Keats like a far off ripple in a pond that continues to vibrate long after the stone that started it all has sunk to the bottom.
We took a few pictures of the Heath and then headed back to the house, knowing by now it was past one o'clock. The two green entrance gates were open now, and we walked through the first gate and onto the grounds. As we reached the front door, I saw that--just like the last time I was there--all I had to do to gain entrance was turn the knob and walk in through the front door as if I was visiting a good friend. There was no need for locks or buzzers or doorbells here. As I walked through, I noticed that the layout of the house was the same--still an entry hall to the right and a narrow staircase to the left. However, it looked fresh and clean and beautifully new--as if it were 1815 and the house had just been built. I walked into the Brawne's drawing room and dining area (the dining area was now the reception area and gift shop). The drawing room still held a display case with Brawne-related artifacts; the "Apoloesque" bust of Keats still stood in the corner of the room near the front window. I remember last time I saw it, I rolled my eyes imagining that if *Keats* had seen such a Grecian and idealized view of his "visage" he would have been embarrassed in the extreme by its look of physical perfection.
Peering into the case, I saw that the top shelf contained actual artifacts--Fanny's sewing sheers, a few bracelets, some spectacles, a copy of her photograph (I wondered why they didn't display the real thing, as they had last time I was there), and of course, the inexpensive garnet engagement ring--prominently displayed as one of the richest treasures of the Keats House collection. The bottom shelf contained props from the Bright Star movie including the Valentine from Brown, a small note of "goodnight" from Fanny, and two larger letters from Keats folded to show the address to "Miss Brawne".
I continued to walk through the house, trying to take it all in and really *experience* the place, since it had been so long since my last visit. I felt a little rushed because I knew that Connie was probably bored to death and here I was, desiring to just take a seat in Keats's parlor and let all the history, the vibrations, the experience of him in the room, just soak into my bones.
Two rooms in particular spoke to me on this trip; Keats's parlor--especially his bookcases and print of Shakespeare--and his bedroom, which now contained a copy of his death mask displayed in a kind of lighted glass tube, so it seemed suspended in mid-air. The bedroom also contained a larger copy of Severn's deathbed portrait and a Regency-period commode on loan from another museum.
I spent much time in Keats's sitting room. It was small, but it didn't feel cramped. Rather, I could sense how Keats--always uprooted from place to place and parted from his family--would feel safe and secure in such a room. I could sense him relaxing--writing a letter to his brother George with his back to the fire (and today, the actual fireplace Keats used is still there), sitting on the floor with one foot slightly elevated and the other somewhat askew on the rug.
As I said before, I felt drawn to his bookshelves and the print of Shakespeare. I ran my gaze over each book in both bookcases and recognized several titles. I was interested to see books on things like astronomy and other sciences. Keats was a widely read person. There was a note near the bookcases that stated that the books on display are ones Keats would have read, though few of them actually belonged to him. That comment reminded me of how few possessions Keats had. In Brown's bedroom, it was noted that a table in the corner had belonged to Brown, but that Keats, himself, owned no furniture. In a display box in Keats's sitting room, there was a grand-looking brass inkwell with two cut-glass inkpots and a bust of Shakespeare sitting in between them. A note said that people had thought that Keats used this inkset, himself. But on analysis it was discovered that it dated from a later time and most likely belonged to George, not John. I imagine Keats had only a box or two of belongings when he moved from Well Walk to Wentworth Place. His precious, but I'm sure small, collection of books; some papers; his writing implements and clothing . . . a hairbrush. . .nothing too remarkable or grand. I felt an indescribable sensation wash through me as I considered this. Keats really had very little and no place to settle down . . .always adrift in some way or another. That sensation made the peaceful, tiny little room overlooking the back garden something extremely special to me.
Well, I've gone on for an age here, and I'm not even done describing Keats's sitting room! I'll have to stop for now, though, as I have to get ready for work. I'll pick up again a little later and give you the rest of the story