“Tender is the night” is considered one of the most popular lines from the most famous of all odes composed in the English language, Ode to a Nightingale. John Keats composed this ode along with some of the most beloved and classic odes of the English language. He went from rowdy school boy with a “grotesque humor” and love of fighting to one of England’s leading poets of the Romanticism movement. And today I had a chance to visit his house (turned museum) along with some other spots he frequented.
The John Keats House sponsored a guided walk called Keats’ Hampstead. Keats lived in this area from about 1817-1820. It began at the local tube station and ended at the Keats house. We toured through the Hampstead section of London, which has successfully kept its architecture from the 1780’s-1800’s. Hampstead is a great section of London to visit. It’s the classical, sterotypical English scene with the brick row houses covered in flowers and vines with narrow streets and cobble stone alleys. It is located right next to the huge London park called Hampstead Heath nicknamed the “Lungs of London.” Keats spent his later life living in Hampstead when some of his familial relations contracted consumption, now called tuberculous. Tuberculous was extremely common for England in the 1800’s and medical science did not offer any remedy. About 1 in 5 people died or contracted tuberculous during this time. Keats decided to move his brothers to Hampstead since it was on the outskirts of smoke filled London and contained fresher air. Yet tragically this move did not save his brother or even himself.
The typical English rain would not put a damper on this walk. We began our walk outside an extremely old Anglican church which contains a famous bust of Keats. He was not particularly religious, some suggesting he was even atheist which would have been very progressive in his day. We walked the streets of Hampstead while some of his works were read aloud. His first visit to Hampstead was in 1817 to pay a visit to his mentor who had a cottage here. We saw the grounds where the cottage remained. And ironically enough his mentor often threw parties inviting all types of people. And Charles Dickens (whose house/museum I visited a few days ago) would later frequent Keats mentor’s parties.
We then passed the corner where Keats was seen lamenting one winter day. He was seen in great grief on a bench and there is a bench today to commemorate the scene. The corner is appropriately called Keats Bench. The motive for his external show of sorrow was the discovery that he contracted tuberculosis (TB). The 23 year old coughed up blood earlier that day. Since he originally studied to be a doctor for five years and took great care of his sickly mother and brother (both who had TB), he knew the color of the blood all pointed to TB. His great fear of an early death was coming true. It was his fear of TB contraction, the death of his mother and younger brother which fueled the fire of his famous works. He was in limited contact with his fiance, Frannie Brawne, for fear of her contracting it as well. All of this put him in despair yet was the energy and source of inspiration for his classic works.
We than paused in a popular walkway of Hampstead Heath, a walkway which Keats would have probably walked multiple times in his lifetime. He loved the outdoors and just about 2 years before his TB contraction took a 6 week walking tour of England and Scotland with Charles Armitage Brown. He would have loved to walk in the rain, which coincidentally we were doing. It was in that walkway where we read his work pertaining to his doubt of ever becoming a famous writer. Though critics initially loved his early works they brutally criticized his later works. Many around him thought the critics put an end to his writing career. Fortunately they did not. But unfortunately he would not become famous until about 30 years after his death. His friends and other great writers of the Romantic period praised his works. This praise allowed people to review his works (published and unpublished) and his posthumous fame grew.
We ended our walk at his house where he lived from 1818-1820. In 1820 his friends shipped him off to Rome in hopes of being cured, yet sadly after a few months there he passed away. He knew he would not make it in Italy, he felt “like a soldier heading off to battle.” He knew his end was imminent. But it was in this Hampstead house where he composed his most important and famous works including Ode to a Grecian Urn, La Belle Dame sans Merci, and Ode to a Nightingale. I saw his study room which overlooked a garden. To think that some of the greatest poetry was penned in that room… The fable goes that he composed his somber Ode to a Nightingale in the garden located there. The last work we read of Keats was his requested epitaph, “Here lies one whose name is written in water.” Ironic for this walking tour who walked all day in the rain. And ironic because his name is now known all over the world of literature, for his works are not fleeting as they were upon his death. The critics who got to Keats psyche and diminished his confidence in writing were scorned by his friends and colleagues. His colleagues later requested that below the request epitaph be inscribed their personal and false epitaph, ” This Grave contains all that was mortal, of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone.”
Keats is grouped in the Romantic Period and of course one of the best Romantics. One of the elements of the Romantic period is an appreciation or love of nature. It is easy to see why Keats is considered on of the best Romantics with such a beautiful home, garden, and area surrounding him. This past semester I took British Literature II, which deals with literature from the 1700’s to the present. We spent a great time studying Keats and it was rewarding to go on this tour. His impact is enormous considering he only lived a brief 25 years. It is in the opinion of many English scholars that Keats is one of the greatest writers of all time and wrote the greatest odes in the English language. My literature teacher this past semester even said that if he lived a longer life he could have been considered the greatest English poet, even beating Shakespeare. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a novel where he constantly alludes to Ode to a Nightingale called, Tender is the Night in 1934 (which I have been trying to read but keep getting distracted). There are just so many of his poetical phrases which can strike someone. So I leave you today with a quote found in his works which today I bought on a postcard, “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination.”