I thought I’d write this blog as I reach the end of a 18-month period working at Keats House Museum in Hampstead. Last Friday, the Principal Curator (Rob Shakespeare) and I were interviewed by a film crew for a short educational piece. I ended up writing my answers down so I thought I’d repurpose them and create a post.
I spent a year in a full-time training position at the museum after I completed my PhD, and since October 2018 I worked part-time alongside teaching at Cardiff. In September 2019 I am thrilled to say I will start a fixed-term one year role as a Lecturer in English Literature (Romanticism) at Cardiff University. I will maintain connections with Keats House and the City of London, running some academic talks in the upcoming months. It’s been a wonderful place to work. Here’s a little piece about the House and why you should visit – especially now, as we mark 200 years since John Keats lived in the building and composed some of his best loved poems under the banner of #Keats200!
What can a visitor find at Keats House?
Our visitors tell us that the House allows them to feel a deep connection to John Keats and his poetry. His verses are so well-loved – for example, ‘To Autumn’ is supposedly the most anthologised poem in the English language. So when people come here and find themselves surrounded by the walls, and outside, the trees, that once surrounded the poet himself, they feel very moved. Even those who do not know anything about Keats before they step into the house often have an emotional reaction to the place, when they learn about his tragically short life, his doomed engagement to Fanny Brawne, and hear snippets of the works that have touched so many. Our volunteer Tour Guides really bring this to life when they introduce the story of Keats to newcomers. The house itself is enough for many people to ‘find’, but we also have some treasures of the Keats House Collection on display, such as books owned by and written in by Keats, and letters from Keats and other members of his family and social circle.
How did John Keats become a part of the Romantic movement?
I think if we unpack that term ‘Romanticism’, we can begin to understand just how Keats was drawn to the idea of writing new literature and why he goes down in history as one of the key figures of that movement. The term ‘Romanticism’ covers a cultural and creative movement that took place towards the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century. The continuing repercussions of the ideas of the Romantics, especially those related to change in political environment, and the championing of individual liberty, resonate today as much as ever.
Keats and his contemporaries wanted to write and change the world. And that is something we need to remember when thinking about Romantic poetry. It is inherently visionary. Keats’s poems are introspective, but also deeply philosophical: as much as we might think of the Romantics as ‘wandering lonely as a cloud’ through nature, gazing at birds and soppily writing about their feelings, it is this emotional sensitivity that allows them to find a new way of looking at the world and at society, to champion libertarian views and a more inclusive national doctrine.
What was the reception of John Keats’s work among his contemporaries such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron?
Lord Byron is an easy one to answer as it’s been well documented. Keats and Byron did not mix well. Lord Byron, an aristocrat, and unlike Keats, famous and loved by the public during his own lifetime, was scathing about Keats. For example: Byron referred in his letters to ‘Johnny Keats’ piss a bed poetry’, and when he heard the news of Keats’s death he even suggested that it was the negative reviews of his poetry that Keats received that killed him! It’s not unusual for Byron to be overly provocative, and despite this rift, I think it is still important we consider Byron and Keats together because they were contemporaries and both were second-generation Romantic poets. This means they shared the first wave of Romantics’ passion for liberty, but were disaffected by the failures of the French Revolution and of the likes of Wordsworth and Coleridge who turned their back on political radicalism in old age.
The other individual – Percy Bysshe Shelley – is also importantly a second-generation Romantic poet. I carried out my doctoral research on Percy Bysshe Shelley and am very interested in how his work interacts with the work of Keats. Both poets show an interest in questioning the way the world works in their poetry, I think, and this philosophical interest certainly connects the two. Shelley expresses great praise for Keats in his letters and composed a verse-elegy on his death called Adonais. Keats was also a contemporary of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. But the relationship between Keats and the Shelleys is somewhat mysterious – they met a couple of times in London but never became great friends.
This makes Keats sound a bit isolated – which is not true! Keats did have several friendships that shaped his poetry, many were with other creative types, such as the painters Joseph Severn and Benjamin Robert Haydon, his closest friend and housemate Charles Brown, and the radical poet and critic Leigh Hunt. We try to demonstrate the importance of Keats’s creative sociability – he wasn’t just a lone genius – in everything we do at the House and in #Keats200.
What #Keats200 events have you run so far, and what’s coming up the future?
I’ve been thrilled to welcome so many exciting speakers to the house in the past year or so. We’ve had talks by Emma Butcher, Nora Crook, Elizabeth Denlinger, Kelvin Everest, David Fallon, Ellen Nicholls, Bethan Roberts, Tess Somervell, Elizabeth Spencer, Carly Stevenson, Matt Ward and Tim Webb.
Nicholas Roe and Richard Marggraf Turley of the Keats Foundation have also collaborated with us on a series of successful events. I’ve also been lucky to work on various ‘Late Night Keats’ events including live music and a visit from the Old Operating Theatre – this spooky Frankenstein-themed night marked 200 years since the novel’s publication and we joined in with the international Frankenreads event, too.
I’ve also been able to experience and enjoy the hard work of my colleagues as they put on Family Days, free poetry readings, and new for #Keats200, performances from our live interpreters where the public can enjoy Keats, Brown and Fanny Brawne (and others!) interacting in the same space they would have inhabited 200 years earlier.
Still to come at the House: we’ll mark 200 years since the Peterloo massacre in August with a reading of Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy and a talk by Ian Haywood. Invited speakers in September to December include Bysshe Coffey, Katherine Fender and Emily Paterson-Morgan (dates and more info TBC).