poets

London: Keats House

DSC07487Do you remember that post from a couple of years ago where I went to the Keats-Shelley House in Rome?  Well, I suppose it was about damn time that I finally got around to visiting Keats House in London (though frankly, if it wasn’t for the nightmare that is the Italian immigration “queue,” it almost seems like less hassle to get to Rome than to Hampstead from where I live.  Plus Rome has better pizza).  (As you can probably tell from my attire, I’ve been hanging on to this post for a while…pretty sure my arms would fall off if I tried walking around outside in a tank top now.)

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, this visit was not spurred on by a sudden interest in Keats, or in going to Hampstead, but by the fact that Keats House is a National Art Pass property, so I could get in for free. Keats House is normally £6.50 though, which is more expensive than its 5 euro counterpart in Rome, even with the current lamentable exchange rate.  It is most easily accessed from Hampstead Heath Overground Station, though it’s quite easy to miss the little sign directing you to turn down the road it’s on if you don’t really know where you’re going.

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Although we were given a map of the house that told us what order to walk around in, I didn’t actually open the map until we were down in the basement watching the video on Keats’s life, so I had already screwed things up by not immediately looking around the ground floor.  I don’t think it really mattered that much though, especially as the video provided more background information on John Keats’s life than was available in the rest of the house, so it was quite useful to watch it first.  The basement also held the house’s kitchen, and a few little interactive things, like a dress-up box (hello tricorn hat!) and a station where you could draw a picture of a food you loved or hated and write a little poem.  I did one on how much I hate mayonnaise, but it was a poor effort mostly stolen from the excellent “Please No Mayonnaise” song from Shooting Stars, so I won’t show it to you.

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And so back to the ground floor.  The whole deal with Keats and this house is that before the tuberculosis and the fame, Keats was a young surgeon training at Guy’s Hospital, near London Bridge, who had a passion for poetry. There was a community of fellow poets living in Hampstead at that time (we’re talking Regency here) who Keats befriended, and they encouraged him in his writing.  He eventually realised he didn’t have time for both surgery and poetry, so gave up his surgical career to move to Hampstead with his brothers and pursue poetry full time.  Unfortunately, his older brother decided to move to America, and his younger brother died of TB soon after, so with nowhere better to go, Keats moved into this house (Wentworth Place) with his friend, Charles Brown, and the Dilke family, who were already living there, meaning Keats only had a study and a bedroom to himself.  The Brawne family later moved into the other side of the house, which is how  Keats met and fell in love with Fanny Brawne, and they got engaged.  However, Keats had by then begun to manifest serious symptoms of the tuberculosis that had killed his mother and brother, so only ended up living in the house for about 18 months before moving to Italy in hope that the climate there would help his condition.  It didn’t, and he died shortly after arriving, in the house that is now the Keats-Shelley Museum that I blogged about in 2014.

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Anyway, that’s the quick(ish) version of Keats’s relationship with Hampstead, and the study that he rented is on the ground floor, where you can still see it today (and replicate Keats’s pose in this portrait), though I don’t think most of the furniture is original to the house.  There were only labels on a few things in each room, and no binder full of additional information like you’ll find in other historic homes, so there wasn’t a lot to go on.  I did think the label on the couch was quite sad though…I can picture Keats just wasting away (in between violent coughing fits) whilst gazing upon his lady love in the garden (though I guess it would be creepy if his feelings weren’t reciprocated).

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There’s a “Shakespeare Trail” currently in the house to commemorate 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, which mainly just consisted of an additional insert in the map they gave us, and copies of Shakespeare’s plays with little labels saying how much Keats loved them (the whole Shakespeare thing seemed a bit forced, to be honest), but there was also this rather hideous inkwell featuring the Bard that apparently belonged to Keats’s older brother.  I tend to like gaudy things, but that inkwell was a bit much, even for me.

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The house seemed to be a mix of rooms decorated roughly as they would have been when Keats lived there (I suppose so anyway, like I said, there wasn’t much explanation of anything) and museum style cases holding artefacts relating to Keats’s life.  There were an inordinate amount of life and death masks in here. Honestly, it looked like the guy must have spent half his short life with his head encased in plaster (which probably didn’t help with the TB either; I can’t imagine plaster dust is great for the lungs).  There was even a case with Keats’s life and death masks side by side, and you had to guess which was which (they never actually told you, but I’d seen the death mask in Rome, so I had a pretty good idea).

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Upstairs, there was a small gallery about a walking trip from the Lakes District to Scotland that Keats took with his friend Charles Brown, and Brown reckoned they’d walked over 600 miles, which is damned impressive for someone in the early stages of TB.  I mean, I’m healthy, and there is no way I would walk that much in a summer without an epic amount of complaining, and probably my hips and my knees aching (seriously, I never thought I’d have this many aches and pains in my early 30s.  Aging sucks).  There was also a sketch made of Keats in Rome by his friend Joseph Severn, who accompanied him on that last, ill-fated trip…I sort of alluded to this in the other Keats post, but he looks damn fine in that sketch.  Far better than he did when he was healthy (first Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone, now consumptive Keats…I think I have a problem).

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Another room held items relating to Fanny Brawne, Keats’s fiancee.  There was a photograph of her when she was in her early 50s, and she was a very nice looking woman, not to mention well-preserved!  She could have easily passed for someone in their 30s.  There was also her engagement ring, which I actually quite liked (Laura Ingalls Wilder also had a garnet engagement ring, so maybe I just like garnet in a historical context.  Personally though, I’m not a big red person), and a pretty cool dress with no label on it at all (a re-creation of one of Fanny’s dresses?  Just a random Keats-themed dress?  No idea).

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Aside from Keats’s bedroom, which was on the first floor (climbing those stairs must have been a real effort after he got sick) and was where he coughed up the arterial blood after a coach trip that made him realise he was dying (thanks to his experience with TB and his training as a surgeon, he was under no illusions about his condition), that was more or less it for the house.  Though I enjoyed the dress-up and colouring opportunities (yes, I know they were probably aimed at children, but none were there), I think the rest of the house could have been improved with more information about Keats.  There was a fair amount about his poetry, and plenty of chances to read or listen to his poems at audio stations set up at several points throughout the house, but I still feel there could have been more details provided about the furniture and Keats’s life, short though it was.  So I’ll give it 3/5, because I don’t think it was anywhere near as informative, or as good of a value as the Keats-Shelley House in Rome.  Of course, if I was escaping into the house from crowded, hot, touristy Rome, instead of quiet, shady Hampstead, perhaps I would have liked it better.

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Nether Stowey, Somerset: Coleridge Cottage

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Alright, yes, it is ANOTHER National Trust property, and it won’t be the last one this year by a long shot, but I am trying to space them out as promised.  Besides, it’s Samuel Taylor Coleridge we’re talking about here.  I named my now deceased Madagascar Dragon Tree after him (one of the “easiest indoor plants to grow and maintain” my ass), and I would have gone to see his house even if it wasn’t covered by my National Trust membership, so I think I deserve a break on this one.  There’s actually a whole “Coleridge Way” walk that runs through the Quantocks, but that seemed overly ambitious considering the changeable state of the weather and my lack of hiking attire.  Coleridge Cottage is located in the amusingly named village (one of many in Somerset; I’m partial to Goathurst and Queen Camel myself) of Nether Stowey (naturally, there is also an Over Stowey, which is actually south of Nether Stowey, so not quite sure how it’s “Over”), and admission is £5.60 sans Gift Aid (which I admit is a bit steep for how long it takes to see the property).  The house is not particularly large; it initially only consisted of four rooms, and has since had a kitchen and a couple other rooms added on for use as museum space, but is still rather small.

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Although Coleridge and his family only lived in the cottage for a three year period (it was rented out to him by his friend, Thomas Poole), it was one of the most productive periods of his working life, so his most famous poems, including “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Kubla Khan,” and “The Nightingale” were written here.  I am not, generally speaking, a big poetry person, but I first read Coleridge back in high school, and I’ve always liked him (I think the whole opium thing made me think he was cool when I was a teenager), so I was interested to learn how some of his poems evolved (other than in a drug-induced haze, of course).  Helpfully, those stories were provided within the house (and the garden); for example, “This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison” was written after his wife accidentally spilled scalding milk on his leg, and he was forced to stay home and sit under a lime tree whilst his wife went for a walk with the Wordsworths and Charles Lamb (personally, I’d take sitting under a lime tree and reading over going on a walk any day, assuming there weren’t too many bugs about.  I’d even whip up a key lime pie for my guests to enjoy upon their return, but I guess that wasn’t a thing in Coleridge’s day).

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Because of the bonus museum rooms, Coleridge Cottage actually had quite a bit more information than the average National Trust property (I overheard one of the volunteers saying that they’re officially National Trust, but they’re left alone for the most part, which could well be why it was more homely and charming than a lot of National Trust stuff).  I learned a lot about Coleridge’s childhood, including that Coleridge once threatened his brother with a knife in a fight over a cheese toastie, ran outside and hid all night in the cold, and was consequently ill with a fever for weeks.  Now, I’m not generally a violent person, but I am VERY possessive of my food, so if anything was going to drive me to violence, it probably would be someone stealing a delicious grilled cheese (or other tasty food) from me (made with a nice mature cheddar though, not that awful American “cheese” gloop; since Coleridge’s incident took place in Devon, not far from Somerset, cheddar seems a likely choice for him too).  I also learned that Coleridge enlisted in the army under a fake name – Silas Tomkyn Comberbache (that surname sounds a lot like that of a certain British actor when you say it out loud), but Coleridge couldn’t hack it and begged his brothers to get him out; they managed to have him declared insane and discharged.

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Since the house was infested with mice (since we were just talking about cheese…) whilst Coleridge lived there, there was also a special mouse trail throughout the house, with adorable little stuffed mice hidden in each room along with facts about Coleridge’s battle with them (they annoyed the piss out of him, basically, but he felt bad about laying traps.  As someone who lived in a house with a bad mouse infestation, but still left out cake for the mouse in my room (who I named Sammy, another accidental Coleridge connection) because I liked him, even though his rustling around at night was super irritating; again, I can relate).  In addition, there was a station upstairs where you could practice writing with a quill pen and ink (total failure, as always), and a nice cushy reading room stocked with plenty of books.

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The cafe was located outside, and was oddly confined by a fenced enclosure thingy, so we had to go through various little doors to see the well and garden, with all the people in the cafe staring at us as we walked back and forth, but the garden was unexpectedly quite large and pleasant.  There were benches scattered throughout with little speakers attached to tell you more about Coleridge’s poems, and some cute fake ducks and pigs made from metal.  We also found a random shed that was apparently used for games and demonstrations, which had a big trunk full of old-timey toys (ball in a cup, anyone?).

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Although it was not an outwardly impressive property, I still left feeling reasonably impressed with Coleridge Cottage, having learned a fair bit about Coleridge’s personal life (particularly his troubled relationship with his wife), and having enjoyed the various diversions around the house.  If you’re fond of Coleridge, I do think this is well worth the stop, even if, like me, you’re not keen on walking the “Coleridge Way.” 3.5/5. I should mention (since I have a photo of Yankee Jack all ready to go) that there are more Coleridge themed attractions in the vicinity that don’t involve much walking.  Most notably, in the seaside town of Watchet, there is a statue of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, and a couple small museums that mention Coleridge.  However, the statue I’m pictured with here is actually one that shares the promenade with the Ancient Mariner – Yankee Jack. He was not American, but ran the blockades during the American Civil War, thus acquiring his nickname.  I have to say that his statue was more appealing to me than the emaciated old mariner, but either way, Watchet is a good place for statues, despite its small size and extremely mucky harbour, so it may be worth a gander as well on a Coleridgey day out.

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Rome, Italy: Keats-Shelley House

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When it came down to a choice between visiting the Napoleonic Museum and the Keats-Shelley House, there was really no question over which museum was going to emerge victorious.  Seeing the room where a tubercular English poet died trumps looking at the art collection of a Corsican dictator any day!  The Keats-Shelley House is located at the foot of the Spanish Steps, so getting inside involves dodging hordes of tourists and jerks trying to sell you crap, but you will be instantly rewarded upon entering the cool, calm interior of the house.  The house is considered a British museum abroad, and it was a refreshing and much needed taste of home.  Entrance was 5 euros, and everything inside the museum is in English only, which was a rare treat (though I could see Italian people justifiably being annoyed by this).

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Upon climbing the steps from the gift shop up to the museum, I was pretty much instantly in heaven, as the walls of the rooms were completely lined with books (now THIS was a proper library, unlike Leighton’s lame attempt).  I began with the Severn and Keats rooms, which is where the poet and his friend lived in the weeks leading up to Keats’s early death. John Keats is of course famous for his poetry, most notably “Ode to a Nightingale” and “On a Grecian Urn,”  but because Keats died in the house, much of the focus here is on his death – as I am a lover of medical history, this was a-ok with me!  Keats had been suffering from tuberculosis for some years before he came to Rome; his mother and one of his brothers had already died of the contagious disease, and it was recommended that he go to Italy, as the climate might have improved his health, but he suffered a relapse and died not long after arriving, at the age of 25.  His companion was Joseph Severn, a friend and painter, who took the room adjoining Keats.  Both of these rooms are now filled with cases about Keats’s life and death.

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There were a few life masks of Keats, as well as numerous portraits of him.  Disturbingly, I think the closer he got to death, the better looking he became, but I’ve always had a weird fetish for all those tubercular English Romantics (yes, I know TB is a terrible disease that still kills many people in developing countries, but I think I’ve absorbed some of the Regency and Victorian romanticism relating to it).  Unfortunately, because Italian law at the time required destroying all the furniture in a house where someone died from tuberculosis, none of the furniture in Keats’s room is original.  Even the wallpaper was destroyed (though the ceiling tiles survived), and the house itself was narrowly saved from destruction by intervention from the US (led by TR) and other governments in the early 1900s.  However, the view from the window is much the same as it was in Keats’s day, and you can delight in the same views of the crowd that Keats enjoyed before he was confined to his bed.

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The house is also devoted in part to Percy Bysshe Shelley, and to a lesser extent, Lord Byron (though I suspect he was just dragged in to add some sex appeal).  Even Shelley’s connection to the actual house is tenuous at best; he did live in Rome for a time, but not at the same time as Keats, and he and Keats never met, although they did correspond with each other, and Shelley wrote an ode to Keats after he died.  However, they were both English Romantic poets, and Shelley drowned a year after Keats, and was buried in the same cemetery (the Non-Catholic Cemetery -I would have liked to visit, but we just plain ran out of time, plus we were ever so tired of walking), so why not include him?  I think in this day and age, Percy Shelley has probably been eclipsed by his wife, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, so it was nice to learn a bit more about him.  The museum had a lock of his and Keats’s hair, and again, a few portraits.

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Of course, Byron’s flamboyant personality meant that the section devoted to him was the liveliest in the museum (Keats’s was the most poignant, particularly the letters from his sister Fanny to his fiancee, Fanny Brawne).  It included a Carnival mask of an old man that Byron delighted in wearing, and a rather pompous-looking sketch of the poet.  In one of those snarky little touches of humour that I adore in a museum, its caption featured a quote from Marianne Hunt who said that in it, Byron looked like, “a great schoolboy who had a plain bun given to him instead of a plum one,” which cracked me right up (even though personally I’d much prefer the plain bun – I do not understand the English obsession with fruited breads and cakes).  This room also had an extensive collection of correspondence from all the main poets featured here, as well as Mary Shelley.

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This etching of Keats was said by Severn to make him look like a “sneaking fellow,” which also made me laugh.

The Keats-Shelley House proved to be a much needed little oasis of quiet in the middle of the often overwhelming city of Rome, and I’m very glad I went here instead of the Napoleonic Museum (though the Napoleonic might well be just as good, I’ll put it on the list for next time!).  I adored all the British humour on show, and relished the opportunity to learn more about Keats and Shelley.  I found it a well-run, lovely museum, and advise anyone tired of the bustle of Roman life to pay it a visit!  4/5

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After seeing the Spanish Steps, I appreciated the tranquility of the museum all the more!