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"Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art--."

So begins one of the most beautiful and evocative poems in the English language.

04 Jul 2010

By Steve Meacham

“Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art--.”

 So begins one of the most beautiful and evocative poems in the English language.

Written by John Keats in a short, tragic but entirely romantic life, the opening two words are now the title of a handsome movie directed by the Australian-New Zealander Jane Campion and starring Australian Abbie Cornish as Keats’ paramour, Fanny Brawne.

If you missed it at the cinema, I recommend you take it out on DVD, particularly if you are thinking of visiting either London or Rome in the foreseeable future.

Campion’s film concentrates on the relationship between the sickly Keats (who died of ‘consumption’ in 1821, aged 25) and the ultimate ‘girl next door’, Francis Brawne.

For anyone of a medical bent, Keats’ life is fascinating. He studied to be a surgeon and even earned his apothecary's license in 1816, before deciding to star instead as a poet. At the same time, he suffered from more than his fair share of illnesses - including what we would now call depression, pneumonia and (ultimately) tuberculosis.

In his lifetime, Keats regarded himself as an under-achiever. He stipulated his grave should bear no name, just the words: ‘‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water."

Fortunately, his friends took liberties, erecting a tombstone over his grave in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery, which reads:

“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: Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”

Visit it if you happen to be in the Eternal City, along with the house where he once lived, near the Spanish Steps, now a museum dedicated to both Keats and his fellow romantic tragic, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

However if you really want to get a taste of the Keats portrayed in Bright Star, head for Hampstead.

In my adult youth, I rented a flat in Hampstead. It is arguably the most beautiful suburb in London, dominated by the vast heath that is the closest London gets to countryside (excepting Richmond Park, where deer still roam).

In Keats’s time, Hampstead was an outpost. Instead of being a stop on the infamous Northern Line (the most hated route on the London Underground system), it was a place where stagecoaches would pause on their way to somewhere more important: York, perhaps, or even Edinburgh.

The first Hampstead abode for Keats was in Well Walk ‘rooms’ at Number 1, Well Walk, to be precise. It was here John and his brother George nursed their third brother Tom, already dying of tuberculosis. For John Keats the suffering was smoothed by the proximity to another senior romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, living half an hour’s walk across the heath in Highgate.

Should you look for Well Walk today, turn left out of the Hampstead tube station and look for The Flask, surely one of the best pubs in London. Order a pint and ask the landlord (or, more likely, Australian barman) for directions (tip: you are already in Well Walk).

Unhappily, Keats left Hampstead to take a walking tour around Scotland, Ireland and the Lake District of England. In Scotland, Keats caught a bad cold, cutting short his journey to nurse Tom, continuously exposing himself to the highly infectious disease. According to the former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion ‘‘it was on (the Isle of) Mull that Keats' short life started to end, and his slow death began".

In 1818, though, John Keats moved to the newly built Wentworth Place, a development owned by a friend on the edge of the heath. Today the same building is the Keats House Museum - honored as the location where Keats wrote all his mature work - including Ode to an Nightingale, supposedly composed under a mulberry tree which once stood in the Hampstead garden.

Frances (Franny) Brawne was his next-door neighbour, from April 1819 until his death. They saw each other every day.

As the film depicts faithfully, Keats felt he could never marry Franny because he was too impoverished, though it seems they did agree to an informal engagement.

Inexorably, Keats felt obliged to break off any engagement, no matter how informal, when tuberculosis took its final grip on his gaunt frame. His great poem, La Belle Dame sans Merci, perhaps sums up his final mood.

Bleak stuff. But you won’t feel sad once you venture onto Hampstead Heath, as Keats must have done so many times. On a summer’s day, take a picnic and sit out on Parliament Hill, looking over the rooftops of London to St Paul’s Cathedral and the Palace of Westminster - and take a book of Keats’s immortal verse with you.

Published: 04 Jul 2010