It’s far easier to fall in love with somebody you’ll never meet. I first came across the romantic poet John Keats aged 8. We were told to choose a poem that we would have to memorise for a school project. I remember the teacher giving me a different book of poetry to choose from. All of the other kids were giggling through rhyming children’s collections and illustrated anthologies, and the book she had given me had funny old-fashioned words and no pictures. I scrolled the titles for something that didn’t sound too boring and difficult and eventually found ‘To Autumn’. I didn’t really understand it, but something about rhythm of the words and the imagery they conjured up intrigued me, and so I memorised the poem. John Keats was little more than a name.
Throughout my life that poem and the work of Keats has returned time and time again, each time with John Keats becoming a more fully formed character. Aged 11, I recalled ‘To Autumn’ for a poetry reading competition (which I won) and listened rapt to the brief biography of Keats given by one of the judges. Aged 15 whilst reading ‘Frankenstein’ I learnt about Mary and Percy Shelley and there was Keats again, this time Percy’s dear lost friend, immortalised in tragically beautiful verse. Aged 17 I stumbled across his portrait in a gallery; finally, a face for a name. Aged 20 whilst in Rome for Valentines Day I visited the house where he spent his final hundred days and died aged 25. I wandered the same space he had spent such a long and arduous time in, looking at the same walls, seeing the same view, hearing the same sounds.
I live about a half hour walk in one direction from the house in Hampstead where he spent his happiest years and a half hour walk the other way to Moorgate where he was born. I’m now the same age Keats was when he lived down the road. The more I learn about him, the more a sense of kinship I feel; he’s become somebody I can imagine as a friend and I feel a yearning and a sense of loss at how little he left behind. Keats made the choice to be a poet rather than keep a stable, well-paid job of being surgeon, and lived with patronising criticism for that decision for the rest of his life. He once wrote to his brother that he would destroy himself if he was unable to be a poet. Reading that letter was like a close bonding experience with a friend, because how often have I felt that surge of desperation myself and wished I had somebody to talk to about it? It’s strange, if I’d been born 200 years earlier we might have met whilst wandering around Waterlow Park, admiring the trees and the nightingales together. We might have shared rough drafts and discussed the stars. Instead I’ll read your poems and imagine you writing them, a short walk down the road and a couple of centuries ago.