Wednesday, October 3, 2012

If thou didst ever any thing believe, believe how I love thee

I've always been a romantic. The kind of girl who dreams of a knight in shining armor appearing on horseback and just happening to have a bouquet of roses and a box of chocolates on him at the same time. Or the one who sat in front of her television before she could even form real words, watching Eric fall in love with Ariel ("Diana, Rachel?") in The Little Mermaid and taking that to mean that if I turned into a mermaid I could find love too.

These thoughts were misguided, all of them grounded in fiction rather than reality. But they still ring true in some way, but only with the one true love of my life.

Not the knight in shining armor thing, but the finding love thing. As I get older and prospects become more bleak, I turn to the one man (other than my father) who has long been a stalwart person in my life. That man is John Keats.

Knowing me, I've probably written about Junkets (John Keats' nickname) enough to make you turn away and stop reading a sentence back. But in the same way a historian writes on the same topic from different perspectives, or a novelist returns to a similar subject matter for follow-up books, sometimes I just feel it necessary to return back to the subject. Because, through everything, Keats is what I can count on. Keats is the man to tuck me in at night, shall we say? The one who can touch my soul even when I've receded into the deep depths of it, never to see the light of day again.

Even though I'm in a foreign country with every opportunity in the world before me, I decided that during my stay in London I wanted to do an internship at Keats House. As an avid fan, I'd probably find myself visiting the museum at least once every couple of weeks anyway, so it seemed appropriate to use my fandom as a reference on my CV (resume).

This afternoon I was reminded what an excellent idea it was. Though the woman who has introduced me to the position has tried perpetually to convince me that Keats House will lose its quiet charm once I've been working there for a few months, for some reason I can't believe that.

Because it really is love that I feel there. This kind of transcendent love that just fills the air I walk through and pierces into my heart at random moments.

Today I took a guided tour of Keats House for the first time since I began visiting the place a few years ago. We wandered through the rooms I'd been through at least half a dozen times before and talked about the history of Keats, the quotes of Keats, the companions, family and love of Keats'. It felt like reading an online dating profile. A really intense, specific and perhaps too-telling online dating profile.

Since I'm sure you're looking for a brief walkthrough of Keats' 25 years, I will give it to you

Keats was born into a working class family. He had two brothers, Tom and George, and one sister, Frances (Fanny) Keats. Their father owned an Inn (what my tour guide said was more like a pub) in London. But when Keats was away at school in his youth, his father got into an accident while riding home from visiting his sons and ended up passing away soon after. His mother then re-married quite quickly and had several stints of abandoning the family.

While Keats was in primary school he was very rough and tumble, but eventually he took to reading and writing more than anything. His mother passed away of tuberculosis before he'd even turned 10, and Keats grew up with his siblings under his grandmother's care from then on. Eventually he attended King's College London to study to be an apothecary (what would today be called a doctor).

After receiving his license to practice medicine, Keats decided he was more interested in writing poetry for a "living" (I put this in quotes, because in Keats' lifetime he barely made any living off his poetry). He ended up moving around in a London literary circle with Leigh Hunt (a popular and notorious left-wing publisher and writer of the time) and other notables including other another popular Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

When Keats' youngest brother Tom was 19, he passed away from tuberculosis just as Keats' mother had. Keats cared for his brother at his bedside until the night he died, then chose to move to Hampstead following his passing. There, he met the love of his life, a girl named Fanny Brawne who was just 19 at the time. They eventually would get engaged, but Keats, having contracted tuberculosis from his younger brother, wouldn't live to marry her. He eventually went to Rome with the hope of curing his ailment, but passed away at the age of 25 believing he was a failure.

That was the abridged version. If you want more, talk to me because I could go on all day, quite literally. And possibly make the story a bit more touching with detailed anecdotes.

Anyway, the point of this was not to give you the story of John Keats, but to talk to you about the spirit of the man who - despite Keats House proclaiming they are not haunted - seems to lurk in every corner of the place.

There's something entrancing about the museum. It's so quiet, with only a few visitors at a time and a lot of rooms to hide away in. And from each room, you can look to the gardens around the house, creating this pastoral, almost mythical space just a short distance from the London city center.

In past visits, I used to stand in the main parlor of the building and stare at this bust of Keats that looks over the museum shop. It's this incredibly regal image of John Keats that was produced posthumously, but bears some likeness to the man (if he were actually a Greek God).

Today, instead, I looked at a true likeness. Keats' death mask, which resides in his bedroom on the first floor (second floor in the US) of the house. I just stood in that room staring at the mask imagining what it might be like to encounter the man before he was just a fleeting image and a few words on paper.

As stupid as it might sound to someone who has never felt so strongly for a historic/literary figure (to my friend Dana who is crazy about Abraham Lincoln, I give a knowing nod), I say that finding this sort of peace requires you to leave the present moment for a second. When I enter Keats House, I'm put into a world of Regency calmness. All you can hear from the rooms is the whistling wind and perhaps the sound of creaking floorboards. And you're transported.

It's the most romantic feeling in the world, and it draws you closer to the subject of your thoughts. In my life, I've learned that the only person worth expending my thoughts for is someone who is true to me, good to me under all circumstances. When I enter Keats House, or read a poem by the man, I feel that steadiness of his spirit. That he will always be there for me, much like a religious person might look to a deity.

John Keats wrote in my favorite poem of his ("Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil"):

"If thou didst ever any thing believe,
Believe how I love thee, believe how near
My soul is to its doom: I would not grieve
They hand by unwelcome pressing, would not fear
Thine eyes by gazing; but I cannot live
Another night, and not my passion shrive."

If that doesn't speak to the strongest and most beautiful love you've ever heard of, then perhaps you've never seen or experienced it. With John Keats, I have. And with him I will continue to be a romantic.

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