A Madder Caress, Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis
In 1918, writers Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis ran away to Cornwall together to begin one of the most sizzling affairs in literary history.
The three years of his passionate courtship with Fanny Brawne were the most poetically productive for John Keats.
March (?) 1820
You fear, sometimes, I do not love you so much as you wish? My dear Girl I love you ever and ever and without reserve. The more I have known you the more have I lov’d. In every way – even my jealousies have been agonies of Love, in the hottest fit I ever had I would have died for you. I have vex’d you too much. But for Love! Can I help it? You are always new. The last of your kisses was ever the sweetest; the last smile the brightest; the last movement the gracefullest. When you pass’d my window yesterday, I was fill’d with as much admiration as if I had then seen you for the first time.
‘Mr Keats left Hampstead.’ Those are the words Fanny Brawne wrote in her pocket book on the day Keats set out for Rome. Such quiet understatement, when only days before she had repeatedly asked Keats: ‘Is there another life? Shall I awake and find this all a dream? There must be. We cannot be created for this sort of suffering.’
A great deal happened at Keats House in Hampstead Heath, on the north side of London. It is where John Keats wrote most of his greatest poetry, met and fell in love with his ‘bright star’, Fanny Brawne, and discovered that his death was imminent.
Keats was twenty-one when in the spring of 1817 he first moved with his younger brothers George and Tom to rooms in 1 Well Walk, Hampstead. Having come of age he was free from the control of his guardian and had just abandoned a promising career as a surgeon, feeling (as did his siblings) that he had a real possibility of fulfilling his poetic ambitions. Well Walk was the first place they could call home after their maternal grandmother’s death in 1814. The brothers and their sister Fanny, who lodged at her guardian’s, had been drawn close by the early loss of their parents.
Hampstead was still a village and its fresh air was a welcome change from Keats’s damp medical lodgings in Southwark, that smelt of corpses.
‘Tis very sweet to look into the fair
And open face of Heaven, – to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament.
Well Walk was close to the Hampstead home of the poet Leigh Hunt who, believing Keats to be a promising poet, had published some of his early poetry and introduced him to his circle of cultivated friends. Keats also renewed his acquaintance with Charles Dilke and his wife Maria who lived ten minutes across the Heath at Wentworth Place (now known as Keats House). Later that year he met Charles Armitage Brown who also shared the house with the Dilkes and was to became Keats’s closest, most loyal friend.
Dilke and Brown were easygoing men of letters in their thirties. Their home was a generously proportioned Georgian house divided into two living spaces that had been built for them in 1815. Dilke and his wife Maria had the front door; Brown, the bachelor, took the door at the side and the garden was shared. It was a happy, informal household, where company was always welcome. Apart from a few alterations, it remains as Keats knew it and since 1921 it has been the Keats Museum.
Soon the brothers were visiting Wentworth Place up to three times a week. Maria Rilke, who was full of fun, took on a sisterly role to the orphans. And Keats’s charisma attracted a coterie of painters and poets who were soon known as the Keats Circle. They prophesied his fame and their admiration bordered on adulation. One friend described Keats at the time as having the head of a Greek god with a glowing complexion, mobile features and wavy reddish-golden hair framing an oval face. Brown mentioned the ‘magic’ of his countenance, with his ‘full fine eyes lustrously intellectual, and beaming with hope and joy.’ There were long walks, concerts, claret feasts and gifts of game; pranks and horseplay, and dancing hops to the music of the pianoforte. Keats completed a long poem about the young sleeping shepherd ‘Endymion’, who falls in love with the moon goddess Cynthia, beginning it with the exultant:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health,
And quiet breathing.
But there were worrying developments. Tom’s health was worsening and tuberculosis was diagnosed. Then in May 1815 George announced he was marrying Georgiana Wylie and was about to depart for better prospects in America. Keats wrote to his friend Benjamin Bailey that having lived through so many misfortunes, his ‘affection’ for his brothers had surpassed the ‘Love of all women.’ Now one of them was to be driven by the ‘Burden of Society to America’, while the other, ‘with an exquisite Love of life’, was in ‘a lingering state’.
Despite some misgivings, Keats took the coach for Newcastle to farewell George and his new wife on their journey across the sea. From there, he and Charles Brown set out on a walking tour of the Lakes District, Scotland and Ireland. Brown had rented out his side of Wentworth Place for the duration of their absence to a Mrs Brawne, a widow with three children.
Keats was ecstatic at the sight of the Lakes and they felt compelled to walk in the footsteps of Wordsworth. ‘I shall learn poetry here’, he wrote to his cherished Tom back in Hampstead, ‘and shall henceforth write more than ever…’ But on the Isle of Mull in July, Keats developed a violent chill which, as Brown wrote to Dilke,
…far from leaving him has become worse, and the Physician here thinks him too thin and fevered to proceed on the journey. It has been a cruel disappointment. We have been as happy as possible together.
On his return to Hampstead in August, Keats was alarmed to find his brother’s condition had deteriorated. He gave Tom his closest attention and care, in the process exposing himself to infection.
Keats began work on a new, difficult theme that marked a turning point. ‘Hyperion’ was an epic poem that told of the despair of the Titans after their fall to the Olympians. He poured into it his impressions of his northern visit; his grief for his dying brother, and his study of Milton and Dante. The mood is sombre and introspective, a far cry from the youthful exuberance of ‘Endymion’.
Deep in the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of man,
Far from the fiery noon, and eve’s one star,
Sat gray-hair’d Saturn…
To alleviate the oppressive atmosphere of Well Walk, Keats would slip across the heath to Wentworth Place for conversation. In October 1818 he wrote to George:
I have been over to Dilke’s this evening. There with Brown we have been talking of different and indifferent Matters: of Euclid, of Metaphysics, of the Bible, of Shakespeare, of the horrid System and consequences of the fagging at great Schools.
On one of these visits Keats first met eighteen-year-old Fanny Brawne. When Keats and Brown had returned to Wentworth Place her family had moved again, this time to Elm Cottage nearby. Keats described her in a letter to George as ‘beautiful and elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable and strange’.
The attraction between them was immediate. She wrote to a friend: ‘His conversation was in the highest degree interesting and his spirits good’. But she was young and coquettish, and when she flirted with his friend, the painter Joseph Severn, Keats burned a love letter that he had intended for her.
Keats’s mind was in any case preoccupied; his chief concern during the grim month of November 1818 was for Tom. As Keats’s biographer Robert Gittings has written, ‘The strain of these weeks with every detail of death seen at close quarters was to dominate the rest of his own life and thought.’ Tom was nineteen when he died at Well Walk on 1st December, 1818.
Lovers of Keats’s works are indebted to Brown for what happened next. He suggested Keats should leave the sad solitude of Well Walk and join him as a paying guest at Wentworth Place. This set the scene for nearly two years of prolific creativity, when Keats wrote his best poetry.
They each occupied a ground floor room and an upstairs bedroom. Keats was given the sunnier half, with a sitting room that opened onto a verandah and the garden. His landlord at Well Walk, a genial man, carried his small collection of books down the hill in a clothing basket. In the immediate aftermath of Tom’s death, friends organised strings of visits and social events to attempt to distract Keats from his grief.
Fanny Brawne was another distraction. When in the spring of 1819 the Dilke family moved to the city and rented their half of Wentworth Place to Mrs Brawne, Fanny became Keats’s immediate neighbour. Often in the shared garden, or under the same roof but behind a wall, her tantalising closeness sparked his desire. Romance blossomed, despite Mrs Brawne’s reservations about Keats’s poor prospects.
Fanny was quick witted and good humoured, known for her fashionable taste, with a bright manner and firm resolve. Their courtship was crowded with parties, dinners, dances, flirtations, kisses and tokens. She was interested in music, politics and books, of which she said, ‘there is nothing I like better to talk about’. Keats gave her a copy of Dante’s Inferno, into which she later inscribed ‘Bright Star’. He would read aloud to her about the love between Paolo and Francesca, or Lancelot and Guinevere. Being an exquisitely sensitive soul, he laid his heart wide open. At the end of a letter he added this sonnet:
O! let me have thee whole,—all, all, be mine!
That shape, that fairness, that sweet minor zest
Of love, your kiss—those hands, those eyes divine,
That warm, white, lucent, million-pleasured breast Yourself
—your soul—in pity give me all,
Withhold no atom’s atom or I die
But visions of hell had begun to haunt Keats’s dreams and joining him there was Fanny, locking him in a kiss. All his desires began to focus on her and his attraction turned into obsession, her teasing flirtatiousness sparking in him bouts of furious jealousy. Around this time, while reporting to be ‘in a great darkness’, he wrote ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci.’
Such dark moods were not foreign to Keats. His friend Severn observed that he had two sides. Usually his presence was physically strong and attractive. Although he was barely more than five feet tall, his straight carriage and well proportioned body gave the impression of greater height. Severn said he had a gypsy’s hazel eyes with a hawk-like glow, lending a strong, dauntless expression to his face, so that people in the street would stop to look at him twice.
But when in a low mood or anxious, it was as if the life drained from him; his eyes would darken and he would appear small and insignificant. At such times he could become suspicious and lash out in anger, making bitter remarks to his friends. He was always quick to apologise for what he called one of his ‘lunes’, but while the outbursts caused some to steer clear of him his friends remained close and protective.
Around this time, Keats began to feel cool days as ‘stifling’; he suffered from night sweats and deep lassitude. He knew the early symptoms of tuberculosis only too well, but it is not certain whether he allowed himself to acknowledge his infection at this stage. Robert Gittings suggests that Keats banished disease and death from his conscious mind but they became symbols that were unleashed through his poetry, particularly in the mysterious ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. In this fragmentary but powerful poem he unites death and love, foretelling his fate, and he was to return to this theme for the rest of his short life.
And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d – Ah ! woe betide !
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill side.
The poem is permeated with the almost surreal, dark, dream-like quality of Coleridge’s poems. Only ten days prior to writing it, Keats had bumped into Coleridge when walking with a friend on Hampstead Heath. Keats said they walked together for nearly two miles at his ‘Alderman after-dinner pace’ and Coleridge had delivered a monologue lasting an hour or so, on dreams and the unconscious. Coleridge claimed afterwards (with the benefit of hindsight) that he could tell from Keats’s handshake that he would not live long.
Keats’s friends were disturbed about his developing relationship with Fanny. Charles Brown in particular had taken a strong dislike to her. He may have resented her for consuming so much of his dear friend’s time and energy but, like others, he understood the depth of Keats’s feelings. Observing Fanny’s shallow flirtatious behaviour and the jealousy and depression that it could provoke in the sensitive Keats, he tried to keep her away.
Keats was aware of his friends’ concerns but he allowed the extremes of emotion that Fanny provoked in him to fuel his poetry. His work took on a fresh intensity and ideas came quickly. From the exceptionally fine spring month of April 1819 until well into autumn, he composed the most beautiful poetry he had ever written: Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode to a Nightingale, On Indolence and Ode on Melancholy.
Brown stayed in the background, running their well-ordered household, organising the maid and relieving Keats of distracting duties. He stayed home that year, foregoing his annual summer rental, and was later able to describe the morning when Keats composed ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in the garden:
In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of the nightingale.
With Keats’s help he arranged the stanzas in their correct order and claimed to have salvaged the poem.
Keats’s thoughts of marriage to Fanny were plagued by money worries. In order to provide for them both financially, he committed to a further publication of his poems. He was in precarious health and over the summer of 1819 he set out for a warmer climate, promising Fanny he would not return to London until he had written collection that would bring him money. From a cottage on the Isle of Wight with a view from his window of cliffs to the sea, he wrote her exquisite love letters:
My dearest Girl,
This moment I have set myself to copy some verses out fair. I cannot proceed with any degree of content. I must write you a line or two and see if that will assist in dismissing you from my Mind for ever so short a time. Upon my Soul I can think of nothing else — The time is passed when I had power to advise and warn you against the unpromising morning of my Life — My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you — I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again — my Life seems to stop there — I see no further. You have absorb’d me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving—I should be exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you. I should be afraid to separate myself far from you. My sweet Fanny, will your heart never change? My love, will it? I have no limit now to my love — Your note came in just here — I cannot be happier away from you — ’Tis richer than an Argosy of Pearles. Do not threat me even in jest. I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion — I have shudder’d at it — I shudder no more. I could be martyr’d for my Religion — Love is my religion — I could die for that — I could die for you. My Creed is Love and you are its only tenet — You have ravish’d me away by a Power I cannot resist; and yet I could resist till I saw you; and even since I have seen you I have endeavoured often “to reason against the reasons of my Love.” I can do that no more — the pain would be too great — My Love is selfish. I cannot breathe without you.
Yours for ever
It was possibly here that he wrote ‘Bright Star’, releasing his emotions and yearning for Fanny into the poem. He sent her a copy and, drawing on the poem’s imagery, signed off: ‘I will imagine you Venus tonight and pray, pray, pray to your star like a Heathen. Your’s ever, fair star, John Keats.’
By the end of that year they became formally engaged. Some onlookers muttered about the lack of prospects on both sides but that was the least of it: tuberculosis was tightening its grip. In early February 1820, a year before his death, Keats returned from town having caught a chill. With a violent fit of coughing he staggered upstairs to the back bedroom, where he experienced his first haemorrhage on the cold sheets of the bed. He called out to his friend, who later wrote of this moment:
‘Bring me the candle, Brown; and let me see this blood.’ After regarding it steadfastly, he looked up in my face, with a calmness of countenance that I can never forget and said – ‘I know the colour of that blood; it is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that colour. That drop of blood is my death warrant; – I must die.’
Anxious not to alarm Fanny, Keats explained to her in a note the following day that he was to be confined to his room for a while but his awareness of her love for him would make his prison pleasant. He also put on a brave front to his sister Fanny, writing that he had been installed on a sofa bed in the downstairs parlour, overlooking the grassy plot at the front of the house. From there he had a view of all who passed by lane or Heath:
Old women with bobbins and red cloaks and unpresuming bonnets I see creeping about the heath. Gipseys after hare skins and silver spoons…the two old maiden Ladies in well walk who have a Lap dog between them, that they are very anxious about. It is a corpulent Little Beast whom it is necessary to coax along with an ivory-tipped cane.
Brown hovered anxiously in the background, describing himself to a friend as ‘wretchedly depressed’. Keats wrote frankly to his friend James Rice:
How astonishingly…does the chance of leaving the world impress a sense of its natural beauties on us. Like poor Falstaff, though I do not babble, I think of green fields…I have seen foreign flowers in hothouses of the most beautiful nature but I do not care a straw for them. The simple flowers of our spring are what I want to see again.
He did live to see the English spring again, although his health was to ebb and flow. Knowing how little time he had left and in mounting panic over how to spend it, Keats began to question whether the presence of Fanny brought him more pain and anguish than comfort or inspiration. He wrote to her of the ‘Love which has been so long my pleasure and torment’.
He challenged her to call off the engagement for her own sake, although making it clear that this would break him emotionally. Grappling with his own mortality, he was torn between sexual desire and a need to protect her. In all her youth she represented the impermanence of beauty and a dream of his own future. Fanny bore his erratic moods patiently for the most part, although occasionally they rankled. His movements expressed his profound indecision. He would flee Hampstead Heath, only to keep returning, drawn irresistibly back to Fanny’s presence.
Keats’s last volume of poems was published at the end of June, 1820. Containing his poems of 1819, which were accepted as his most memorable, and amongst the finest in the English language, this volume was a sublime artistic success. But he was in no condition to celebrate, having suffered another haemorrhage. Testy and choleric, he began to be tormented by irrational suspicions that Fanny was flirting with Brown and other friends. Late love poems to Fanny, ‘The Jealousies’, record his feverish, obsessive state and his exhaustion:
As when with ravished, aching, vassal eyes,
lost in a soft amaze,
I gaze, I gaze!
Brown, who had been nursing him with great care, was forced to rent out Wentworth Place for the summer and Keats had to move. He took refuge in Kentish Town with his mentor, Leigh Hunt.
In these last terrible months Keats turned against Brown and Dilke. He was observed by a stranger ‘sitting and sobbing’ on a bench at the end of Well Walk, looking out across the Heath.
In a note to Fanny he wrote:
I shall never be able any more to endure the society of any of those who used to meet at Elm Cottage and Wentworth Place. The last two years taste like brass upon my Palate. If I can not live with you I will live alone.
Later, when he arrived on her doorstep at Wentworth Place, feverish and in despair, Mrs Brawne took him in. She and Fanny nursed him for the next month.
By September 1820 Keats was so desperately ill that on the advice of his doctor he agreed to leave Hampstead for the warmth of Rome. He was wretched at the prospect, fearing he might never see Fanny again. On parting they exchanged gifts. Keats gave her his most precious books, the facsimile of Shakespeare’s Folio and editions of Spenser and Dante. Fanny had lined his travelling cap with silk and gave him a journal and paper so he could write to her. She gave him a miniature portrait of herself and they exchanged rings and locks of hair.
Fanny had matured and their love deepened. Her careful nursing of him had awakened her tenderness and lent an edge to their relationship. Her games ceased; her strong practical nature had come to the fore and placed her on a more even footing with Keats. She gave him a polished white cornelian, that she had used to keep her hands cool while sewing. Later on, when he became too ill to write in Rome, it would rarely leave his hands.
After her initial disapproval, Fanny’s mother had been won over. There was now no question that, had he returned, he would have married Fanny, accepted with open arms by her family. How bitter, then, was the affliction of his disease.
Shortly before his departure, Keats wrote to Brown and asked him to accompany him to Italy. On receiving the letter Brown dropped everything to rush to his side, but he missed the boat by one day. Joseph Severn went with Keats instead.
Five months after leaving Wentworth Place, on 23rd February 1821, Keats died in Rome in the arms of Severn. He was twenty-five.
Fanny went into mourning for several years. Despite the reservations of his friends, Keats’s judgement about her had proved sound. Although her letters to him did not survive, those she wrote to his sister reveal her warmth, intelligence and empathy. Fanny was to stay on at Wentworth Place for another nine years before marrying and starting a family.
This song was written by Clive Palmer from The Famous Jug Band and was featured on their 1969 album ‘Sunshine Possibilities.’ The band played the folk circuit in Cornwall in the mid to late sixties. At the time of writing the song Clive was living in a caravan in Mitchell opposite the notorious Folk Cottage, a venue for folk singers like Ralph McTell, Derek Brimstone, Michael Chapman, John Fish and Brenda Wootten. He says he wrote the song in ten minutes just mucking about on a guitar and the lyrics were inspired by a Chinese poem.
The novelist Margaret Drabble once lived next door to Keats House and her study overlooked its garden. She writes that the account of the torment of Keats’s last days is almost unbearable to read: ‘there are times when I look over my garden wall and feel that the very stones and trees must be impregnated with unresolved suffering.’ She remembers once standing at the border of her garden and Keats’s and spontaneously repeating an extract from a poem of Keats that she did not know she knew by heart, and which some have thought were his last lines of verse:
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold,
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d – see here it is –
I hold it towards you.
And yet, she writes that despite the sadness of a budding life cut short, Keats House remains a happy place, with,
the lingering memory of parties and laughter, of Maria Dilke and Fanny singing to the pianoforte. These characters were not cut out for tragedy… And here, perhaps, is the real poignancy – that a poet who enjoyed the good things of life with such unashamed rapture should have been torn away from them so soon.
Drabble wrote that time has spared the house, ‘and it has not dealt too harshly with the neighbourhood either.’ Although cows no longer graze nearby, a pond is long gone and South Green End has lost most of its green, she describes Keats Grove as an interesting street, full of character and a rural charm that lingers. Writing in the nineties, Drabble claimed it was still a refuge for radicals, poets, Bohemians and eccentrics. And, when walking home late one night, she heard a nightingale.
I visited Keats House in September, just as the leaves were turning, and again in early spring five months later. The sense of Keats’s life here is palpable. I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s comment in her essay ‘Great Men’s Houses’ (1932) that visiting the house of a ‘great man’ can reveal more than any biography ever can. She came here too and was impressed by the ‘small but shapely rooms’ that had a ‘clarity and dignity’.
What struck her was their lack of furniture, for Keats had few possessions and no more than one hundred and fifty books. She said they seemed to be furnished instead by the light and shade from the tall windows, giving the impression that Keats while reading must have been:
…splashed with shade and sun as the hanging leaves stirred in the breeze. Birds must have hopped close to his foot…The voice of the house is the voice of leaves brushing in the wind; of branches stirring in the garden. Only one presence – that of Keats himself dwells here…Here he sat on the chair in the window and listened without moving and saw without starting, and turned the page without haste though his time was so short.
In the front parlour is Keats’s three-dimensional life mask (a popular form of portraiture in the nineteenth century) which visitors are invited to touch. Feeling his wide, fleshy mouth and sculpted cheekbones seems extraordinarily intimate, something only a lover might do. This is where his sofa bed was set up when he was ill, so that he could see the passers by travelling up and down the lane towards the heath.
In the back parlour two chairs have been placed at right angles, mimicking Keats’s preferred reading position as depicted in his friend Joseph Severn’s portrait of him in that very room. The painting hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
Much of the garden has been planted with ‘To Autumn’ in mind, and on my visit in early September the leaves had already turned glorious shades of russet, maroon and crimson. In the front garden is a descendent of the plum tree under which Keats sat and listened to the nightingale and was moved to write down his thoughts on mortality:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
A copy of his draft of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ hangs in the parlour.
Twice I completely lost track of time and stayed until I was asked to leave. On the last occasion I was nearly locked in by accident but I wouldn’t have minded. The house has a peaceful feeling. I would have been happy there, communing with Keats on my own.
The website for Keats House.
Jane Campion’s film Bright Star that celebrates the love between Keats and Fanny Brawne, starring Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish.
Read more about the life of Keats and his poems on poetryfoundation.com
The Keats Foundation offers lectures, reading and conferences on Keats.
Visit the John Keats Forum.
Matthew Coulton reads ‘Ode to a Nightingale‘.
As does Stephen Fry.
Professor Belinda Jack’s Gresham College lecture about ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, discussing why this is one of the greatest poems ever written.
London Walking Tours offer ‘The Hidden Hampstead Walk’.
A fan site about Hampstead Heath.
Drabble, Margaret, ‘John Keats’ in Writers and Their Houses, Essays by Modern Writers, Kate Marsh Ed. Hamish Hamilton, 1993
Gittings, Robert, John Keats, Penguin, 1983
Keats, John. Selected Letters, John Barnard, Ed. Penguin, 2015
Keats, John. Selected Poems, Penguin, 2007
McCormick, Eric Hall. The friend of Keats: A Life of Charles Armitage Brown, Victoria University Press, 1989
Motion, Andrew. Keats, University of Chicago Press, 1999
White, R. John Keats: A Literary Life, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010
Woolf, Virginia. The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 5: 1929 – 1932, Stuart N. Clarke Ed. Mariner Books, 2010