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Keats: letters, home.

The Search for Home in the Work of John Keats.



Be thou thine owne home, and in thy selfe dwell;
Inne any where, continuance maketh hell.
And seeing the snaile, which every where doth rome,
Carrying his owne house still, still is at home,
Follow (for he is easie pac’d) this snaile,
Bee thine owne Palace, or the world’s thy gaole.

— John Donne, ‘To Sir Henry Wooten’

Happy is England! I could be content
To see no other verdure than its own,
To feel no other breezes than are blown
Through its tall woods with high romances blent:
Yet do I sometimes feel a languishment
For skies Italian, and an inward groan
To sit upon an Alp as on a throne,
And half forget what world or wordling meant…

— John Keats, ‘Happy is England ! I could be content’

‘Thou art as one of us’ they cry
‘It was for thee yon kingless sphere has long
Swung blind in unascended majesty,
Silent alone amid a Heaven of song
Assume thy winged throne, thou Vesper of our throng.’

— Percy Byssche Shelley, ‘Adonais’

‘What we seek, we must find at home or nowhere.’

— William Hazlitt, “On Application to Study”

Keats’ use of formal epistles and verse-letters, with their differing modes of address — personal, impersonal, classical — are a poetic articulation of his need for family and home…

SEVERAL DEATHS IN Keats’ family during his early years shape his life and work. Losing his parents, uncles, and grandparents leave him emotionally and physically insecure and set in motion a lifelong search for home.

As an orphan, he seeks a home through his surviving siblings, George, Tom and Fanny, and in friendships he makes as a boarder at Enfield School; in later life he seeks a home in love, in a pantheon of poets, and in poetry itself. His siblings provide an emotional home, his friends an extended family, while poets, artists and writers encourage him to see home as inseparable from his life as a poet. Keats’ use of formal epistles and verse-letters, with their differing modes of address — personal, impersonal, classical — are a poetic articulation of his need for family and home, and are pivotal to his development as a poet. His letters, epistles, verse-letters, and poems, while distinct modes of writing in their own right, have in common the need to address a subject, object, person or thing. Keats’ oeuvre, with the exception of the narrative romances, is a poetry of familial address that crystallises in the ‘To—’ poem, and the ‘On—’ poem; to a person, or on a subject, object or theme. His verse-letters are often composed as sonnets or odes, and the tone — earnest, beseeching, needy, familiar, sometimes showy — is symptomatic of a desire for attention, recognition, acceptance, his need for love, a family, a home.

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From his years studying medicine in an attic room at Thomas Hammond’s house in Edmonton, to living with Charles Brown in one half of Wentworth Place, Hampstead, Keats lives in numerous houses and locations across London, including lodgings in Dean Street, St Thomas Street, The Strand. He lives alone, with his brothers or friends, as a house guest, or temporary lodger. It’s not unusual for a person of Keats’ class, the son of a liveryman, to be itinerant; only the wealthy could live in a big house and entertain family and friends. For Keats, a serial tenant with often limited means, finding secure long-term accommodation is difficult. Keats is not the only Romantic poet who struggles to find secure living accommodation. Coleridge, for example, resides in more than thirty different homes before finding a permanent home at Highgate with James and Ann Gillman. Even ‘The Immortal Dinner’ at 22 Lisson Grove, where Keats is invited to dine with Wordsworth and Charles Lamb et al, is a novel affair. The host, Benjamin Haydon, an artist often in debt, has finally found a home, on borrowed money, aged 31. Haydon writes about acquiring house appliances for the first time: ‘My own tea cup and saucers. I took up my own knife. I sat on my own chair. It was a new sensation!’ 1

Given Keats’ living conditions, his poems are often written in small, cramped spaces: hostels, attics, tiny rooms, from a box-room he sleeps in when staying at Leigh Hunt’s house in the Vale of Health, to the lodging houses when travelling out of London.2Throughout prolonged bouts of illness, or bad weather, Keats is often confined to rooms, and through confinement both a sense of claustrophobia and imaginative freedom emerge. His psychological theory of human life as a ‘Large Mansion with Many Apartments’ — those chambers and dark passages and unentered rooms – is symptomatic of an internalised state of mind. 3Yet, between sleeping and waking, or after long periods of introspection, he writes imaginative narrative poems, plays, romances, and fantastical ballads as a form of escape from his domestic situation.

Keats’ friendships give him access to other homes more favourable than his own. He’s accepted as family by some of his dearest friends, such as Charles Cowden Clarke and J.H. Reynolds. Treated hospitably, he feels emotionally adopted, his friends’ houses are homes from home. The friends he makes at school and on leaving school — among them Benjamin Haydon, J.H. Reynolds, James Rice, Benjamin Bailey, Charles Brown, Charles Wentworth Dilke, Joseph Severn — operate as a surrogate family. These friends sustain him in his teenage years living under the constraints of a legal guardianship, and offer support during his transition from apothecary-surgeon to poet. One of these friends, Joseph Severn, adopts the role of a family sibling in caring for Keats in the last few months of the poet’s life.

Keats’ juvenile poems read as letters of introduction, and counter the despair he feels at his own diminished family. ‘To a Young Lady who sent me a Laurel Crown’ and ‘On Leaving some Friends at an Early Hour’ are light verses delighting in the company he’s keeping as a young man, and a fledgling poet. In ‘To Some Ladies’ the subject is the previous night’s entertainment:

It had not created a warmer emotion
Than the present fair nymphs I was blessed with from you
Than the shell, from the bright golden sands of the ocean
Which the emerald waves at your feet gladly threw.”

It is commonplace for poets of the Romantic period to write poems commemorating events, but Keats’ poem is, mainly, an ingratiating thank you letter (for his being invited), and his facility with words is not so different from a guest showing an adeptness on the dance floor, or a light touch on the piano. In these sorties into society he is making friends and practising his craft: from the romantic effusion of ‘Yet would I kneel and kiss thy gentle hand’ in ‘To a Young Lady who sent me a Laurel Crown’, to the sonnet ‘To the Ladies who saw me Crowned’ and the richer line: ‘Or June that breathes out life for butterflies’.

Keats’ early verse-letters are light and appear to be spontaneous creations, but the subject matter deepens as his confidence as a poet grows…

Keats’ early verse-letters are light and appear to be spontaneous creations, but the subject matter deepens as his confidence as a poet grows: from the benign sentiment in ‘To James Rice’, to the literary discourse in poems addressed to J.H. Reynolds. In ‘Addressed to Haydon’, the subject is envy and pride; in ‘To George Felton Mathew’, he addresses poetry — ‘Sweet are the pleasures that to verse belong’ — and the lineage of poetry:

Where we may soft humanity put on
And sit and rhyme and think on Chatterton;
And that warm-hearted Shakespeare sent to meet him’’.

The verse-letters are a perfect form for addressing a wide range of human emotions, including familial love — ‘And doubly sweet a brotherhood in song’ — as well as charting a-coming-of-intellectual age.

The longer poems and letters to Charles Cowden Clarke and J.H. Reynolds reveals a breadth of knowledge — classical, historical, mythical — that grace his later poems. The journey from uncertainty in ‘To B.R Haydon with a sonnet ‘Written on Seeing the Elgin Marbles’ (“Haydon ! Forgive me that I cannot speak/Definitively on these mighty things”) to the confident letters to his brothers and friends on the nature of poetry — his theories on ‘Negative Capability’, the world as ‘a vale of Soul-making’, and linking imagination with truth and beauty — is striking. The poems and letters reinforce Keats’ poetic ambitions and are stepping stones toward a literary home — Spenser, Homer, Milton, Sidney — where he might reside in a poetic kinship with a ‘throng’ of notable poets.

Keats’ poem ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ gets the attention of Leigh Hunt and finds a home in The Examiner. This sonnet honours both Chapman and Homer: ‘Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/When a new planet swims into his ken’. The subsequent poems ‘Sonnet to Lord Byron’, ‘Sonnet to Chatterton’ and ‘To Leigh Hunt, Esq.’ are a fan letter, an homage, and an argumentum ad hominem, respectively. In addressing other poets, Keats continues to search for, and seek entry to, a literary family, which includes Leigh Hunt. In ‘Written on the Day that Mr Leigh Hunt left Prison’, the truth-telling principles of Hunt are aligned with the spirit and might of Spenser and Milton. Keats wants admission to a dead poets’ society — Homer, Milton, Spenser, Burns — and a living one, along with Hunt, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge. In seeking a home in a pantheon of poets he may have been seeking refuge from:

…the poisonous suffrage of the public – my own being which I know to be becomes of more consequence to me than the crowds of Shadows in the Shape of Man and women that inhabit a kingdom. The Soul is a world of itself and has enough to do in its own home – those whom I know already and who have grown as it were a part of myself I could not do without: but for the rest of Mankind they are as much a dream to me as Milton’s Hierarchies”.4

In Regency London he is content with a small, elite circle of family and poetry friends, but he widens his search for family and home to include other people, places, and other eras. The past is a place he reaches out to, poets of the past are his influencers, their poetry and lives furnish his imagination and Soul. It is not far-fetched to suggest Keats found a vicarious sense of home in other lives, particularly in the life and work of other poets, the young Keats at home in Edmund Spenser’s Fairie Queene, at home in Chapman’s Homer, at home in Milton’s Paradise Lost. He would have been at home in Ancient Greece, and in the Elizabethan/Jacobean/Carolingian age where poets such as John Donne and Andrew Marvell distribute poems and manuscripts as private correspondence. Keats’ poems of address bear a resemblance to John Donne’s (verse) Letters to Severall Personages. Keats’ odes, particularly, contain much of the dense and allusive quality of Donne’s epistles: the elevated subject matter, watertight forms, the use of verse-letters in nurturing friends, a wider family, a literary, if not a spiritual, home.

A more immediate search for home takes him out of London. The American poet and essayist Amy Clampitt writes about Keats’ travels in her sequence of poems, ‘Voyages’, in What the Light Was Like (1983). Clampitt envisages his time living in Margate, Chichester, Winchester, Teignmouth, and his walking tours of the British Isles. For Clampitt, travel for Keats is less about encountering the sublime in nature, and more a chance to escape London and be in places, like the Isle of Wight, where he can contemplate his growing love for Fanny Brawne, and to recuperate near the sea with his ailing brother, Tom, or simply a chance to reflect on his new life as a poet. While he does visit various places on his walking tours, including the tomb of Robert Burns, travel is more a means to an ethereal escape, a journey of the imagination, and less about destination. In the Burns-influenced ‘A Song about Myself’, he finds in Scotland

That the ground
Was as hard,
That a yard
Was as long,
That a song
Was as merry,
That a cherry
Was as red,
That lead
Was as weighty,
That fourscore
Was as eighty,
That a door
Was as wooden
As in England”

On his travels Keats appreciates nature; he travels hundreds of miles on foot with Charles Brown on his tour of Britain and Ireland, climbs mountains, gets blisters, is fatigued, and is able to recognise nature’s wonders. In a letter to his brother, Tom, he writes of the views of Windermere with a noble tenderness:

…they never fade away, they make one forget the divisions of life; age, youth poverty and riches; and refine one’s sensual vision into a sort of north star which can never cease to be open lidded and stedfast…’’ 5

And yet, unlike some of his fellow Romantic poets, Keats doesn’t see the natural world as a place for mystical union, or through a countryman’s detailed eye. Nature is not a natural home; he doesn’t worship nature like, say, Wordsworth. Rather, he shares Coleridge’s capacity for the luminous reconfiguring of nature. It is the world, not just nature, that is a vale of Soul-making, the Soul has an agency beyond nature and is closely allied with imagination and beauty and truth. Keats sees beauty in nature and appropriates this beauty as something applicable to all life. His imagination reaches beyond the natural world of first sense impressions so that, famously, beauty can be allied with truth and truth beauty at the end of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. The opening line of ‘Endymion’ — ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’ — has a reach beyond the earth grounded in all its physical properties. Oscar Wilde in ‘The Grave of Keats’, acknowledging the imaginative and image-rich potency of his descriptive writing, sees Keats as the ‘poet-painter of our English Land!’6 but, again, with the exception of a few poems, including ‘To Autumn’ and ‘I stood tip-toe upon a little hill’, Keats doesn’t inhabit or embody nature like Wordsworth or John Clare. Leigh Hunt says Keats ‘never beheld an oak tree without seeing a Dryad’. Nature is a starting point for Keats, he experiences the natural world from mid-distance where he sees meadows, fields, flowers, hedges, birds, streams. At this poetic range he can write impersonal odes that look further afield – ‘To May’, ‘To the River Nile’, ‘Sonnet to Ailsa Rock’. Nature is, ultimately, a portal to other realms, a touchstone for idyllic places, past and present, mythic worlds, fairy lands. He allows his pleasure and appreciation of nature to segue into uncertainty and mystery. He exists in a state of Negative Capability in relation to nature, nature is a ‘thoroughfare’ to a multifarious other world and not one unified living thing as Wordsworth intimated. Wordsworth stands firm in seeing the human Soul as being inextricably linked with earth’s unfolding tapestry of sometimes mundane, natural objects. Keats’ imagination travels through space and time, sometimes on the ‘viewless wings of poesy’; he looks beyond, like Coleridge, what is naturally seen with the human eye to far-flung, sometimes mythologised, often untrodden places. The Soul is a world in itself. The Soul is a home for Keats as nature is a home for Wordsworth. As a nature poet, Keats is situated somewhere between S. T. Coleridge and Edmund Spenser. On his travels in the countryside, or by the sea, he breathes fresher air, has time for reflection, emotionally grows as a man, and returns to the city a better poet. Invariably, he works on the narrative poems: ‘Lamia’, ‘Endymion’, ‘Hyperion. A Fragment’, and the ballads: ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ and ‘The Eve of St Mark’.

Away from London, Keats writes numerous formal letters, an alternative mode of address important to his development as a poet. The letters follow a pattern beginning with a social reminiscence, addressing issues of art and literature, and ending on a domestic detail. Keats is mainly formulating his own ars poetica in the discursive letters he posts home. In letters to his sister, Fanny, he is a protective older brother, in his poems to George, he revels in being a poet: ‘The poet’s eye can reach those golden halls’. His poems can also express the love one might expect in a letter. In ‘To my Brother George’, he writes:

Of late, too, I have had much calm enjoyment
Stretched on the grass at my best loved enjoyment
Of scribbling lines for you.’

The poems of address can be both epistle and letter in one. In ‘To my Brother’, the octet is written in a standard poetic style, but the sestet is more a standard letter: ‘This is your birthday Tom and I rejoice/That thus it passes smoothly, quietly…’. Tom, when travelling with Keats, is often a sick patient, and the poet takes on the role of a loving parent in looking after him.

In Clampitt’s ‘The Elgin Marbles’, what comprises home for Keats undergoes a radical change. Clampitt reminds us that once ‘in lodgings he and George and Tom, three orphaned homeless brothers, had moved into’, the poet invents an image of a fiery glow to dispel ‘the gloom of London in November’. The homeless Keats finds a home as a bard on the night of October 24th, 1819, when he meets Mrs. Isabella Jones:

At her home she tactfully declined to
be kissed, however, she released him
to a state of mind that was –
he discovered, walking home
astonished – infinitely better: He was free.
He could imagine anything at all,
needed no home… ” 7

The ‘fiery glow’ conjured to give hope to his brothers in a cold winter is also a metaphor for romantic love and the poetic force that now shapes his life. From this day he addresses poetry and life on his terms, he feels the glow of poetry, he dwells in poetry as if poetry were home. Dwelling in poetry is home. Like the Soul, poetry is a world of itself. And poetry, like the Soul, has enough to do in its own home. In ‘To my Brother George’, he writes

These are the living pleasures of the bard:
But richer far posterity’s award.
What does he murmur with his latest breath,
While his proud eye looks through the film of death?”

Poetry is a journey and a destination. Tom dying and George emigrating to America strengthen his resolve to see home as, and in, poetry.

However, this poetry resolution is temporarily broken by another aspect of home: love as home, and what a home-life with a woman might entail. Keats’ difficult relations with women, his often unrequited passion, is partly due to poetry’s influence over him. He is in love with poetry. It is his life. On reading or writing poems he feels protected. This feeling is home. Unlike the chameleon-like poetical mind that Keats thought had no identity, poetry in itself, poetry as a noun, a thing, is ‘selfe’, a home he carries wherever he goes. What chance of a life with Emma, Mary Frogley, Isabella Jones, Fanny Brawne, when he’s preoccupied with Homer, Milton, Spenser, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, his own spiralling poems, and an epic imagination needing time and space to freely roam. Keats attempts to ground himself in the home of love, but is unable to resist the singular draw of poetry. In ‘To Emma’, courtly love is expressed in couplets: ‘We will hasten, my fair, to the opening glades/The quaintly carved seats, and the freshening shades’. In ‘To Mary [Frogley]’, an amorous complement – ‘Of thy honeyed voice; the neatness/Of thine ankle neatly turned’ – turns to doubt: ‘Thou art an enchantress too./And wilt surely never spill/Blood of those whose eyes can kill’.

Keats’ search for, and experience of, love reaches a denouement with his relationship with Fanny Brawne. Fanny, notwithstanding his doubts and jealousies, is his ideal woman. The poem ‘Ode To Fanny’ is both a personal address and a formal ode:

Though swimming through the dance’s dangerous wreath
Be like an April day,
Smiling and cold and gay,
A temperate lily, temperate as fair;
Then, Heaven ! there will be
A warmer June for me.”

Keats attempts to elevate his love for Fanny to the status he accords his late odes, such as ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ or ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. It’s an aspiration, a mark of respect, but love is often reduced to the plainest terms: ‘Ah dearest love, sweet home of all my fears/and hopes and joys…’ The Grecian urn, an object from the past displaying an eternal scene of human life is, in a way, a metaphor for, or objectification of, home. This classical urn with its picture of lovers in suspended animation is symbolic of Keats’ and Fanny’s impossible union, their plans for a life and home together near, but far. The last six lines of the 2nd stanza of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ disclose more about his tragic love for Fanny Brawne than his numerous emotive letters to her:

Fair Youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet do not grieve:
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair.”

But for the dividing wall at Wentworth Place, Keats is tantalisingly close to sharing a home with Fanny Brawne, the home of love and the home of poetry either side of a partition wall. Fanny and her mother — despite Mrs Brawne’s reservations about Keats as a suitor, a potential husband to Fanny — care for the poet in the month before he travels to Italy. Perhaps in this month of severely diminished health he experiences Fanny’s mother as a surrogate mother? Keats leaves England on medical advice, and not in search of ‘skies Italian’. His love for Fanny thwarted by tubercular illness, impending death, and the accrued effect of a total immersion in poetry. The long and arduous journey to Europe via road and sea ensues. He is domiciled in a coffin-like bunk on the Maria Crowther, sailing to Italy, quarantined for ten days in the Bay of Naples, and finally a long journey north to a house near the Spanish Steps in Rome. Ironically, this Londoner, a ‘Cockney’, who so needed the kinship of family and home dies abroad. With the exception of Joseph Severn, his friend and nurse, Keats dies alone on 23 February, aged 25. His resting place is the Cimitero Acattolico in Rome.

Keats’ short and impassioned life is a continual search for home: home as place, family, friends, love, and poetry itself.

Keats’ short and impassioned life is a continual search for home: home as place, family, friends, love, and poetry itself. Poetry is his palace of a home — a palace to which we, as readers, have access. His correspondence and 49 verse-letters show this heartfelt search is pivotal to his life and work. Writing poems as letters, or letters as poems, allows Keats to address the important people in his life from a poet’s perspective. The poems of address allow for the merging of public pronouncements one might expect to find in a formal epistle with the personal communion of verse.

There is a twofold sense of honour in the verse-letters: Keats is honouring his subjects by using their names as the titles of his poems, and he wants, in turn, to be recognised as a poet, and a fellow poet. The search for home is not readily apparent in the language of his poems, but it’s implicit in the vast amount of personal verse-letters he writes, which far exceed any other Romantic poet. The search for home is evident in the familial tone of his poems, and in the continual fashioning and re-fashioning of relationships. Each letter, epistle and poem opens a door to a possible home. The addressees make up a mosaic of an ideal family. The verse-letters are building blocks of a home. Perhaps the ode is the interior design, its style and form a manifestation of his poetic ambition to become a great poet and furnish the world with classic poems. When these homes are unrealised, or insufficient, or imperfect, what constitutes home is transmogrified; home becomes a metaphorical construct or an abstract noun; home becomes peace or love, or the poetry yet to be written in some ‘untrodden region’ of his mind. After many peripatetic years of uncertainty Keats finally arrives home. Home is a relationship with existence and poetry is at the centre — which prefigures Heidegger’s writing about ‘dwelling’ in Poetry, Language, Thought. Keats dwells in poetry, and this state of dwelling supersedes more conventional notions of home. The versatile form of the ode, that classical form of address, enables him to write poems ‘to’ family and friends, and also reflect ‘on’ a subject, object or theme. In his poems of address, and sometimes redress, we follow his poetic journey from a homeless boy in London to the poet dying in Rome.

In his commemorative poem ‘Adonais’, Shelley immortalises Keats by situating him in a pantheon of dead poets Keats admired: Lucan, Sidney, Chatterton. In Benjamin Robert Haydon’s painting of famous luminaries, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, Keats is honoured with a prominent place in the group portrait along with, among others, Hazlitt, Newton, Wordsworth, Voltaire…Jesus Christ.

Anthony Costello is a poet and essayist. He is the author of two poetry collections and two pamphlets. He is a co-translator of Alain-Fournier: Poems (Carcanet). His latest poetry pamphlet is Picture, Mirror, World (Calder Valley Press), a poetic meditation on the work of Rainer Maria Rilke and Gustav Mahler. An archive of his Fortnightly work, including an earlier essay on Coleridge, is here. He blogs on aspects of literature at


Citations from Keats’ poems within the essay are sourced from The Complete Poems (Penguin Books, 1988). The quotes from ‘To my Brother George’ are from the poem beginning ‘full many a dreary hour I have passed’.

  1. ‘On this Day in 1817, December, 1817, The Immortal Dinner’, Ana Stevenson, BARS Blog).
  2. For a thorough list, see G. Kim Blank. Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology, Edition 3.12.
  3. ‘From a Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 may 1818’, Romantic Criticism 1800-1825 (London, B.T. Batsford Ltd, 1989) pp. 107-108.
  4. ‘To J.H. Reynolds, 24th August 1819’, Appendix 6, The Complete Poems, John Keats, Edited by John Barnard (England, Penguin Books, 1988), p.552
  5. The Spirit of Place in Keats, Guy Murchie (Newman Neame, 1955), p105.
  6. Introduction, The Complete Poems of John Keats (Wordsworth Editions), 1994
  7. ‘The Elgin Marbles’, Amy Clampitt. What the Light Was Like (London, 1985) pp. 55-56

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