“John Keats: A New Life” by Nicholas Roe

Brilliant. Just brilliant. The biography by Andrew Motion has been my Keatsian bible for many many years now, and while I reluctantly began thinking it was probably about time for an update, I also dreaded the prospect. I really love and admire John Keats, and Motion was a big part of me getting to know him; I didn’t want to lose my (always inadequate, always conditional) grasp on who Keats really was.

Of course I needn’t have feared, and any courage needed certainly paid off. This is a great book, a truly great book, and I think it works perfectly as an addition to (or a complement of) Motion’s work as well as the work of others.

My take on Motion’s Keats is that he was both a poet and a medical man, a healer of both bodies and souls. Roe’s Keats is a poet (full stop), and any return to his training or work as an apothecary would have been a turning away from his true self. Which is right? I don’t know, but it’s very interesting to consider the question in such detail.

Roe’s strengths are in Keats’ early years – his childhood and then right through to his time at Guy’s Hospital – and in Keats’ poetry – which is given terrific context in the poet’s life and times, and thus enhanced meaning. Roe is also very knowledgeable about Keats’ relationship with Leigh Hunt – which is no surprise as Roe is also Hunt’s biographer.

Roe very interestingly touches on the idea that Keats was very conscious of passing time, and in particular the things that mark it: the anniversary of his father’s death, the new or half or full moon, the date he announced his decision to be a poet to his friends, and so on. Keats even contrived to die late on the day of the ancient Roman festival Terminalia, which honoured the god of boundaries. I’m not entirely sure how seriously we are to take this, but there’s no denying that Keats’ work often deals in liminalities, and Roe certainly conjured a number of relevant happenings and images along the way to give credence to this – especially the late-night farewells between young Keats and his teacher Charles Cowden Clarke on the bridge between their homes.

There were certain areas of Keats’ life that I felt weren’t given much space on the page. Especially, but not only, Keats’ love and fiancee Fanny Brawne. I’m not sure whether this is due to Roe deciding that such things had already been well covered (and I certainly think Motion does justice to Brawne). Or that 400 pages is enough, and something had to be dealt with truly though briefly. I’m hesitant to think that Roe didn’t think Brawne important… I mean, OK we’re not all interested in a man’s love life, but she was important to Keats the man and Keats the poet – and Roe does give her her due, even if a little too succinctly – so let’s go back to my initial thought of such things being covered well elsewhere.

Which takes me back further to the notion that this book is a great addition and complement to the existing work on Keats. And leads me on to the notion that perhaps, even for a life this short, there can never be a definitive ‘Life’. Read this, and read Motion, and read as much of the rest as you like. Keats himself will repay you well.


“Keats” by Andrew Motion

It is difficult to know what to say about this book! This biography by Andrew Motion, first published in 1997, has been my key text for years. (You can tell that by how well-worn my copy is, in the image above – and I’m someone who takes care of books, too!) It has become part of my mental furniture.

I came to really love the feisty and engaged young man that Motion depicted – and while Keats was as fallible and conflicted as any human must be, I feel that he is one of the best and most interesting people who’ve ever lived.

Perhaps it is best to borrow Motion’s own words. These are from his article in the Guardian about Jane Campion’s film Bright Star, which was based on his biography:

Keats’s story is amazingly charged: poverty, doomed love, extraordinary natural talent, lingering illness and early death. Of all directors, Campion, I thought, stood a decent chance of paying due respect to his high-flying genius, while at the same time proving that he was someone who kept close to the ground.

The next time Jane was in London, we met and talked about Keats for most of a day. There are a few other poets whose poems I prefer reading, but none whom I think of as combining such talent with such magnificent human qualities: his kindness, courage, good humour, exuberance, truthfulness and cleverness coalesce in the kind of adult wisdom it would be wonderful to find in a person of any age, and which seems not much short of miraculous in someone who died aged 25.

That is the person whom Andrew Motion wrote about in this biography. Read it – and if you’re not already in love with John Keats, then there’s a good chance you won’t be resisting any longer.

Motion gives the appropriate weight to Keats’ gift for friendship, to the power of his love for Fanny Brawne (cause of both ardent joy and deathly despair), and to his deeply felt vocation as a poet. I can’t recommend this tome highly enough.


gallery | Keats Cottage, Shanklin

Keats Cottage, Shanklin, Isle of Wight

John Keats stayed at Keats Cottage (known at the time as Eglantine Cottage) in July and August 1819, with his friends James Rice and Charles Armitage Brown.

The Keats Connection

Charles Brown took a summer holiday each year, and sub-let his part of Wentworth Place (now Keats House) in Hampstead. Hence, his lodger Keats must find alternative accommodation for the period, despite being low on funds. During the summer of 1819, Keats agreed to join his friend James Rice in Shanklin on the Isle of Wight. Charles Brown joined the pair later.

It has to be said that Keats wasn't overly happy while at Eglantine Cottage, but he did get a lot of writing done, which is no bad thing. He wrote a substantial portion of the play Otho the Great, the story of which Charles Brown (as co-author) was sketching out for him. Keats also started writing one of his most well-known narrative poems, 'Lamia'.

A great part of Keats' unhappiness was caused by his love for Fanny Brawne, whom he longed for desperately - but whom he could not afford to marry. He was considering alternative careers at this time, that might pay better than poetry, but such compromises were not to be, especially as his health was already worsening. His poetic vocation, his love for Fanny, his poor health, and his perennial need for enough money to live on (let alone marry on) were conflicting burdens that tore him every which way.

Then, as now, the old village in Shanklin and its Chine were a great tourist spot, and so the summer crowds did not help Keats' mood nor his ability to concentrate on writing.

A happier association with Eglantine Cottage is that Charles Brown drew my favourite image of Keats while staying there, in July 1819. (Follow the link to see a copy downloaded from the National Portrait Gallery under their Creative Commons licence.)

In Between

The artist George Morland also stayed at Eglantine Cottage, in 1789. His Coast Scene with Smugglers (1790), for example, shows a view of Shanklin beach. (Links: George Morland page on Wikipedia; Coast Scene with Smugglers page at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.)

Other visitors to the Cottage apparently included the playwright Thomas Morton. (Link: Thomas Morton page on Wikipedia.)

I don't have much information about Eglantine Cottage over the years, but it was open to the public as 'Keats Cottage Hotel' before the current owners, David and Ewa, took over. It has since been refurbished, with respect for yesterday's visitors and consideration for today's.


Mr B and I have stayed at Keats Cottage twice now, and we have really loved it. David and Ewa are very obliging and friendly hosts, and Ewa's cooking makes breakfast and dinner at the restaurant a real treat.

The Keats room at Keats Cottage - a little more luxurious these days than he would have known it!

NB: The rooms are all up various flights of stairs, so people with mobility restrictions may need to plan accordingly. Part of the restaurant is at street level, however, so that is probably doable for all.

NB: There is no on-site parking, but there is a council car park just down the road, and the island-wide rate for a number of days' parking is quite reasonable.

We have stayed in the Byron, Keats, and Shelley rooms on the first floor - and while I must say the Shelley room has the edge in terms of a superbly large bathroom, it is a real thrill to stay in the Keats room, which is where he stayed in 1819, complete with a view up to the Shanklin Theatre. I stayed on my own for two nights in that room, and wrote some of my novel The 'True Love' Solution there. What Keats would make of that, other than politely offering general encouragement, I have no idea!

David and Ewa host regular events at the restaurant, with focuses on various cuisines (Polish, Italian) or particular types of food or drink (wine, crab, vegetables).

One of Ewa's delicious entrees in the restaurant at Keats Cottage.

I really can highly recommend the experience to all Keatsians!


  • Address: Keats Cottage, 76 High Street, Shanklin, Isle of Wight, PO37 6NJ
  • Train: Shanklin on the Island Line
  • Opening hours: The B&B is open throughout most of the year, but do check availability before you make travel plans. The restaurant is open five nights a week during the busy season, but fewer nights per week over winter.



  • The top of Shanklin Chine can be found in the old village, just below where High Street becomes Church Road. It leads down quite steeply to Shanklin beach. Keats called the Chine 'wondrous'. (Links: Shanklin Chine page on Wikipedia.)
  • Keats and his friends apparently had an outing to sketch St Blasius Church one day, before returning to Eglantine Cottage where Brown sketched Keats in the portrait I've linked to above. The church dates back to medieval times, but was largely rebuilt in 1859, so it would have appeared quite different to Keats in 1819. (Links: St Blasius Church, Shanklin page on Wikipedia.)

St Blasius Church in Shanklin.

portrait | “John Keats” by Charles Brown

John Keats by Charles Armitage Brown, pencil, 1819

This is my favourite portrait of John Keats. It was drawn by his friend Charles Brown while they were staying at Eglantine Cottage (now Keats Cottage) on the Isle of Wight in the summer of 1819.

The drawing is held by the National Portrait Gallery in London, and I am sharing it under the NPG’s Creative Commons license. (Your respect for the terms of this license is appreciated.)

Non-Catholic Cemetery, Rome

The Cimitero Acattolico (or ‘Non-Catholic Cemetery‘) in Rome is John Keats’ final resting place. He is buried in the old part of the cemetery, near the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius.


‘The Grave of Keats’ (1873) by Walter Crane, held by the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford (source: Wikimedia Commons).

The Keats Connection

John Keats died in Rome on Friday 23 February 1821, and was buried early on the following Monday.

The Catholic Church’s ecclesiastical laws meant that only Catholic believers could be buried in Catholic churches or in consecrated ground. Burial places for non-Catholics were therefore required, especially for harbour cities such as Livorno and Venice, where a variety of people visited and mingled. These burial places have been known as ‘Protestant Cemeteries’, but of course they do not cater only for Protestant believers, and therefore the term ‘Non-Catholic’ is more appropriate and a proper translation – even if it doesn’t roll quite so smoothly off the tongue.

The Pyramid of Cestius was built in 18-12 BC as a tomb for Roman magistrate Gaius Cestius. It is quite stunning to see, standing 37 metres high, with a very sharp slope, and clad in white marble. The Pyramid would have originally stood in open countryside, but as Rome grew the city began to encroach on the Pyramid. When the city’s Aurelian Walls were built in 271-275 AD, the Pyramid was incorporated in the walls – which has helped ensure its preservation. The contrast between the Pyramid’s white marble (when it’s clean!) and the red stone of the walls, has a remarkable effect.

There are records of burials in the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome dating back to 1716, when members of the Stuart court (exiled from England) were buried in front of the Pyramid. The earliest grave which has actually been found in the cemetery, though, is of George Langton, a graduate of Oxford, who was buried in 1738.

Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley’s beloved son William died at three years of age in Rome, in 1819, and was buried near the Pyramid. There is a grave marker, though apparently it is not quite in the right location.

The grave marker for little William Shelley, his parents’ beloved ‘Willmouse’.

Over 60 people in all were buried in the old part of the cemetery. Keats was one of the last to be buried there in that period, as it was decided the Pyramid should not be crowded out. A new cemetery was established beside the old one, with the Aurelian Wall providing one long boundary for the whole.

In Between

Percy Bysshe Shelley died in 1822, drowned off the coast of Tuscany, and (most of!) his cremated remains were buried in the new part of the cemetery, up against the Aurelian Wall. His friend Edward John Trelawny was buried beside him when he died in 1881.

Joseph Severn, who loyally nursed John Keats through his last months, died in 1879, and at his request was buried in the old part of the cemetery next to Keats. Just behind them is the grave of Joseph’s son Arthur Severn, who died at eight months old in 1837.

By its very nature, the cemetery contains a wide range of people – in terms of nationalities, languages and occupations – including Goethe’s son August, and Tolstoy’s daughter Tatiana, not to mention a grandson of Johann Sebastian Bach. (And the number of times the words ‘friend of Henry James’ appear in the list of burials makes me suspect him of being rather careless.) Whether you recognise other names, such as Antonio Gramsci or Constance Fenimore Woolson, will depend on your particular areas of interest.

Oscar Wilde, visiting in 1877, declared it ‘the holiest place in Rome’.

The Cemetery is managed by an association formed of the 15 foreign embassies in Rome which have nationals buried there. This includes Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Russian Federation, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the United States of America.

This private cemetery receives no government funding, and is therefore dependent on direct income and maintenance fees, fundraising and donations. The Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome maintains Keats’ and Shelley’s graves, but if you can help the Cemetery take care of the rest of their responsibilities, that would be marvellous!

In 2006, the World Monuments Fund included the Cemetery on its Watch List of the most endangered sites on earth. The establishment of the Friends of the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome has helped address the issues.


The Non-Catholic Cemetery is an astonishing place to visit. The pleasant pastoral feel of the old cemetery, and the dramatic yet not imposing Pyramid, are unforgettable.

The new cemetery is a huge contrast, with almost every inch containing a grave, many with monuments, and barely enough room left for pathways. It is a beautiful place, though, and somehow full of light rather than gloom. And some of the statues – such as the ‘Angel of Grief’ draped over the tomb of the sculptor William Wetmore Story and his wife Emelyn – are amazing.

A bench is placed before Keats’ and Severn’s graves, where you can sit and contemplate them quite peacefully. The cats of the cemetery may come and join you for a while. I cannot imagine a lovelier place for Keats to rest.

John Keats’ and Joseph Severn’s graves, with a plaque in memory of Keats on the far wall.

If you cannot make visiting hours, an ‘arrow slit’ in the outer wall allows you to peer in and pay your respects to Keats, who lies only a few feet distant.

On a practical note, there are conveniences available, and a Visitors Centre. There are no refreshments available, but there are shops and cafes nearby, especially near the Piramide Metro station.


  • Address: Via Caio Cestio 6, 00153 Rome
  • Metro: Piramide on Line B
  • Opening hours: Open every day, but for only a half day on Sundays and public holidays. Check the details on the official site before you make firm plans!
  • There is no entry fee, but donations are requested.


gallery | Keats-Shelley Memorial House, Rome

Keats-Shelley Memorial House, Rome

The Keats-Shelley Memorial House is a ‘writer’s home museum’ in honour of John Keats, who spent the last four months of his life there between November 1820 and February 1821. The Memorial House also honours Keats’ contemporary and friend, the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who spent time in Rome while living for some years in Italy. Both Keats and Shelley are buried in Rome’s ‘Non-Catholic Cemetery’.

The Keats Connection

John Keats was advised to seek a warmer climate for the sake of his health. After various delays, Keats finally left England by ship in September 1820, accompanied by his artist friend, Joseph Severn. They landed at Naples, Italy in October, and arrived in Rome on 14 November.

It had already been arranged for Dr James Clark to attend Keats, and Dr Clark had taken rooms for them on the second floor of the building at number 26, Piazza di Spagna, at the foot of the Spanish Steps. Their landlady, Anna Angeletti, occupied the rooms at the back of the second floor, and Keats and Severn had the rooms at the front, overlooking the Spanish Steps and the burbling fountain in the Piazza, the Fontana della Barcaccia.

The Keats-Shelley House, to the right at the foot of the Spanish Steps.

Unfortunately, Keats’ health only worsened despite Severn’s diligent care of him. John Keats died in the little corner bedroom of these rooms, late at night on Friday 23 February 1821.

The funeral procession left from the Piazza before dawn on Monday 26 February.

In Between

Due to Rome’s health laws, the room in which Keats died was stripped and scraped back, and everything burned. It has since been restored to its former condition, with the carved and painted daisies in the ceiling, just as Keats had known.

The rooms were occupied privately for the rest of the 1800s, and became quite dilapidated, despite a constant stream of visitors wanting to see the room where Keats had died.

The efforts to purchase the rooms, and turn them into a museum began in 1903, with support and fundraising coming from America and Britain as well as Italy. The purchase occurred in 1906, and restoration began. A dedication was carried out by the King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III, on 3 April 1909, and the museum was formally opened to the public.

During the Second World War, anticipating the German occupation of Rome, the House preserved itself by taking down its signage and appearing to be just another anonymous set of rooms. The thousands of books remained where they were. However, two boxes of particular treasures – including letters, first editions, and locks of Keats’ and Shelley’s hair – were sent to the Abbey of Monte Cassino for safekeeping. The Abbey’s archivist then took the boxes with him when the Abbey was evacuated in 1943, ahead of German occupation and Allied bombing. Eventually, with the Allied forces arriving in Rome, the boxes and their contents were restored to the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, and formally unsealed and opened in June 1944.

Keats’ life mask, reflected, in a display case.

The House now contains a significant library and extensive memorabilia associated with the Romantic poets. The walls of the main rooms are lined with beautiful book shelves and display cases, though Keats’ bedroom is preserved as he would have known it.

The House is run by the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association. It occupies all of the second floor of the building, and has now expanded into parts of the first floor as well.


I have loved visiting the Keats-Shelley Memorial House. Despite the sadness of Keats’ early death, there is a sense of peace and contentment there … not to mention a cool selection of items in the gift shop!

NB: The museum is reached via a few steps up to the front door, and then a relatively wide stairwell going up two stories. Staff are willing to help where they can, but there is no lift, and therefore people with restricted mobility will need to plan ahead with all this in mind.

I have felt all the luck and privilege associated with being able to view a lock of Keats’ hair – so distinctively reddish-brown! – and the original of Severn’s last portrait of him sketched while Keats was dying.

There are regular talks given for visitors, lectures and events, as well as an annual poetry competition for school children.


  • Address: Piazza di Spagna 26, 00187 Rome
  • Metro: Spagna on Line A
  • Opening hours: The House is open Monday to Saturday each week, and closes for an hour at lunchtime. Check the details on the website before you travel!


gallery | Keats House, Hampstead

Keats House, Hampstead, London

Keats House is a ‘writer’s home museum’ in honour of John Keats, who lived there for various periods between December 1818 and September 1820, when he left for Italy. It is a particularly significant location, as he wrote much of his most admired poetry there, and also fell deeply in love with the girl next door, Fanny Brawne.

Keats House on a snowy day in January 2013.

The Keats Connection

Keats House was originally known as Wentworth Place, and was built during the period 1814-15, on what was called John Street, near the edge of Hampstead Heath. The building contained two homes, although the facade makes it look like it’s all one. The area behind the main front door and the rooms to the right of it made up the larger portion, occupied by Charles Wentworth Dilke and his family. Charles Brown occupied the smaller home to the left, with an entrance midway along the left side of the house. (The large conservatory on the left was a later addition.)

After Keats’ youngest brother Tom Keats died in December 1818, Charles Brown asked John to move in with him. Keats occupied the living room at the rear on the ground floor, and the bedroom at the rear on the first floor.

The back of Keats House. Keats’ two rooms were on the right, on the ground and first floors.

The Dilke family moved out of their home in April 1819, and let it to the Brawne family. Keats fell in love with and became engaged to Fanny Brawne, the oldest of the family’s three children.

Almost all of Keats’ great odes were composed at Wentworth Place in 1819, as well as other poetry. Brown told the tale of how Keats wrote his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ while sitting under a plum tree in the garden, though Dilke called Brown’s story ‘pure delusion’. In any case, the location and Fanny Brawne between them perhaps saw Keats at his happiest and most productive.

Keats spent time away from Wentworth Place travelling – especially when Charles Brown wanted to sublet his home during the summer. As Keats’ illness became more serious, he also lived for a time in lodgings near, and then with, Leigh Hunt’s family in London. After a falling out with the Hunts, however, Mrs Brawne generously took Keats into their home on the Dilkes’ side of Wentworth Place, and the Brawnes took care of him until Keats left for Italy in September 1820.

The Keats connection with Wentworth Place continued after Keats’ death in February 1821. At his request, Fanny Brawne befriended his young sister, Fanny Keats, who was living very unhappily with her guardian’s family in Walthamstow. Fanny Keats, once she came of age at 21 and could do as she wished, moved in with the Brawnes who welcomed her as a daughter and sister. Later, Fanny Keats married Valentine Llanos, and they moved into Brown’s part of the house with their first child, and lived there next to the Brawnes until their growing family forced them to move to larger quarters.

The Brawnes left Wentworth Place by early 1830, and the Llanos family left in 1831.

In Between

Primroses in the Keats House garden in April 2012.

The house was owned privately throughout the 1800s. The actress Eliza Jane Chester bought it in 1838, added the large conservatory, and converted the house into one home.

A ‘blue plaque’ was erected at Keats House in 1896 to acknowledge Keats’ residence there. It is actually a reddish-brown plaque, as was usual for those placed by the Society of Arts. Not many of these types of plaques survive. It reads:

John Keats. Poet. Lived in this house. B: 1795. D: 1821.

You can see it today above the House’s front door.

In 1920, the House was threatened with demolition so that a block of flats could be built on the land. A Memorial Committee managed to raise enough money to buy the house in 1921, and restore it as a museum in honour of the poet. Keats House was opened to the public on 9 May 1925. Various renovations have taken place since then.

The House is a Grade I listed building, and is now managed by the City of London.


Keats House is a wonderful place to visit. I find a real sense of peace there – which is not what I’d looked for. Since the most recent refurbishment in 2007-09, the place is really beautifully fitted out, and contains period-appropriate furnishings. You can visit not only the ground and first floors, but also the kitchen and other rooms in the basement. Guided tours are available each day the House is open.

  • NB: The first floor and the basement are only accessible via stairs – and fairly steep, narrow ones at that. People with restricted mobility should, however, be able to visit the ground floor with no problems, and I can promise that’s very worthwhile.

The items on display are changed on a regular basis, but the treasures I’ve seen there include the engagement ring Keats gave to Fanny Brawne, a notebook from his medical studies, his annotated copy of Shakespeare, and the letter Shelley sent him from Pisa. Otherwise, there’s plenty of artwork and other images, and information.

The gift shop is small but always carries an intriguing range of books, along with toys, gifts and souvenirs. On a practical note, there are conveniences in a small block behind the house. There is no cafe, but there are plenty just around the corner near the Hampstead Heath station (I highly recommend Euphorium Bakery), and even more up the hill towards the Hampstead station.

Keats House stands on a large block, with lovely gardens maintained in the kind of style Keats would have recognised. There is always plenty of greenery, almost always flowers, and there are plenty of benches from which to enjoy them.

Not only all that, but there are regular events held at Keats House including poetry performances, workshops, and family days. Evening events change according to the season, and often look at other poets, or other matters of interest in Keats’ era. Some guided tours focus on specific aspects of Keats’ life or work. Workshops are offered to schools for students at all levels. I am sure Keats would particularly appreciate the House’s support for today’s poets.


  • Address: Keats House, 10 Keats Grove, Hampstead, London NW3 2RR.
  • Tube: Hampstead Heath on the Overground line, or Hampstead on the Northern line.
  • NB: Opening hours: The House is not open all day every day, so it is always worth checking on the opening hours, and the time(s) of guided tours, before making plans.