WANDERING KEATS HOUSE

Keats HouseI have always been unclear about where the emphasis in "Keats House" is meant to fall. The neat white cottage is famously where John Keats spent two of the most incandescent years of his starburst career--allegedly composing "Ode to a Nightingale" under a plum tree in its roomy garden and pursuing a destructive passion for his neighbour, Fanny Brawne. Yet the glaring absence of apostrophe, the English Heritage-robustness of the name, reminds us that this is a House first, separate from the fleeting glory of a former inhabitant.

Of course, this former inhabitant is what procured the building its £424,000 ($763,000) refurbishment grant from the National Lottery in 2004. The house had been stumbling along as a museum, its furnishings gradually tiring, after having passed through various hands since Keats left for Rome in 1820. The two-storey, 19th-century house reopened this summer after its painstaking restoration, and is now brimming with displays of Keats memorabilia.

Though it is nice enough to wander the rooms, imagining the 21-year-old poet pacing around, pining for Fanny, coughing consumptively and composing some of the best-loved verse in English, the real joy of Keats House is the locale. It inhabits a pocket of land between the bohemian opulence of Hampstead and the cheery village amenities of South End Green, on the fringes of the rambling Hampstead Heath. Opposite are spectacular town mansions, fenced high to conceal swimming pools and sports cars. The big houses have complicated gardens; Keats House squats, pearl-snug, in a calm pool of lawn.

The house is under the auspices of the City of London, and their stated ambition is that it will become a focal point for poetry-related happenings and other earnest cultural events. (Presumably this is a condition of its funding.) Regardless it is a strange yet worthwhile museum. Just as Keats' short, sad life expands his verse, so this peaceful house reminds us of what has been gained and lost.

~ ED CUMMING