A joy forever: poetry world prepares to mark bicentenary of John Keats

Two hundred years after his early death, plays, readings and new poetry will honour the legacy of the much beloved author

Almost 200 years ago, on 23 February 1821, the English poet John Keats died of tuberculosis in Rome at the age of 25. “I shall soon be laid in the quiet grave – thank God for the quiet grave,” he told his friend Joseph Severn, in whose arms he died. “I can feel the cold earth upon me – the daisies growing over me – O for this quiet – it will be my first.”

Keats gave instructions for his headstone to be engraved with the words “here lies one whose name was writ in water”, and visitors to Rome’s Protestant cemetery can still make a pilgrimage to see it today. But far from being “writ in water”, Keats’s words continue to echo, with a host of writing and events lined up to mark the 200th anniversary of his death.

“Over the 200 years Keats’s reputation has continued to soar, while that of some of his contemporaries have risen and fallen. His early death, doomed love, appealing personality, handsome looks and approachable and luxuriant poetry have caught the imaginations of generations,” said Angus Graham-Campbell, a playwright and academic whose play Writ in Water, telling the story of Keats’ final weeks, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 23 February. “His reputation will continue to rise.”

The Poetry Society and the Keats House Hampstead are working together to mark the anniversary. The society has commissioned poets Ruth Padel, Rachael Boast and Will Harris to write poems inspired by Keats. Padel was inspired by his Ode to a Nightingale, Harris responded to Hyperion, and Boast to When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be.

“Can’t you sleep either? After a dark year, / many old friends gone, I heard you sing / in the empty street outside the window / inches from my ear. / Who are you singing for, this time of night?” Padel writes as her poem opens.

She said: “Sleepless in lockdown, unable to see my family at Christmas, in a year when many friends died and there’d been ambulances and Covid deaths in flats across the road, I heard a robin belting out its song in the middle of the night and thought of Keats,” said Padel, calling Ode to a Nightingale “a perfect example of where poetry can take us, why we need it”.

The Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome, where Keats died, has launched an immersive video tour of the house, led by rock star and philanthropist Bob Geldof, to mark the anniversary. Geldof, who is the Keats-Shelley200 ambassador, is also narrating a video story for the museum, The Death of Keats, in which he will read from letters that tell the story of Keats’s time in the house and his death. “Keats and the house in Rome mean a lot to me, and it was a pleasure to work on these projects for the bicentenary of his death,” said Geldof. Geldof’s tour can be watched with a VR headset or on a regular screen, while a panoramic tour of the house with a live guide will also be available on 23 February.

“Keats didn’t consider himself to be a Romantic poet, but I think he knew he was a poet working on the vanguard of language and the imagination, qualities which still hold true,” said Giuseppe Albano, curator of Keats-Shelley House. “And then there’s the irresistibly sad story of his life and death, as well as his letters, which are among the freshest and deftest in the English language. It never ceases to amaze me just how much love he inspires in visitors to the Keats-Shelley House, and how his work has the power to draw people in and connect them. Two hundred years after his death, Keats’s poetry has never been more alive or more loved.”

The Keats-Shelley Memorial Association also commissioned Graham-Campbell’s play, Writ in Water, which will star Billy Howle as Keats and Callum Woodhouse as his companion Joseph Severn. The play was put together during the pandemic, meaning there were restrictions on the production, but Graham-Campbell said it had produced “wonderfully authentic and for me deeply moving results.”

Keats’s grave in the Protestant cemetery in Rome.
Keats’s grave in the Protestant cemetery in Rome. Photograph: Vova Pomortzeff / Alamy/Alamy

In the morning of the anniversary, flowers will be laid by Keats’s tomb during a poetry reading. In the evening a virtual Keats, created by the Institute for Digital Archaeology in Oxford, will recite his poem Bright Star in a live feed from keats-shelley.org. Later, the poet Pele Cox’s play Lift Me Up for I Am Dying will be performed on FaceTime by actors in lockdown in different locations, and broadcast on the British School at Rome’s YouTube channel at 9.30pm GMT – shortly before Keats died.

• This article was amended on 22 February 2021. Due to incorrect information being supplied, an earlier version had the wrong time and YouTube channel for the performance of Lift Me Up for I Am Dying.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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