‘Season of mists and mellow fruitlessness!’ While ineptly rowing on an English country lake, Bridget Jones is moved to proclaim the famous first line of John Keats’s ‘Ode to Autumn’. Her boyfriend Daniel responds, from his own rowboat, by expressing his love for Keats through expletives. I didn’t know much about poetry when I first watched Bridget Jones’s Diary as a teenager, but this scene made me feel that Keats must be rather good. I didn’t pay much attention to the words Bridget bellows. Recently, though, a soundbite of her gleeful quotation has been going round in my head—perhaps because, as my previous post on Natbee’s can attest, I’ve been thinking a lot about autumn. Keats House, Keats House museum
When I get a song stuck in my head, I tend to exorcise it by listening to it over and over again, until I can’t stand it any longer. So at the weekend I decided to saturate my brain with Keats, to get Bridget’s line out of my head. The best place to do this, I reasoned, would be the Keats House Museum, which happens to be a mere ten-minute walk from my new home in North London.
Though it was warm the Saturday I visited, I had to navigate several piles of crisp, brown leaves between my home and the Keats House, so I arrived feeling distinctly autumnal. The museum can be found on (you guessed it) Keats Grove—a stone’s throw from Hampstead Heath overground station. Its location is accessible, then, if you’re in London and fancy a visit. I’d recommend it. It’s a wonderful museum.
From the street, visitors to the Keats House will spy a modest, pristinely white Georgian villa, surrounded by a well-kept garden. To gain access, you walk round the house to the back door, admiring the flowers and the light-filled conservatory as you go. I was particularly enchanted by some of the doors I came across: several of them had beautiful stained-glass panels with symmetrical patterns that pleasingly reflect the sense of balance I read in Keats’s poetry.
The house has changed in the precisely two centuries since Keats first moved in, but stepping over its threshold still feels like going back in time. Evocative details make it feel like the poet is about to walk in the door at any minute: the ring he gave to the love of his short life rests in a cabinet upstairs, and in one room the chairs have been arranged exactly as they are depicted in a famous portrait of Keats, which hangs on the wall. Keats House, Keats House museum
The museum is interesting even if you’re not into poetry: it gives an accurate and fascinating sense of what life here was like two hundred years ago. I was surprised to find myself learning about everything from nineteenth century plumbing to Regency era fashion. There are even plenty of activities to keep little ones busy, if you happen to have any in tow.
On the top floor, visitors can listen to recordings of Keats’s poetry. Given the season, I decided it would be appropriate to listen to Keats’s final ode, ‘To Autumn’—the poem that Bridget merrily quotes during her romantic country retreat. I sat down on a period sofa and let the first line wash over me: ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. Keats House, Keats House museum
Hold on, I thought, I’ve just realised. While ineptly rowing, Bridget is also ineptly quoting: Keats wrote that autumn is a season of ‘fruitfulness’; in quoting him, Bridget replaces this word with its opposite, ‘fruitlessness’. I suppose her misremembering is part of what makes the scene funny, and it’s also suggestive: Bridget’s season is indeed fruitless, in that her relationship with Daniel is futile. She learns that very weekend that he’s engaged to someone else. Keats House, Keats House museum
I needed a walk after visiting the Keats House, to think about this revelation that what had been going round in my head wasn’t romantic poetry, but a strange hybrid of Keats and Bridget Jones. I headed to Hampstead Heath, which starts at the end of Keats Grove. This sprawling park has a sense of wildness that other parks in London lack, although the most popular spot on the Heath is undoubtedly Parliament Hill, from which you can see the distinctly un-wild skyline of London. Nevertheless, Hampstead Heath is a place to get lost, particularly in thought.
On my wonder, I generously decided that my strange compulsion to go to the Keats House Museum this weekend had been my brain’s way of telling me that something was up with the soundbite that had been whirring round my mind. If I’d thought about what Bridget was saying for more than half a second, I would have questioned it: since I was a child, I’ve thought of autumn as a time of windfall apples and local pears—a time, in other words, that is full of fruit.
As if to confirm this fact, while I was rambling on Hampstead Heath, I noticed a number of people with very large, very juicy apples. Hungry, and determined to find the fruitful source of their snacks, I followed a steady stream of people and their pooches towards some tennis courts at the bottom of Parliament Hill. Every Saturday, from 10am, stalls pop up on these courts, forming a weekly Farmers’ Market with a vast array of produce.
I shopped for seasonal vegetables, and my lunch—the Bak Gwei stall caught my eye, with its ‘tasty, Asian comfort food’, as did the awesome dosa wraps offered at the Mumbai Mix stall. Of course, I also took advantage of the ‘fruitfulness’ of autumn, stocking up on apples and pears, which I’ve snacked on in the library this week, stirred into my morning porridge and slathered in peanut butter for a late-night snack.
Walking home, tummy and bag alike full of food, I reflected that Bridget Jones’s Diary, hilarious though it may be, is perhaps not the film to turn to for accurate renditions of Keats. Fortunately, there does exist a film that meticulously delves into the poet’s life. Bright Star, a compelling account of Keats’s love affair with another occupant of the Georgian villa on Keats Grove, features Ben Whishaw perfectly reciting some of the poet’s best-loved verses, including ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘Bright Star’ but not, sadly, ‘Ode to Autumn’. I suppose Renée Zellwegger’s slightly faulty English accent will still come to mind when I think of this poem, but at least I’ll be reminded of the revelation I had on a sunny autumn day in Hampstead.