All journeys to a writer's home are less a search for the particulars of a poet's life than a glimpse at the creative energies that sustained it. Whether it's Wordsworth's stone cottage in Grasmere or Shakespeare's rose-trellised Stratford home, what fascinates us is how, in these most common of contexts, genius bloomed. Within these mute walls, we say, the poet found his voice. And it's this - not just the ivory-backed combs, the faded suits, and sundry glass cabinets - that siphons us off main roads, down obscure lanes, past lakes and open fields, to that house.
In this sense, few writers' homes exercise the pull of John Keats's London home. In this two-storied Regency house, tucked near the corner of Hampstead Heath, the poet spent the single most creative year of any poet short of Shakespeare. In 1818-19, one year before he sailed for Italy, Keats composed among the greatest lyric poetry in the English language: almost all the final odes, ''La Belle Dame sans Merci,'' and the epic ''Hyperion.'' It's here also that he wrote his celebrated letters on creativity and character, as well as the now famous love letters to his fiancee, Fanny Brawne.
The legends of Keats House, then, are two: literature and love. In sheer drama, few homes can compete. If we know that it was in this garden, under its ancient plum tree, that Keats wrote ''Ode to a Nightingale,'' so we know - perhaps too well - that in this same garden the young poet first met the blue-eyed Fanny Brawne, the 18-year-old immortalized forever in the sonnet ''Bright Star.'' No couple has better symbolized the lived ideal of Romantic poetry. For the poet who defined writing as ''stringing after particles of light ,'' Fanny Brawne was far more than a shooting star in Keats's creative orbit. She was a comet. That their engagement, so befitting the Romantic ethic, was cut short by his death in Rome in 1821 has haunted generations ever since.
In fact, so entwined are the legends that the Brawne story has tended to overshadow the breadth of Keats's poetic achievement. To visit Keats House is to right that balance. It corrects the morbid and sentimental image fueled by the Victorian imagination: that of the dying poet and his beloved, whom, mistakenly, the Victorians condemned as a coquettish flirt. What we find instead is the deeper reality that nurtured Keats's creative life. Here, in their briefest intensity, work and love, those polar stars of creativity, incandesced. Like the nightingale's song, Fanny was the presence that triggered the poetry so long waiting its release.
For travelers there is no greater contrast than the Hampstead home and the equally famous Keats-Shelley House in Rome's Piazza di Spagna. If, to posterity, Rome has come to be identified with the surrender of all hope, the literal end of Keats's poetic career, then Hampstead is its mirror opposite. Here the poet of Negative Capability ''stormed the Gates of poetry.'' Moreover, as his letters attest, Hampstead witnessed the evolution of Keats's luminous moral intelligence. What visitors confront, then, is nothing less than the spiritual and poetic maturation of John Keats. In one house, in one year, all that fed him , all that he was, is here.
Keats's association with Hampstead dates to 1816, when the poet, then 21, journeyed to the Vale of Health to meet poet Leigh Hunt. The meeting was auspicious. Having recently renounced his vocation of medicine for poetry, Keats spurned lodgings in coal-choked London, opting instead for the greenery of Hampstead, then a village nestled in an expanse of open countryside. Settling in at 1 Well Walk in April 1818, Keats was joined by his brothers, Tom and George. Soon all changed. In June, George married and emigrated to America; in December, Tom passed on.
Days later, Charles Brown, a 31-year-old bachelor friend of Hunt's, urged Keats to share his house in Lower Heath Quarter. Wentworth Place - now Keats House - consisted of two semidetached houses built in 1816 by Charles Dilke, a schoolfellow of Brown's and later a close friend of Keats's. Dilke, a civil servant, occupied the larger, western side; Brown and Keats, the smaller eastern one. At (STR)5 a month, Keats's rent entitled him to a private sitting room, an upstairs bedroom, and shared kitchen, dining, and garden privileges.
The move to Wentworth Place in December 1818 marked a time that, however difficult, cleared the way for the surfacing of his talent. With his family scattered, his literary mentors surpassed, John Keats settled down to the business of his poetry, and, in retrospect, the business of his genius. Obsessed with the ideal of effort, he returned to writing ''Hyperion,'' the sequel to his published epic ''Endymion.'' Work was fitful. As a release, he traveled to Chichester, where, in nine days, he wrote ''The Eve of St. Agnes.''
The episode foreshadowed the furious creative bursts of the next seven months in Hampstead. As Walter Jackson Bate notes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, ''John Keats,'' ''He had reached the point, which we find as a rule in only the very greatest poets, where he could not begin a serious poem of any length without creating for it a new style of its own.'' In short, with each new poem, Keats inched poetry toward the modern age.
It was during this time that Dilke let his house to Mrs. Frances Brawne, a widow with three children. While it's conceded that Keats met Fanny Brawn in November 1818, it wasn't until the Brawnes resettled at Dilke's in 1819 that the courtship began. At first it was the oddest of loves. Fanny, quick but still schoolgirlish, kept fashion scrapbooks, preferred light novels, and only read Shakespeare's comedies. No matter. ''I have met women,'' Keats later wrote, ''whom I really think would like to be married to a Novel and to be given away by a Poem.'' Thus, the girl whom he described earlier as ''beautiful and elegant , graceful, silly, fashionable, and strange'' became the ''bright star'' of Keats's imagination.
Their engagement in July 1819, like Keats's peace of mind, fell prey to fate. Plagued by financial worries - George had lost money in Kentucky - Keats abandoned poetry, contemplating work as a ship surgeon or a journalist. Neither materialized. In May, after a brief stay in Kentish Town to save money, Keats, then in declining health, returned to Wentworth Place where Fanny and her mother nursed him before his final voyage to Italy in September 1820.
Today, as we turn down Keats Grove, a road off the southeast corner of Hampstead Heath, this is the story we bring to Keats House. Entering its gate, negotiating its circular stone walk, we pass the 300-year-old mulberry tree Keats loved. We stop. Like a novel whose ending we hope will be different on rereading, so we approach Keats House. So many visitors have entertained this same optimistic delusion that in 1974-75 the house's foundation, sagging from a century of pacers, had to be reinforced by steel beams.
With the exception of the 1837 renovation by actress Eliza Chester, who connected the two houses and added a small wing, the house remains faithful to Keats's time. Its iron-fronted balconies and folding shutters are those Keats saw. The high, arched doorway ushers us into a narrow hall, its walls festooned with prints depicting Hampstead during the poet's time. We glimpse a village whose woods are thick with nightingales.
To the right, we step into the Brawne rooms, formerly the Dilke-Brawne portion of Wentworth Place. The rooms, spacious Regency design, are framed on each end by long windows overlooking the front and back gardens. Writers from Thomas Hardy to Virginia Woolf have declared themselves ill-prepared for these rooms. If these rooms cradle Fanny Brawne's girlhood, they mark her - and Keats's - march to adulthood. Here, in glass cabinets, we stare at the garnet engagement ring Keats gave Fanny, 31 letters, and icons of a childhood left behind: her ivory-faced scrapbook, the sewing basket, the worked sampler.
Passing back into the hall, on the right after the staircase, we enter Keats's sitting room. In this tiny room, its French windows opening onto the garden, Keats wrote his finest poems. To remind us of what sparked them, the room has been carefully constructed around Keats's influences. Flanking the Girometti medallion of Keats over the mantel are portraits of his brothers, while on the opposite wall is a later portrait of his sister, Fanny. Keats's literary family is well represented: the print of Shakespeare, which the poet carried everywhere, hangs near a cabinet that contains his debts to Milton.
Across the hall we step into Charles Brown's sitting room. Interesting in itself for its collection of Hogarth prints and first editions, the study has a deeper resonance for Keats admirers. It's here near the wide-framed window that Brown set up a sofa bed so that Keats could watch Fanny Brawne as she paced in the garden. It's here Brown and the poet hatched their ill-fated scheme: writing a light play to bolster Keats's finances.
At the end of the hall is the added Chester Room. If the Brawne Rooms give us Keats's hopes for love, this gives us his hope for literature. Few writers' rooms have realized that hope better. Beginning with Haydon's life mask of Keats , the room charts his literary life: schoolbooks from Enfield, doodled lecture notes from Guy's Hospital, his copy of Milton's ''Paradise Lost'' in which Keats wrote out ''To Sleep,'' and his volume of Shakespeare which contains an early copy of ''Bright Star.''
On display are the elaborately scrolled inkwell crowned by a small bust of Shakespeare, a first edition of the vilified ''Endymion,'' and copies of original poems. Threaded throughout the collection are numerous original letters , two of the most touching being Keats's letter to Shelley declining his invitation to stay in Rome, and the final letter to Mrs. Brawne with its poignant postscript to Fanny. Complementing these are Joseph Severn's sketches of Keats as they sailed for Italy aboard the Maria Crowther.
Keats's upstairs bedroom, an airy room framed around a high-canopied bed, switches the mood considerably. On the wall is a plaque quoting from his Nov. 22 , 1817, letter. ''I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of imagination,'' it reads, ''the imagination may be compared to Adam's dream. He woke and found it truth.'' This reverberates as we make the dreary round of scullery, kitchen, and larder on the basement level.
As we come up the stairs, out into the sunlight, past the spot where in a single afternoon Keats wrote his nightingale ode, we are left not necessarily with the dramas of Keats House but with its lesson. Here, the blue plaque above the doorway might read, was where the education of the heart schooled John Keats. Literature is forever in its debt. Practical information
Keats House, Keats Grove, Hampstead NW3 is open weekdays 10-1, 2-6. Sundays the house is open 2-5. Admission is free. (Telephone: 01-435-2062).
Transportation: Bus, 28 to Rosslyn Hill, 24, 46, 187, and C11 to Hampstead Heath. Underground, Hampstead. Rail, Hampstead Heath (Broad Street-Richmond Line).