Bright Star; a thanksgiving for John Keats

Today is the 200th anniversary of the death of John Keats, I am reposting this tribute to him for all his poetry has meant and continues to mean for me:

Sometimes a poet, or even a single poem, can save your life. It can take you the way you are, in a place of darkness, loss or lostness, and, without changing anything, transmute everything, make everything available to you new, having ‘suffered a sea-change/ into something rich and strange’. That’s how it was for me when I first encountered Keats, in my mid-teens,  a very dark period of my life. This poem, written in the Spenserian Stanzas he used so effectively, is an account of how he changed things for me, and in its own way an act of testimony and thanksgiving. It is set on the Spanish Steps and in the house there where Keats spent the last months of his life. It was there, in the room where he died, that I first read the sonnet Bright Star, written into the fly leaf of his Shakespeare.

This poem is published in my book  The Singing Bowl  which is published by Canterbury Press and available through Amazon etc.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.


The sun strikes gold along the Spanish steps,

Patches of god-light where the tourists stray.

The old house is in shadow and still keeps

It’s treasures from the searching light of day.

I found it once, when I had lost my way,

Depressed and restless, sheltering from rain,

Long years ago in Rome. But from that day

Everything turned to gold, even my pain,

Reading the words of one who feared he wrote in vain.


I too was ‘half in love with ease-full death’,

But standing by the window, near his bed,

I almost heard the ‘tender-taken breath’

On which his words were forming. As I read

I felt things shifting in me, an old dread

Was somehow being brought to harmony

Taught by his music as the music fled

To sing at last, as by some alchemy

Despair itself was lifted into poetry


I spent that summer there and came each day

To read and breathe and let his life unfold

In mine. Little by little, made my way

From realms of darkness into realms of gold,

Finding that in his story mine was told;

Bereavements, doubts and longings, all were there

Somehow transmuted in the poem’s old

Enduring crucible, that furnace where

Quick-silver draws the gold from leaden-eyed despair.



Now with the sun I come on pilgrimage

To find this house and climb the foot-worn stair,

For I have lived to more than twice his age

And year-by-year his words have helped me bear

The black weight of my breathing, to repair

An always-breaking heart. Somehow he keeps

His watch on me from somewhere, that bright star…

So, with the words of one who mined the depths,

I sing and strike for gold along the Spanish steps.

The house where Keats died, by the Spanish Steps, now a memorial, museum and library

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Filed under imagination

10 responses to “Bright Star; a thanksgiving for John Keats

  1. mimacampbell

    Thank you for this beautiful tribute to John Keats. Only yesterday I read about places to avoid on a visit to Rome. The Spanish Steps was one. But to stand at the top and look down to where Keats lived and breathed his last makes the visit worthwhile. We all need to ‘strike for gold along the Spanish Steps’ to repair the brokenness of the past year.

  2. John Whitwell

    Thanks Malcolm!

  3. bgulland72

    Lovely poem, thanks. And I can certainly relate to experiencing dark periods in my younger years, no doubt not unusual in artistic types, though certainly not only them…

  4. Thank you for reposting this poem about Keats. I remember how moved I was standing in the room in which he drew his last painful breath. So young and full of promise, resonating with a deep loss we had. I’m so glad that Keats has continued to lift you out of the dark days to which I am no stranger.

  5. Ron

    “Tell me ye stones and give me O glorious palaces answer.
    Speak O ye streets but one word. Genius, art thou alive?
    Yes, here within thy sanctified walls there’s a soul in each object,
    ROMA eternal. For me, only, are all things yet mute.
    Who will then tell me in whispers and where must I find just the window
    Where one day she’ll be glimpsed: creature who’ll scorch me with love?
    Can’t I divine yet the paths through which over and over
    To her and from her I’ll go, squandering valuable time?
    Visiting churches and palaces, all of the ruins and the pillars,
    I, a responsible man, profit from making this trip.
    With my business accomplished, ah, then shall only one temple,
    AMOR’s temple alone, take the initiate in.
    Rome, thou art a whole world, it is true, and yet without love this
    World would not be the world, Rome would cease to be Rome…”

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