Keats’ Hair


From the deceased’s author’s skull, we turn today to the deceased’s author’s hair. In 1855, in Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, English essayist and poet Leigh Hunt is recorded describing hair as ‘the most delicate and lasting of all our materials’. He continues

‘It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death that with a lock of hair belonging to a child or a friend, we may almost look up to heaven, and compare notes with the angelic native; may almost say, ‘I have a piece of thee here, not unworthy of thy being now’.

In Hunt’s day, the hair of the dead would go immediately to intimates, lovers, family or close friends. When it came to the hair of long-dead famous writers, many, wanting to get their hands on the locks, would claim personal intimacy and affection, even when there had been no personal friendship. In a sense, obtaining the hair seemed to enable such a relationship. As Hunt put it, access to the hair of a celebrated figure could provide ‘personal acquaintance with people who lived a hundred…years ago’ because ‘we have touched the persons we allude to.’ Today I am seeking such ‘personal acquaintance’ with the poet John Keats, by going in search of his own glossy tresses. I use the word glossy with good authority here: according to Hunt in 1833, Keats had ‘a kind of ideal, poetical hair’, which was ‘long, thick’, and ‘exquisitely fine’. He was ‘a young man, and manly in spirit as his looks were beautiful’. I wonder what shampoo he used…

Keats’ hair is displayed both in Rome and in Hampstead. In the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome a case holding a frame containing three locks pertaining to Shelley, Keats and Hunt can be found – rather appropriately – in the Salone. Moreover, in Hampstead, sat in a glass case beneath Keats’ life-and death-masks, is the gold brooch containing Keats’ hair made to Joseph Severn’s own design in Rome shortly after his friend’s death. The design of the brooch draws on the image of the unstrung lyre to symbolise Keats’ unachieved poetic career. Within the crystal of the brooch, the gold frame of the lyre is partially strung with single strands of Keats’ hair, thereby describing the poet’s body itself as the unstrung lyre.

Equally, however, the ever bright hair of the poet described not the passage into death but a continuing connection to the living. Originally conceived as a gift for Fanny Brawne, Keats’ fiancée, as a mourning jewel, the brooch seems never to have reached her. Instead, Severn gifted it to his daughter on the occasion of her wedding in 1861, converting it thereby from a mourning brooch into a valuable and curious gift. It would metamorphose again when it came into the possession of the Keats museum into a museum object. Therefore over its lifetime this jewel’s meaning has continually altered. It began as a homosocial mourning object, failed to become a heterosexual mourning object, was re-scripted as sentimental jewellery within the heterosexual economy of marriage, and then rethought as a museum exhibit. As such it now sits within its display case, insisting on the poet’s immortality through his undecaying remains. It acts as a description of the poetic after-life: it is entombed, life-like, indeed, still immortally alive.

Also on Keats see and

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