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Death Masks

posted 24 Mar 2012, 08:56 by I.D. Est

One sunny day last spring I decided to take a different route to the tube station. After walking for a while I found myself in front of Keats House.

Keats lived here in Hampstead? I realised didn’t know much about Keats, except that he was a romantic poet, friends with Byron and Shelly. Died young I think, one of those. Abroad was it?

It is weird when you realise that what you thought you knew about someone, is nothing but fragmented snippets and uneducated guesswork.

I like to think I have a memory like an elephant, but I’m quite useless with dates and years. I remember things like that the Virgin Queen had a glass of dark ale for breakfast and owned over 3000 dresses. I also know that chairman Mao refused to brush his teeth, asking the question “Does a tiger brush his teeth?”

In Keats’s case I didn’t remember much of anything, so I decided to pay Keats House a visit and re-acquaint myself with this beloved poet.

Keats House is really impressive. The rooms are decorated and recreated in order to look the way they would have during Keats’s time. Everything is carefully selected so you can get a glimpse into the life of a brilliant medicine student who gave it all up in pursuit of poetry. You are literally walking in the poet’s footsteps, within the rooms and walls of his life and home.







To make it even more interesting, the house contains a vast collection of his personal belongings, books, letters and photographs. I was mesmerized by his fiancé’s engagement ring, learning that she wore it in mourning for 6 years after his death.

As I was wandering through the rooms, making mental notes of this and that, I came across a beautiful mask. It was all white, peaceful looking, angelic almost. I was quite surprised to learn that this was a replica of Keats’s death mask.

I’ve seen a few death masks before. They can be a bit creepy. After all, they are masks of dead people, made only a few moments after the last breath of life.  

During the French revolution young Marie Tussaud would hang around the guillotines, looking for decapitated victims to make death masks from. These particular masks would be paraded through the streets of Paris in support of liberté, égalité and fraternité

Not all death masks had such a violent destiny. Most of them were made as a way of preserving the face of greatness. Like the face of Beethoven, Isaac Newton and Goethe. This is a tradition that goes back to the time of Tutankhamen.

Death masks were also used as forensic evidence. Either proving that someone was dead (like in the case of Napoleon Bonaparte and Heinrich Himmler) or to identify missing people.

Death masks are becoming a ting of the past. Photographs are both easier, quicker and perhaps more accurate, but I still think that death masks capture something that a camera simply can’t compete with.

Standing there in Keats's bedroom, looking at the mask, made mere moments after his death, I felt a level of closeness and intimacy that I seriously doubt a photograph could have created. I recalled that when Keats got sick, he claimed that his real life was over and that he was leading a posthumous existence.

Poetic even in illness and death.

After I left the house I spent some time on a bench  tucked away in the corner of the garden. Maybe Keats used to sit at that very spot, writing, daydreaming. I took out my book and read for a while before heading home. 

I’m glad I took a different route to the tube station. I should remember to do that more often.