Authors: John Keats

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English poet

October 31, 1795

Moorfields, London, England

February 23, 1821

Rome, Papal States (now in Italy)

Biography

John Keats was born in 1795 in Moorfields, London, where his father managed a livery stable. John, the family’s eldest child, had two brothers, George and Tom, and a sister, Fanny. After the death of their father in 1804 and of their mother in 1810, the children were under the care of guardians. The boys attended school at Enfield, where John became a close friend of Charles Cowden Clarke, the headmaster’s son. Cowden Clarke introduced Keats to Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which became the inspiration for his own first poetry.

John Keats

(Library of Congress)

In 1811 Keats was apprenticed to Thomas Hammond, an apothecary and surgeon in Edmonton, north of London. About this time he finished his first translation of the Aeneid. As a young medical student he worked steadily and passed his examinations before the Court of Apothecaries in 1816. Although he continued his studies at Guy’s and St. Thomas’s hospitals briefly, he was more interested in writing poetry.

In London, Cowden Clarke showed Keats’s verses to Leigh Hunt, who published in his newspaper Keats’s first important poem, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (1816). Hunt was a worthy man and was kind to Keats, but from him Keats acquired many words and turns of phrase not considered “good” in the best English tradition—“Cockney,” Keats’s language was termed by the reviewers of his first volume, Poems, published in 1817. He eventually overcame a great many of these faults, but the fact was that he was an urban Londoner associated in the minds of his contemporaries with the “Cockney” world of Hunt. His consequent struggle was with his own natural virtues and talents and opposing environmental factors.

His first work showed promise, though it was immature. He delighted in the world of eye, ear, and touch, and he made a constant effort to make the senses talk. Seeming to have hated abstractions of all sorts, he tried to convey the concrete, individual object, rather than to use an image abstracted from many things and presented as a generality. In his imaginative projection of sensation into various other forms, Keats would ask, for example, how it might feel to be a ripple of water—and would then proceed to record his impression with intense poetical feeling.

In 1817 he went alone to the Isle of Wight and began work on Endymion: A Poetic Romance, published the following year. Endowed with common sense and a decided critical ability, Keats writes in the preface that Endymion: A Poetic Romance is a splendid failure. It is, however, an excellent example of Keats’s Hellenism at a time when Greek art was on exhibition in England. Hunt had earlier introduced him to Benjamin Robert Haydon, a painter who took Keats to see the Elgin marbles. Keats had some knowledge of Latin but none of Greek. He took from translations certain emotional elements of Greek civilization the more unrestricted side intoxicated with beauty and color. The first line of Endymion: A Poetic Romance is one of his most famous: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

After a walking tour of Scotland with Charles Armitage Brown in the summer of 1818, Keats developed tuberculosis. Prior to this his brother Tom had developed tuberculosis, and his brother George and his wife were leaving for the United States to live. After Tom’s death Keats lived with Brown at Hampstead and began work on The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream. There he fell completely in love with Fanny Brawne, an attractive seventeen-year-old girl who lived nearby. Even though his health was failing rapidly, Keats, consumed with passionate love, began the most creative period of his life. Within the period of a year he completed “The Eve of St. Agnes,” “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” and the odes “To a Nightingale,” “On a Grecian Urn,” “To Psyche,” and “On Melancholy.” At Winchester he finished “Lamia” and wrote the ode “To Autumn.” In February 1820, Keats realized that his illness was fatal. His last volume, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems, appeared in July 1820.

An advance in technique can be seen in all these poems, especially in the narrative ones. “Isabella,” started six months before the first draft of “The Eve of St. Agnes,” shows the Romantic tendency to dwell on detail rather than merely to tell the story. Also, with Keats as an impassioned advocator of Isabella’s cause, the story loses the classical aloofness of Giovanni Boccaccio, from whom Keats took the tale. Ottava rima is its measure, suggestive of Geoffrey Chaucer, one of Keats’s models, along with Spenser (especially in his first works), William Shakespeare, John Milton, John Dryden, and others. “The Eve of St. Agnes” uses medieval motifs and makes little attempt at narration but is successful pictorially. “Lamia” is generally considered the most successful of these three narratives. The story is told in a classical, forthright manner and with vigor. “To Autumn” is viewed by most critics as a classic of pure description. It is his most impersonal poem, an example of how, as his art developed, he became less emotionally involved. Keats began with sensuousness, but throughout his short career, he tried to arrive at the best poetry he was capable of writing rather than forcing his art to serve any particular personal whims.

During the earlier part of his career he had arranged a sort of program of what he hoped to do in “Sleep and Poetry.” For a time he would content himself with poetry of beautiful things that the senses could perceive. Afterward he would write noble poetry of agony and strife. Never did he write didactic or moralistic poetry. Also, he had what may be called an anti-intellectual attitude toward poetry; he attempted to feel his way into the matter of the poem. The end result was that his later works were poetry of the highest order. He was the most promising of the Romantic poets. Keats sailed in September 1820 for Rome with his friend, Joseph Severn, an artist. He had a final relapse in Rome on December 10, and on February 23, 1821, he died. He was buried in the Roman Protestant Cemetery. At his wish his epitaph read: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

Author Works Poetry: Poems, 1817 Endymion: A Poetic Romance, 1818 Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems, 1820 Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats, 1848 The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream, 1856 Nonfiction: The Letters of John Keats, 1814–1821, 1958 (2 volumes; Hyder Edward Rollins, editor) Miscellaneous: Complete Works, 1900-1901 (5 volumes; H. B. Forman, editor) Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats, 2001 Bibliography Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963. If there is one single book that students of Keats’s life and poetry should have at their side, it is this superb critical biography. Bate is accurate with biographical details, subtle in his analyses of Keats’s psychology and how it influenced his poetry, and always reliable when discussing the style and themes of the poems. Bloom, Harold, ed. John Keats: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. Eleven essays, most of them reprinted from longer works, make up a representative collection of modern approaches to Keats. Some of the essays are difficult, and familiarity with the poems and earlier critical approaches to them is recommended. Individual poems discussed are Endymion (Stuart Sperry), “To Autumn” (Geoffrey Hartman), Hyperion (Paul Sherwin), Lamia (Leslie Brisman), “Ode on Indolence” (Helen Vendler), and the two Hyperions. Contains several general essays, including Paul de Man’s frequently cited overview of Keats’s poetry. Christensen, Allan C. The Challenge of Keats: Bicentenary Essays, 1795-1995. Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000. Contributors to this volume reexamine some of the criticisms and exaltations of Keats in order to find a new analysis of his achievement. Delivers an appraisal of the historical and cultural contexts of Keats’s work and an in-depth discussion of the influences and relationships between Keats and other poets. Cox, Jeffrey N. Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt, and Their Circle. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. This monograph in the Cambridge Studies in Romanticism series examines the “second generation” of Romantics (those associated with Leigh Hunt) and challenges the common idea that the original Romantics, including Keats, were solitary figures, instead postulating the social nature of their work. An entire chapter, “John Keats, Coterie Poet,” is devoted to Keats. McFarland, Thomas. The Masks of Keats: The Endeavour of a Poet. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. The well-known scholar of Romantic literature surveys the essence of Keats. Motion, Andrew. Keats. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. A biography that emphasizes Keats’s politics as well as his poetry and personality. Motion won a Whitbread Prize for his biography of Philip Larkin, but Keats is his first dealing with the Romantic period. Highlighting the tough side of Keats’s character, Motion puts to rest the image of Keats as little more than a sickly dreamer. O’Flinn, Paul. How to Study Romantic Poetry. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001. A useful study guide for introductory students, including overviews and outlines for Coleridge, Wordsworth, Blake, and Keats. Robinson, Jeffrey C. Reception and Poetics in Keats: My Ended Poet. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Readings of other poets’ poems addressed to or about Keats, followed by an examination of Keats as a precursor to the visionary, open-form poetry of some of the modern age’s experimental poets. Sitterson, Joseph C., Jr. Romantic Poems, Poets, and Narrators. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2000. An examination of narrative and point of view in the poetry of the Romantic poets William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, and Keats. Close readings of the major poems, including Lamia, from various critical perspectives. Includes bibliographical references and index. Stillinger, Jack. “John Keats.” In The English Romantic Poets: A Review of Research and Criticism. Edited by Frank Jordan. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1985. For the student of Keats who wishes to explore studies of the poet not mentioned in this bibliography, Stillinger’s evaluation of available scholarship is definitive. Waldoff, Leon. Keats and the Silent Work of Imagination. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985. A psychoanalytic study of the role of imagination in Keats’s poetry and development. Extends earlier studies by taking into account the “unconscious dimension” of imagination, how it functions to give expression to the deepest images, feelings, and thoughts in Keats’s psyche and art. The psychoanalysis is Freudian, but it is not applied dogmatically, and the result is some thought-provoking close readings of the major poems that reveal the recurring conflicts in Keats’s mind. Ward, Aileen. John Keats: The Making of a Poet. New York: Viking Press, 1963. Ward’s much-admired study attempts to analyze the complex psychological forces which produced Keats the poet. Usually, but not always, convincing.

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