John Keats (1795 - 1821)

Life and Works


John Keats, the youngest Romantic writer, died at the age of 25. He is the archetype of the Romantic poet. Most of his best work appeared in one year. His work is characterized by the pursuit of Beauty and awareness of death and decay: "for many a time/ I have been half in love with easeful Death" ("To a Nightingale").

John Keats by Charles Brown
John Keats- charcoal

John Keats was born in London on October 31, 1795, first child to Thomas Keats, a successful livery-stable manager and Frances (Jennings) Keats. He was born in the northern part of London. Thomas, his father, worked on the stables of John Jennings, Keats' grandfather who provided coaches that ran from London to the Northern part of England. His father died in 1804 in a riding accident, leaving behind four children and a widow. Keats' mother remarried but the marriage was soon broken. She moved with the children, John, Fanny, George and Tom, to live with her mother at Edmonton, near London. She died of tuberculosis in 1810, leaving the four Keats children in the care of their maternal grandmother.

Keats went to school in the small village of Enfield, where, despite his fragile complexity, he seemed to be more interesting in fighting. He caught the attention of Charles Clarke, an assistant at school and seven years Keats' senior. His grandmother uncertain of how long she might live appointed as guardian to her grandchildren a tea merchant, Richard Abbey who, after her death, appropriated the children's inheritance. Abbey removed Keats from Enfield and obliged him to become an apprentice to a surgeon-apothecary. While studying for the license, he completed his translation of Aeneid. He continues his friendship with Clarke with whom he discussed literature. He was fascinated by Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene and his first poem, written in 1814, was "Lines in Imitation of Spenser". After four years an apprentice, he became a student at Guy's hospital in 1815. He attended lectures and wrote poetry. The following year he became a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries and was allowed to practice surgery. Before devoting himself entirely to poetry, he worked as a dresser and junior house surgeon. In October 1816, Keats met Leigh Hunt, the editor of the leading liberal magazine of the day, The Examiner. He introduced Keats to other young Romantics, including Shelley, and published in the magazine Keats' sonnet, 'O Solitude'.

Lifemask.Benjamin Robert Hayden, 1816 Keats.Charles Wass  

In 1817, when he was 22, Keats published his first book, Poems. The book was not a financial success. Keats' was preoccupied with the great writers of the past. He wanted to write a long poem. He wrote Endymion, a poem of 4000 lines on the love of the moon goddess Cynthia for the young shepherd Endymion. He was attracted by the English poetic forms, the Miltonic epic and Shapespeare's dramas.

Keats's greatest works were written in the late 1810s, among them "Lamia", "The Eve of St. Agnes", the great odes and two versions of Hyperion. He worked briefly as a theatrical critic for The Champion.

Keats' brother, George married and emigrated to the US when he was 21. He settled in Kentucky. His younger sister, Fanny, the only one of the Keats children, married a Spaniard and lived in Spain. She dies in 1889, 68 years after the death of her brother John.

Keats took care of his brother Tom, who was ill with tuberculosis. In the summer of 1818, Tom seemed well enough to allow Keats to spend the summer touring the Lakes, Scotland and Northern Ireland in the company of his friend Charles Brown, a businessman. He returned with a sore throat to London only to find out that his brother Tom was dying.

Keats on his deathbed Fanny Brawne

After Tom's death in December, Keats moved to Hampstead to live with Charles Brown. He fell in love with Fanny Brown, the daughter of a widowed neighbor, and they were engaged. This was a creative period for Keats. In the winter of 1818-19 he worked mainly on Hyperion and The Eve of St Agnes, "Eve of St Mark". In 1819 Keats finished Lamia, and wrote another version of Hyperion, called The Fall of Hyperion. He also wrote "Ode to Autumn". "Ode on a Grecian Urn" was inspired by a Wedgwood copy of a Roman copy of a Greek vase. Josiah Wedgwood's copy was purchased by Sir William Hamilton, who sold it to the duchess of Portland. She donated the vase to the British Museum in 1784.

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all

Ye know on earth and all ye need to know."

In 1820 a second volume of Keats poems appeared. It was success. However, Keats was suffering at that time from tuberculosis. He needed money badly and he started looking for a position at a magazine. His poems are marked with sadness partly because he realized he was too poor to marry Fanny Brawne. Keats broke off his engagement and began what he called a "posthumous existence."

When his condition gradually worsened, he tried to escape the English climate and sailed for Italy in September in the company of the painter Joseph Severn. Shelley had invited Keats to join him in Pisa, but Keats went to Rome, where he took up residence in rooms overlooking the Piazza di Spagna. He arrived in Rome after a 6 weeks voyage. He died in Rome at the age of 25, on February 23, 1821, and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery. Keats told his friend Joseph Severn that he wanted on his grave one line, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water", an epitaph inspired by a play by Beaumont and Fletcher in 1611.

Keats's reputation grew after his death. The poet's letters were published in 1848 and 1878. They are vehicles of his thoughts on poetry. His correspondence mixed the everyday events of his own life with comments on literature and philosophy. T. S. Eliot, who was not an admirer of the Romantics, said of his letters in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933) "certainly the most notable and most important ever written by any English poet".

Keats's works have had a bearing on The Pre-Raphaelites, Oscar Wilde and Alfred Tennyson.