Biography of John Keats, English Romantic Poet

Portrait of John Keats
Portrait of English Romantic poet John Keats 1795-1821, by English painter William Hilton 1786-1839, after English painter Joseph Severn 1793-1879. c.1822. National Portrait Gallery, London UK.

 Leemage / Getty Images

John Keats (October 31, 1795– February 23, 1821) was an English Romantic poet of the second generation, alongside Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. He is best known for his odes, including "Ode to a Grecian Urn," "Ode to a Nightingale," and his long form poem Endymion. His usage of sensual imagery and statements such as “beauty is truth and truth is beauty” made him a precursor of aestheticism. 

Fast Facts: John Keats

  • Known For: Romantic poet known for his search for perfection in poetry and his use of vivid imagery. His poems are recognized as some of the best in the English language.
  • Born​: October 31, 1795 in London, England
  • Parents: Thomas Keats and Frances Jennings
  • Died​: February 23, 1821 in Rome, Italy
  • Education​: King's College, London
  • Selected Works: “Sleep and Poetry” (1816), “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819), “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819 ), “Hyperion” (1818-19), Endymion (1818)
  • Notable Quote​: "Beauty is truth, truth is beauty,'—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." 

Early Life

John Keats was born in London on October 31, 1795. His parents were Thomas Keats, a hostler at the stables at the Swan and Hoop Inn, which he would later manage, and Frances Jennings. He had three younger siblings: George, Thomas, and Frances Mary, known as Fanny. His father died in April 1804 in a horse riding accident, without leaving a will.

In 1803, Keats was sent to John Clarke's school in Enfield, which was close to his grandparents’ house and had a curriculum that was more progressive and modern than what was found in similar institutions. John Clarke fostered his interest in classical studies and history. Charles Cowden Clarke, who was the headmaster’s son, became a mentor figure for Keats, and introduced him to Renaissance writers Torquato Tasso, Spenser, and the works of George Chapman. A temperamental boy, young Keats was both indolent and belligerent, but starting at age 13, he channeled his energies into the pursuit of academic excellence, to the point that, in midsummer 1809, he won his first academic prize.

John Keats
John Keats, English Romantic poet. Culture Club / Getty Images

When Keats was 14, his mother died of tuberculosis, and Richard Abbey and Jon Sandell were appointed as the children's guardians. That same year, Keats left John Clarke to become an apprentice to surgeon and apothecary Thomas Hammond, who was the doctor of his mother’s side of the family. He lived in the attic above Hammond’s practice until 1813.

Early Work

Keats wrote his first poem, “An Imitation of Spenser,” in 1814, aged 19. After finishing his apprenticeship with Hammond, Keats enrolled as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital in October 1815. While there, he started assisting senior surgeons at the hospital during surgeries, which was a job of significant responsibility. His job was time consuming and it hindered his creative output, which caused significant distress. He had ambition as a poet, and he admired the likes of Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron.

He received his apothecary license in 1816, which allowed him to be a professional apothecary, physician, and surgeon, but instead, he announced to his guardian that he would pursue poetry. His first printed poem was the sonnet “O Solitude,” which appeared in Leigh Hunt’s magazine The Examiner. In the summer of 1816, while vacationing with Charles Cowden Clarke in the town of Margate, he started working on “Caligate.” Once that summer was over, he resumed his studies to become a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. 

Keats House, Hampstead, London, 1912.Artist: Frederick Adcock
Keats House, Hampstead, London, 1912. The former home of the poet John Keats (1795-1821) is now a museum. Now part of London, Hampstead was a village in Keats' time. Print Collector / Getty Images

Poems (1817)

Sleep and Poetry

What is more gentle than a wind in summer?
What is more soothing than the pretty hummer
That stays one moment in an open flower,
And buzzes cheerily from bower to bower?
What is more tranquil than a musk-rose blowing
In a green island, far from all men's knowing?
More healthful than the leafiness of dales?
More secret than a nest of nightingales?
More serene than Cordelia's countenance?
More full of visions than a high romance?
What, but thee Sleep? Soft closer of our eyes!
Low murmurer of tender lullabies!
Light hoverer around our happy pillows!
Wreather of poppy buds, and weeping willows!
Silent entangler of a beauty's tresses!
Most happy listener! when the morning blesses
Thee for enlivening all the cheerful eyes
That glance so brightly at the new sun-rise(“Sleep and Poetry,” lines 1-18)

Thanks to Clarke, Keats met Leigh Hunt in October of 1816, who, in turn introduced him to Thomas Barnes, editor of the Times, conductor Thomas Novello, and the poet John Hamilton Reynolds. He published his first collection, Poems, which includes “Sleep and poetry” and “I stood Tiptoe,” but it was panned by the critics. Charles and James Ollier, the publishers, felt ashamed of it, and the collection aroused little interest. Keats promptly went to other publishers, Taylor and Hessey, who strongly supported his work and, one month after the publication of Poems, he already had an advance and a contract for a new book. Hessey also became a close friend of Keats. Through him and his partner, Keats met the Eton-educated lawyer Richard Woodhouse, a fervent admirer of Keats who would serve as his legal advisor. Woodhouse became an avid collector of Keats-related materials, known as Keatsiana, and his collection is, to this day, one of the most important sources of informations on Keats' work. The young poet also became part of William Hazlitt’s circle, which cemented his reputation as an exponent of a new school of poetry.

Upon formally leaving his hospital training in December 1816, Keats' health took a major hit. He left the damp rooms of London in favor of the village of Hampstead in April 1817 to live with his brothers, but both he and his brother George ended up taking care of their brother Tom, who had contracted tuberculosis. This new living situation brought him close to Samuel T. Coleridge, an elder poet of the first generation of Romantics, who lived in Highgate. On April 11, 1818, the two took a walk together on Hampstead Heath, where they talked about “nightingales, poetry, poetical sensation, and metaphysics.” 

Famous British Poets and Writers
Vintage engraving from 1874 showing Lord Byron, Robert Southey, Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats and Robert Montgomery. duncan1890 / Getty Images

In the Summer of 1818, Keats started touring Scotland, Ireland, and the Lake District, but by July of 1818, while on the Isle of Mull, he caught a terrible cold that debilitated him to the point that he had to return South. Keats' brother, Tom, died of Tuberculosis on December 1st, 1818.

A Great Year (1818-19)

Ode on a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” lines 1—10

Keats moved to Wentworth place, on the edge of Hampstead Heath, the property of his friend Charles Armitage Brown. This is the period when he wrote his most mature work: five out of his six great odes were composed in the Spring of 1819: "Ode to Psyche," "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode on Melancholy," "Ode on Indolence." In 1818, he also published Endymion, which, much like Poems, was not appreciated by critics. Harsh assessments include “imperturbable drivelling idiocy” by John Gibson Lockhart for The Quarterly Review, who also thought that Keats would have been better off resuming his career as an apothecary, deeming “to be a starved apothecary” a wiser thing than a starved poet. Lockhart was also the one who lumped together Hunt, Hazlitt, and Keats as member as “the Cockney School,” which was spiteful of both their poetic style and their lack of a traditional elite education that also signified belonging to the aristocracy or upper class.

At some point in 1819, Keats was so short on money that he considered becoming a journalist or a surgeon on a ship. In 1819, he also wrote "The Eve of St. Agnes," "La Belle Dame sans Merci," "Hyperion," "Lamia," and the play Otho the Great. He presented these poems to his publishers for consideration for a new book project, but they were unimpressed by them. They criticized "The Eve of St. Agnes" for its "sense of pettish disgust," while they considered "Don Juan" unfit for ladies. 

Rome (1820-21)

Over the course of the year 1820, Keats’ symptoms of tuberculosis got more and more serious. He coughed up blood twice in February of 1820 and then was bled by the attending physician. Leigh Hunt took care of him, but after the summer, Keats had to agree to move to Rome with his friend Joseph Severn. The voyage, via the ship Maria Crowther, was not smooth, as dead calm alternated with storms and, upon docking, they were quarantined due to a cholera outbreak in Britain. He arrived in Rome on November 14, even though by that time, he could no longer find the warmer climate that was recommended to him for his health. Upon getting to Rome, Keats also started having stomach problems on top of respiratory problems, and he was denied opium for pain relief, as it was thought he might use it as a quick way to commit suicide. Despite Severn’s nursing, Keats was in a constant state of agony to the point that upon waking up, he would cry because he was still alive.

Death

Autograph: John Keats, 1820.
John Keats' etter to his sister Fanny Keats at the beginning of his last illness, with mention of his poems 'Hyperion'; 'Lamia' etc which had just been published. 14 August 1820. Source: British Museum. Culture Club / Getty Images

Keats died in Rome on February 23, 1821. His remains rest in Rome’s Protestant cemetery. His tombstone bears the inscription “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water.” Seven weeks after the funeral, Shelley wrote the elegy Adonais, which memorialized Keats. It contains 495 lines and 55 Spenserian stanzas. 

Bright Stars: Female Acquaintances

Bright Star

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

There were two important women in John Keats’ life. The first one was Isabella Jones, whom he met in 1817. Keats was both intellectually and sexually attracted to her, and wrote about frequenting “her rooms” in the winter of 1818-19 and about their physical relationship, saying that he “warmed with her” and “kissed her” in letters to his brother George. He then met Fanny Brawne in the fall of 1818. She had talent for dressmaking, languages, and a theatrical bent. By late fall 1818, their relationship had deepened, and, throughout the following year, Keats lent her books such as Dante’s Inferno. By the summer of 1819, they had an informal engagement, mainly due to Keats’ dire straits, and their relationship remained unconsummated. In the last months of their relationship, Keats’ love took a darker and melancholic turn, and in poems such as "La Belle Dame sans Merci" and "The Eve of St. Agnes," love is closely associated with death. They parted in September 1820 when Keats, due to his deteriorating health, was advised to move to warmer climates. He left for Rome knowing that death was near: he died five months later.

The famed sonnet "Bright Star" was first composed for Isabella Jones, but he gave it to Fanny Brawne after revising it.

Themes and Literary Style

Keats often juxtaposed the comic and the serious in poems that are not primarily funny. Much like his fellow Romantics, Keats struggled with the legacy of prominent poets before him. They retained an oppressive power that hindered the liberation of the imagination. Milton is the most notable case: Romantics both worshipped him and tried to distance themselves from him, and the same happened to Keats. His first Hyperion displayed Miltonic influences, which led him to discard it, and critics saw it as a poem “that might have been written by John Milton, but one that was unmistakably by no other than John Keats.” 

Rome's Non Catholic Cemetery, The Final Resting Place Of Poets Shelley And Keats
The gravestone of poet John Keats, (1795-1821), stands in Rome's 'Non Catholic Cemetery' on March 26, 2013 in Rome, Italy. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Poet William Butler Yeats, in the eloquent simplicities of Per Amica Silentia Lunae, saw Keats as having “been born with that thirst for luxury common to many at the outsetting of the Romantic Movement,” and thought therefore that the poet of To Autumn “but gave us his dream of luxury.”

Legacy

Keats died young, aged 25, with only a three-year-long writing career. Nonetheless, he left a substantial body of work that makes him more than a “poet of promise.” His mystique was also heightened by his alleged humble origins, as he was presented as a lowlife and someone who received a sparse education. 

Shelley, in his preface to Adonais (1821), described Keats as "delicate," "fragile," and "blighted in the bud": "a pale flower by some sad maiden cherished ... The bloom, whose petals nipt before they blew / Died on the promise of the fruit," wrote Shelley. 

Keats himself underestimated his writerly ability. "I have left no immortal work behind me—nothing to make my friends proud of my memory—but I have lov'd the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d," he wrote to Fanny Brawne.

Richard Monckton Milnes published the first biography of Keats in 1848, which fully inserted him into the canon. The Encyclopaedia Britannica extolled the virtues of Keats in numerous instances: in 1880, Swinburne wrote in his entry on John Keats that "the Ode to a Nightingale, [is] one of the final masterpieces of human work in all time and for all ages," while the 1888 edition stated that, "Of these [odes] perhaps the two nearest to absolute perfection, to the triumphant achievement and accomplishment of the very utmost beauty possible to human words, may be that of to Autumn and that on a Grecian Urn." In the 20th century, Wilfred Owen, W.B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot were all inspired by Keats.

As far as other arts are concerned, given how sensual his writing was, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood admired him, and painters depicted scenes of Keats poems, such as "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," "The Eve of St. Agnes," and "Isabella."

Sources

  • Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963.
  • Bloom, Harold. John Keats. Chelsea House, 2007.
  • White, Robert S. John Keats a Literary Life. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.