John Keats (31 October 1795 – 23 February 1821) was an English Romantic poet. He was one of the main figures of the second generation of romantic poets along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, despite his work only having been in publication for four years before his death. He is a significant figure in the Hyperion Cantos.
Biography (real life)
- This is a biography of Keats, focusing on the elements of most significance to readers of the Hyperion Cantos.
John Keats was born in Moorgate, London, on 31 October 1795, to Thomas and Frances Jennings Keats. His father first worked as a hostler at the stables attached to the Swan and Hoop inn, an establishment he later managed and where the growing family lived for some years. Keats' parents were unable to afford Eton or Harrow, so in the summer of 1803 he was sent to board at John Clarke's school in Enfield, close to his grandparents' house. The small school had a liberal outlook and a progressive curriculum more modern than the larger, more prestigious schools. In the family atmosphere at Clarke's, Keats developed an interest in classics and history, which would stay with him throughout his short life.
In April 1804, when Keats was eight, his father died and when he was 14, his mother died of tuberculosis, leaving the children in the custody of their grandmother. Money was always a great concern and difficulty for him, as he struggled to stay out of debt and make his way in the world independently.
Keats registered as a medical student at Guy's Hospital (now part of King's College London) and began studying there in October 1815. Within a month of starting, he was accepted as a dresser at the hospital, assisting surgeons during operations, the equivalent of a junior house surgeon today. His work encroached on his writing time, and he grew ambivalent about his medical career. He felt that he faced a stark choice. He had written his first extant poem, "An Imitation of Spenser," in 1814, when he was 19. Now, strongly drawn by ambition, inspired by fellow poets such as Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron, and beleaguered by family financial crises, he suffered periods of depression. His brother George wrote that John "feared that he should never be a poet, & if he was not he would destroy himself". In 1816, Keats received his apothecary's licence, which made him eligible to practise as an apothecary, physician, and surgeon, but before the end of the year he announced to his guardian that he was resolved to be a poet, not a surgeon.
In May 1816, Leigh Hunt agreed to publish his sonnet "O Solitude" in his magazine The Examiner, a leading liberal magazine of the day. It was the first appearance in print of Keats's poetry, and Charles Cowden Clarke described it as his friend's red letter day, the first proof that Keats's ambitions were valid.
Soon afterward came the publication of Poems, the first volume of Keats's verse, which included "I stood tiptoe" and "Sleep and Poetry," both strongly influenced by Hunt. The book was a critical failure, arousing little interest. But the Eton-educated lawyer, Richard Woodhouse, was deeply impressed by Poems. Although he noted that Keats could be "wayward, trembling, easily daunted," Woodhouse was convinced of Keats's genius, a poet to support as he became one of England's greatest writers. Soon after they met, the two became close friends.
In spite of the bad reviews of Poems, Hunt published the essay "Three Young Poets" (Shelley, Keats, and Reynolds) and the sonnet "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," foreseeing great things to come. It was a decisive turning point for Keats, establishing him in the public eye as a figure in what Hunt termed "a new school of poetry." At this time Keats wrote to his friend Bailey: "I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of the imagination. What imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth." This passage would eventually be transmuted into the concluding lines of "Ode on a Grecian Urn": "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty' – that is all / you know on earth, and all ye need to know".
In 1818, Keats moved to the newly built Wentworth Place, owned by his friend Charles Armitage Brown. It was on the edge of Hampstead Heath, ten minutes walk south of his old home in Well Walk. The winter of 1818–19, though a difficult period for the poet, marked the beginning of his annus mirabilis in which he wrote his most mature work. He composed five of his six great odes at Wentworth Place in April and May and, although it is debated in which order they were written, "Ode to Psyche" opened the published series. According to Brown, "Ode to a Nightingale" was composed under a plum tree in the garden. Brown wrote, "In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feelings on the song of our nightingale."
Relationship with Fanny Brawne
Letters and drafts of poems suggest that Keats first met Frances (Fanny) Brawne between September and November 1818. It is likely that the 18-year-old Brawne visited the Dilke family at Wentworth Place before she lived there. During November 1818 she developed an intimacy with Keats, but it was shadowed by the illness of Tom Keats, whom John was nursing through this period. On 3 April 1819, Brawne and her widowed mother moved into the other half of Dilke's Wentworth Place, and Keats and Brawne were able to see each other every day. Keats began to lend Brawne books, such as Dante's Inferno, and they would read together. He gave her the love sonnet "Bright Star" (perhaps revised for her) as a declaration. Keats endured great conflict knowing his expectations as a struggling poet in increasingly hard straits would preclude marriage to Brawne. Their love remained unconsummated; jealousy for his 'star' began to gnaw at him. Darkness, disease and depression surrounded him, reflected in poems such as The Eve of St. Agnes and "La Belle Dame sans Merci" where love and death both stalk. "I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks;" he wrote to her, "...your loveliness, and the hour of my death".
Illness and move to Rome
Keats may have first contracted tuberculosis (then known as 'consumption') in 1818 when nursing his brother. During 1820 Keats displayed increasingly serious symptoms of tuberculosis, suffering two lung haemorrhages in the first few days of February. He lost large amounts of blood and was bled further by the attending physician. Hunt nursed him in London for much of the following summer. At the suggestion of his doctors, he agreed to move to Italy with his friend Joseph Severn. On 13 September, they left for Gravesend and four days later boarded the sailing brig "Maria Crowther", where he made the final revisions of "Bright Star". The journey was a minor catastrophe: storms broke out followed by a dead calm that slowed the ship’s progress. When they finally docked in Naples, the ship was held in quarantine for ten days due to a suspected outbreak of cholera in Britain. Keats reached Rome on 14 November, by which time any hope of the warmer climate he sought had disappeared.
He moved into a villa on the Spanish Steps, today the Keats-Shelley Memorial House museum. Despite care from Severn and Dr. James Clark, his health rapidly deteriorated, and the medical attention he received may have hastened his death. The first months of 1821 marked a slow and steady decline into the final stage of tuberculosis. Keats was coughing up blood and covered in sweat. Severn nursed him devotedly and observed in a letter how Keats would sometimes cry upon waking to find himself still alive. Keats had left for Rome knowing he would probably never see Fanny Brawne again. After leaving he felt unable to write to her or read her letters, although he did correspond with her mother. He wrote his last letter on 30 November 1820 to Charles Armitage Brown; "Tis the most difficult thing in the world to me to write a letter. My stomach continues so bad, that I feel it worse on opening any book – yet I am much better than I was in Quarantine. Then I am afraid to encounter the proing and conning of any thing interesting to me in England. I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence".
John Keats died in Rome on 23 February 1821 and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome. His last request was to be placed under a tombstone bearing no name or date, only the words, "Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water." Severn and Brown erected the stone, which under a relief of a lyre with broken strings, includes the epitaph: "This Grave / contains all that was Mortal / of a / Young English Poet / Who / on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart / at the Malicious Power of his Enemies / Desired / these Words to be / engraven on his Tomb Stone: / Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821"
None of Brawne's letters to Keats survive. It took a month for the news of his death to reach London, after which Brawne stayed in mourning for six years. In 1833, more than 12 years after his death, she married and went on to have three children; she outlived Keats by more than 40 years.