Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 19th Century)
Article abstract: Keats, whose works explore the significance of beauty, joy, and imagination in a world of suffering and death, was one of the great poets of the Romantic era and is generally acknowledged to be among the finest writers of personal correspondence in English.
John Keats, the eldest child of Thomas Keats and the former Frances Jennings, was born on October 31, 1795, in the living quarters of the family business, the Swan and Hoop Stables, in London, England. He had three brothers, George, Thomas, and Edward (who died in childhood), and a sister, Frances Mary. By all accounts, the family was lively and affectionate, and John’s earliest years were probably happy. Unfortunately, the Keats family fortunes received a disastrous shock with the death of John’s father following a riding accident in April of 1804. John’s mother, in desperate haste, married an unpropertied bank clerk, William Rawlings, on June 27, 1804, and left him soon thereafter, thus forfeiting everything she had inherited from her first husband.
The children had moved into the home of their grandparents, John and Alice Jennings, even before this second marriage, and it was there that their mother ultimately rejoined them. She lived on only until March of 1810, succumbing to what was almost certainly tuberculosis, the disease which would eventually kill both young Thomas and her favorite son, John. John is reported to have nursed her through some of the worst stages of her illness, thereby getting a foretaste of what he himself would experience a decade later. Even before this, on March 8, 1805, the grandfather had died, leaving a will which provided fifty pounds annually for his daughter Frances and lump sums of 250 pounds plus interest for each of her children when they came of age, none of which was paid out during the poet’s lifetime. Additional money, placed as a trusteeship in the hands of Richard Abbey by Alice Jennings several years before her death in December of 1814, was mishandled, perhaps criminally, and the poet spent much of his life on the brink of poverty, partially because his obsession with poetry brought him little income but also because Abbey, his legal guardian, gave him only a portion of the money which was rightfully his. Despite the various deaths and the family’s financial problems, the Keats siblings remained close, maintaining their affectionate relationship through visits and regular correspondence after the breakup of the household.
During the summer before his father’s death, Keats had entered the academy of schoolmaster John Clarke at Enfield, where the future poet was a student until his mid-teens. Although quick-tempered and often involved in fights, the result of boyish high spirits rather than malice, he formed friendships easily and was a favorite among his schoolmates. Despite his curly hair, rather delicate features, and diminutive stature—he stood less than five-foot-one at his full growth—Keats experienced little of the adolescent persecution which so plagued his contemporary, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Keats possessed the same sensitivity and generosity as Shelley, but he was more pugnacious and down-to-earth than the ethereal pacifist, and this gritty, bantam element made him more compatible with his peers. Indeed, throughout his short life, he had a talent for friendship exceeded only by his talent for poetry.
With the encouragement of John Clarke and his son Charles Cowden Clarke, Keats developed a passion for reading during his final years at Enfield, especially an interest in books of Greek mythology. After leaving the school in 1811 to become an apprentice apothecary-surgeon with Thomas Hammond of nearby Edmonton, Keats continued his reading, visiting the schoolmaster’s son several times a month to discuss books and authors. On one memorable occasion, the young Clarke introduced Keats to Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (1590, 1596). The eventual result of Keats’s enthusiasm for the Elizabethan poet was his first poem, “Imitation of Spenser,” written in 1814, when he was approaching his nineteenth birthday; that age was comparatively advanced for a poet who was to become one of the most important in the English (or any) language, especially when one considers how little time Keats had left to live. Although the conclusion of his apprenticeship with Hammond was still ahead, plus several months of study at Guy’s Hospital in London, Keats’s growing fascination with poetry would assure that he would never make significant use of the apothecary’s license granted him in 1816.
Keats successfully completed his apothecary’s examination on July 25, 1816, after which he vacationed in Margate with his ailing brother Tom. Following his return to London in September, he sought out Clarke, who had recently moved to London from Enfield, and the two read George Chapman’s translation of Homer together. By the next morning, Keats had written the sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” the first of his poems which bears the undeniable stamp of genius. Shortly thereafter, Clarke introduced Keats to Leigh Hunt, a fellow poet and the influential editor of the ultraliberal Examiner, where Keats’s poem “To Solitude” had been published during the previous May. The two became immediate friends, and while visiting Hunt again later in the year, Keats wrote a large part of “Sleep and Poetry,” a work which explicitly announces his dedication to the poetic life.
Through Hunt, whose stylistic influence is evident in much of Keats’s early work, not always happily, Keats became acquainted with the poets, artists, and intellectuals of London. At various times, Hunt’s circle included such figures as the literary parodist Horace Smith, the political philosopher William Godwin, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, the critic William Hazlitt, the essayist Charles Lamb, and the poets John Hamilton Reynolds and Shelley. Haydon, with whom he discussed the grandeur of William Shakespeare and the beauty of the Elgin marbles; Hazlitt, many of whose ideas on the poetic imagination he borrowed; and Reynolds, to whom he addressed several of his profoundest letters, were to be especially important to his future.
Hunt recommended Keats to his many friends as a gifted young writer and published an article in praise of Reynolds, Shelley, and Keats in the December 1, 1816, Examiner. The lure of poetry was...
(The entire section is 2661 words.)
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Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
Though the events of John Keats’s life are meager, his biography has fascinated many. Keats did not have a single physical, social, familial, or educational advantage in life, nothing to prepare for or enhance the development of his genius. Internally, however, he was afire with ambition and the love of beauty. Even at that, he did not discover his poetic vocation until late, given the fact that he died at the age of twenty-five and spent the last eighteen months of his life in a tubercular decline. His career lasted from 1816, when Keats renounced the practice of medicine, to the fall of 1819, when he stopped working on his last great, though incomplete, poem, The Fall of Hyperion. One almost has to count the months, they are so few and precious. In fact, in a single month, May, 1819, he wrote four of his great odes—“Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode on Melancholy,” and ironically, “Ode on Indolence.”
This remarkable and courageous poet, the oldest of four children, was born to keepers of a London livery stable. His father was killed in a fall from a horse when John was eight; his mother died from tuberculosis when he was fourteen. His relatives arranged for schooling and apothecary training so that he might make a living, but the year he received his certificate, 1816, he began to devote himself to poetry. He wrote some good, but mostly bad, poetry, or at least poetry that does not add much to his reputation, until the summer of 1818. His reward was a brutal...
(The entire section is 622 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Born in London, England, on October 31, 1795, John Keats (keets) was the son of Frances and Thomas Keats, the manager of a livery stable in the north of London. The oldest of four children, two brothers and a sister, Keats was eight years old when his father fell from a horse and suddenly died. The death of Keats’s father and his mother’s sudden decision to remarry had a dramatic effect on the poet’s life. When Alice Jennings, Keats’s maternal grandmother, heard of her daughter’s decision to marry again, she arranged to have the Keats children come live with her and her husband, John Jennings. This move eventually resulted in the children moving to a different suburb of the city, Enfield, where Keats and his brother,...
(The entire section is 1317 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Although John Keats died believing that he would be forgotten by future generations of readers, he is now regarded as one of the great poets of the English language. The felicitousness of his phrasing, the sensuality of his diction, and the richness of his imagery, combined with his profound understanding of the intimate relationship between life and art, make Keats, like William Shakespeare before him, a model to those who look to poetry for an aesthetic apprehension of human experience.
(The entire section is 80 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
John Keats (keets) 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.
In 1811 Keats was apprenticed to Thomas Hammond, an apothecary and...
(The entire section is 1042 words.)
IntroductionDeath marked John Keats. His father died when Keats was 9, his mother died when he was 15, his younger brother died, and then Keats himself died of tuberculosis at 26. And yet John Keats, in those short troubled years of his life, wrote poetry that continues to dazzle readers and scholars of today. During his last year, which Keats referred to as his posthumous (after death) life, he wrote poems focused on the topic of death and decay. He also created a philosophy, which he called Negative Capability, which might have arisen because of the prominence of death in his life. Keats believed that nothing could be resolved and that mystery had to be accepted. Two of his greatest poems are “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”
- Keats was far from a big man in physical stature. He stood barely five feet tall.
- Keats was a surgeon before he was a poet.
- Keats was engaged to be married to Fanny Brawne. The relationship broke apart suddenly without explanation, but not before the correspondence between Keats and his betrothed was leaked to the public and caused quite a scandal for their sexuality. Before Keats died, he ordered that the letters be burned.
- Keats wrote poetry for only five of his twenty-six years. His greatest poems were all written between his twenty-third and twenty-fourth years.
- Although the famed poet T. S. Eliot found little merit in Keats’ work, Eliot did pronounce Keats’ letters the best any poet has ever written.