John Keats Biography

John Keats Biography

John Keats was marked by death. His father died when Keats was nine, his mother died when he was fifteen, his younger brother died, and then Keats himself died of tuberculosis at twenty-six. 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.”

Facts and Trivia

  • 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.


(History of the World: The 19th Century)
ph_0111201562-Keats.jpg John Keats Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 now so great that Keats announced to the angry Abbey that he was giving up plans to earn his surgeon’s license and turning his full attention to establishing himself as a poet. His first volume, a generally undistinguished collection which he dedicated to Hunt, was published by Charles and James Ollier on March 3, 1817. Within a few weeks, Keats had left London to work on a much more ambitious project, the sprawling poetic allegory of the questing imagination, Endymion. By late November, having moved restlessly from the Isle of Wight to Margate to Canterbury to Hastings back to London and finally to Oxford, he had the four-thousand-line poem ready for final revision. By April of 1818, Endymion had been published by the firm of Taylor and Hessey.

Keats spent several weeks of the period between completing the draft and seeing the final printed version of Endymion in London, where he met William Wordsworth, whose egotism offended him, and heard several lectures on poetry by Hazlitt, one of which gave him the inspiration for the grotesque verse romance drawn from Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Isabella: Or, The Pot of Basil.” He then visited his brother Tom in Teignmouth, Devonshire, and was troubled by Tom’s obviously declining health. During the brothers’ return to London, Tom, who had only a few months to live, experienced serious hemorrhaging. His brother George, meanwhile, had become engaged to marry Miss Georgiana Wylie and had committed himself to emigration to America.

George and Georgiana were married in late May and left England the following month, after which Keats and a new friend, Charles Brown, made a walking tour of the English Lake District and Scotland. Having written a bundle of poetic impressions of his journey, Keats returned in mid-August, feverish and susceptible to further infection, only to discover that Tom’s tubercular symptoms had become much aggravated. To make matters worse, as Keats began the melancholy and dangerous task of nursing his brother through his last weeks of life, critical attacks on Endymion appeared in three conservative periodicals: Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, the Quarterly Review, and the British Critic. The particularly vicious and snobbish article in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, probably written by John Gibson Lockhart, lumped Keats with Hunt and several others into the “Cockney School” of poetry, a condemnation by association echoed in John Wilson Croker’s critique in the Quarterly Review. Although these attacks did not, as some have claimed, hasten Keats’s death, they made an already unpleasant period of his life even less pleasant.

On December 1, 1818, nineteen-year-old Tom Keats died, leaving John with memories of suffering and death that would cast their shadow over much of his remaining poetry and add profundity to what had previously been beautiful, sometimes brilliant, but too often shallow and naïve. He had already begun the Miltonic fragment “Hyperion,” a poem which he would later rework as The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream (1856), thereby making even more explicit his theme of the growth of the imagination that follows the human fall into full knowledge of the entwined joys and agonies of earthly life.

Deepening his sense of this inevitable entanglement of joy and sorrow was his love for the beautiful young Fanny Brawne, whom he had first met during Tom’s final weeks of life and to whom many of his most passionate short lyrics were addressed. Often driven frantic by Fanny’s flirtatiousness, Keats nevertheless won her pledge, late in 1819, to marry him, but their union was made impossible by his own impending death. On February 3, 1820, after months of uncertain health, he spat up a quantity of arterial blood which he immediately recognized as evidence of his doom.

What occurred between Tom’s death and that terrible day on which he foresaw his own demise, however, was a flowering of poetic genius unmatched in English literary history. During his annus mirabilis, in addition to continuing “Hyperion” and working on The Fall of Hyperion, Keats wrote “The Eve of St. Agnes,” “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode on Melancholy,” “Lamia,” and “To Autumn,” as distinguished a manifestation of lyric power as any poet has ever produced. Peripatetic as ever, Keats composed “The Eve of St. Agnes” during a visit to Chichester and Bedhampton early in 1819; “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and probably “Ode on Melancholy” during a spring interlude at Wentworth Place in the Hampstead area of London; the first part of “Lamia” during a summer stay on the Isle of Wight; and the second part of “Lamia” as well as the whole of “To Autumn” in August and September at Winchester.

Tragically, when most of these poems, plus a handful of others, were published by Taylor and Hessey during June of 1820 in Keats’s third volume of poetry, his poetic career had already ended. In a vain effort to recover his health, Keats had left England for Italy in September of 1820 with the painter Joseph Severn. He died in Rome on February 23, 1821, where he was buried, at his own request, under the inscription, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”


John Keats’s personality and his poetry can best be understood through a careful reading of his letters, perhaps the most insightful written by any English poet. What emerges from his correspondence is the portrait of a charming, generous, surprisingly levelheaded young man who loves the world of the five senses with consummate intensity and who believes passionately in the power of poetry to create essential beauty from the unrefined ore of human experience. During the earliest phase of Keats’s career, this artistic intensity, this “gusto” as Hazlitt frequently referred to it, manifested itself as a power to suspend his own ego and to identify imaginatively and nonjudgmentally with objects and events beyond himself. Although he never lost this power of empathy, the intoxicated pastoralism which it frequently produced gradually gave way to a darker and, at the same time, more satisfying vision of human life, a vision in which our earthly existence is portrayed as an unresolvable mixture of bliss and pain whose mingled ecstasies and purgatorial trials fashion our souls. At its most mature, Keats’s poetry never denies that the world is a place of suffering and death, but it courageously affirms that the sorrows of life must be embraced if life’s beauty is to be realized. For Keats, the rejection of life is the worst of all possible errors.


Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963. For the advanced and the ambitious intermediate student of Keats, this Pulitzer Prize-winning critical biography is the place to begin. Bate analyzes the intellectual and artistic life of Keats with scrupulous scholarly care, weaving copious comments on the poetry and the more important letters into his account of the poet’s everyday life.

Finney, Claude Lee. The Evolution of Keats’s Poetry. London: Russell and Russell, 1936. Reprint. New York: Russell and Russell, 1963. The reissue of Finney’s impressive 1936 study of the development of Keats’s poetry is recommended for the advanced and intermediate student rather than the beginner. Emphasis is on the impact of Keats’s experiences and of the world in which he lived on his creative output. Still of great value.

Gittings, Robert. John Keats. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1968. With access to certain British resources unavailable to the American biographers, Gittings expands on the work of Finney, Bate, and Ward. A valuable supplement to the earlier studies.

Gittings, Robert. John Keats: The Living Year, 21 September 1818 to 21 September 1819. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954. This critical biography limits its attention to the annus mirabilis, the period in which nearly all of Keats’s important poetry was written. Especially good for its detailed tracing of the impact of Keats’s reading and day-to-day experiences on his poetic imagery.

Hirst, Wolf Z. John Keats. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981. Like the other volumes in the Twayne series, this study is an excellent starting point for the beginner. Contains a convenient capsule biography, a helpful chapter on the letters, good critical assessments of the poems, and an extensive annotated bibliography.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821. 2 vols. Edited by Hyder Edward Rollins. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958. This is the definitive collection of Keats’s extensive correspondence. No thorough understanding of Keats as a poet or a man is possible without reading these extraordinary letters. Presented with meticulous editorial care.

Keats, John. The Poems of John Keats. Edited by Jack Stillinger. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978. Stillinger’s edition of the poetry supersedes all previous collections. The extensive textual notes are an invaluable source of information on the sometimes tortuous history of the individual poems.

Rollins, Hyder Edward, ed. The Keats Circle: Letters and Papers and More Letters and Poems of the Keats Circle. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1948, 2d ed. 1965. Rollins’ edition of the Harvard collection of Keatsiana is an excellent supplement to the Keats letters. These glimpses of Keats from the perspective of his friends, relatives, and acquaintances help to complete the picture of Keats’s complex personality. Valuable biographical sketches of many of the people important in Keats’s life are included in volume 1.

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.

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.

John Keats Biography

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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 review of his major early work, Endymion, in a leading magazine of the day. Keats was criticized so severely that Percy Bysshe Shelley speculated that the review began Keats’s physical decline.

Actually, the truth was much worse. Keats was nursing his brother Tom, who was dying from tuberculosis, when the reviews came out. Though he was too strong in character to be deeply affected by criticism, especially when he was a more astute critic of his poetry than his readers, a contagious illness could hardly be thwarted with character. In the fall of 1818, Keats also fell deeply in love with Fanny Brawne. They intended to marry, but his illness soon made their future together impossible. Sadly, the futility of their love and passion offered important inspiration to Keats’s poetry. By late fall, 1819, in the same year that he had written “The Eve of St. Agnes,” the odes, Lamia, and The Fall of Hyperion, his illness was severe enough to arouse his deep concern. In July, 1820, his influential volume “Lamia,” “Isabella,” “The Eve of St. Agnes,” and Other Poems was published. Keats, however, now separated from Fanny, ill, in desperate need of money, and unable to achieve his major ambition of writing a “few fine Plays” in the manner of Shakespeare, was utterly despondent. He later spent a few months under the care of the Brawnes, but left England for Italy in September, 1820, in an attempt to save his life in the milder Italian weather. Joseph Severn, a dear friend, nursed him until his death in Rome in February, 1821.

Forever thinking aloud in his letters about the central concerns of existence, Keats once found purpose in this earthly life as “a vale of soul-making”; that is, although every human being perhaps contains a spark of divinity called soul, one does not attain an identity until that soul, through the medium of intelligence and emotions, experiences the circumstances of a lifetime. Thus the world has its use not as a vale of tears, but, more positively, as a vale of becoming through those tears. Keats’s soul flourished as rapidly as his genius, and the poetry is evidence of both.

John Keats Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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, George, began school. This development was a key moment in Keats’s early life.

The Enfield school, which was run by the Reverend John Clarke, not only introduced Keats to the various pleasures of literature, which of course was to become the consuming passion of his life, but also brought the young poet into contact with the Reverend Clarke’s precocious and well-read son, Charles Cowden Clarke. Charles Clarke, who was eight years older than Keats and who eventually became an important writer, too, quickly established himself as Keats’s mentor and friend. It was through his new friend that Keats encountered many of the books that were to play an important role in his poetry.

In March, 1810, Keats’s mother died of tuberculosis. This event was not the sudden blow that his father’s earlier death had been, but it was no less traumatic. It is difficult to know precisely how this loss shaped the young man’s character, but it is quite likely that this event, combined with the earlier death of his father, deepened the poet’s sense of the tragic nature of human existence. As a result, the transitoriness and pain of life are themes that run throughout his poems and letters. Indeed, he would eventually develop the belief that suffering and death are essential to the growth of the human soul, for it is death and suffering that awakens one to the intense beauty of life. People only come to feel the glory of life and the wonder of existence when it is suddenly taken from them, Keats concluded.

At the age of fourteen, Keats became the head of the Keats family. He might have remained in school and gone on to receive a university education, since there was a provision in a trust fund set up by his grandmother that would cover those costs. Yet because of legal complications and the incompetency of Richard Abbey, a London tea merchant who was assigned as guardian for the children upon the death of their mother, Keats was denied his inheritance and, instead, apprenticed to Thomas Hammond, a local apothecary-surgeon. For the next four years, Keats studied medicine with Hammond. This intense training in medicine was relieved only by occasional visits to the nearby Charles Clarke to borrow books and discuss literature.

In 1815, at the age of nineteen, Keats moved to London proper to do his student internship at Guy’s Hospital, where he lived and worked for the next two years. It is difficult to overestimate the impression that Guy’s must have made on the young poet, whose first responsibility at the hospital was dressing surgical wounds. The sights and sounds of the operating and recovery rooms must have been extremely poignant, particularly since these rooms were filled with patients who had been surgically treated without the benefit of anesthetics. Keats had already experienced the deep emotions of suffering and loss through the death of both parents; now, he was to see that same agony and death displayed on a much larger scale and on a more regular basis in his daily rounds at the hospital.

During his two years at Guy’s, Keats became increasingly convinced that poetry was to be his life’s work. Life and death were the dominant concerns of his days, but reading and writing were the governing passions of his nights. Long days at the hospital were regularly followed by evenings of writing verse, reading books borrowed from Clarke, and discussing literature with friends and fellow medical students. It is important to note, however, that art was not a refuge for Keats from the agony of life, although he did look to poetry as a way of escaping the unpleasantness of his daily existence. To the contrary, poetry was the supreme expression of the intense experience of living in a world of pain and sorrow, pleasure and joy, the passing and the permanent. It is during this period that Keats produced his first significant poem, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” It is also during this time that Clarke introduced Keats to Leigh Hunt, a popular essayist of the day, to John Reynolds, a poet, and to Benjamin Haydon, an increasingly important painter. These contacts further persuaded Keats that his true vocation was literature, not surgery. Keats left Guy’s Hospital in 1817 to dedicate himself exclusively to the writing of poetry. This year also marks the publication of his first book of poetry, Poems (1817).

That same year, Keats moved in with his brothers, George and Tom, who now lived in the London suburb of Hampstead. There he finished his second volume of poetry, Endymion: A Poetic Romance (1818), the mythological story of a mortal shepherd’s love for the immortal goddess Diana. Having finished this project, Keats spent the summer of 1818 on a walking tour through the Lake District and Scotland. His return brought with it three painful discoveries. First, he was diagnosed to be in the early stages of tuberculosis, which was the same disease that had killed his mother and would, in less than three years, claim his own life. Second, and even more jarring, he found that the critics had not liked the two volumes of poetry that he had recently published. Although the impact of these negative criticisms has been overstated, it is probably true that Keats’s conviction that his fame as a poet would never last can be traced to these early reviews of his work. Third, in the same year that Keats was diagnosed with tuberculosis, he would watch his youngest brother, Tom, also die of the same disease. Shaken but determined to continue writing, Keats moved to Wentworth Place in 1819. There he met Fanny Brawne, his first love, to whom he was engaged in October of that year.

In 1819, Keats wrote all of his greatest poetry. In that single year, he wrote “Lamia,” “The Eve of St. Agnes,” all the great odes (“Ode on Indolence,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to Psyche,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on Melancholy,” and “To Autumn”), as well as the Miltonic fragment “Hyperion,” which he would later rework as The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream (1856). No other single year in literary history has seen such an outpouring of poetic genius, particularly by such a young poet.

The results of this great year were published in 1819 and on into 1820, the year that both marks the extraordinary heights of Keats’s artistic career and foretells the imminent end of his short but remarkable life. The worsening tuberculosis made it almost impossible to continue working. When the doctors finally ordered the poet to seek a warmer climate (a common prescription in that day for sufferers of this disease), Joseph Severn, Keats’s close friend, accompanied him to Rome. They sailed on September 18, 1820. A few weeks after arriving in Rome, Keats suffered a serious relapse. On February 23, 1821, he died, in Rome, at the age of twenty-five. Buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, he had arranged to have the following words inscribed upon his tombstone: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

John Keats Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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.

John Keats Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical 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 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 of 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.”

John Keats Biography

(Poetry for Students)

Born in 1795, Keats, the son of a stablekeeper, was raised in Moorfields, London, and attended the Clarke School in Enfield. The death of his...

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