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 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.