artistic illustration of a Grecian urn set against a backdrop of hills and columns

Ode on a Grecian Urn

by John Keats

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John Keats’s Short, Tumultuous, and Creative Life: John Keats’s life was hectic, tragic, and short, yet remarkably fruitful. Keats was born in 1795 in London. He was the eldest of four children and would be tasked with the care of his younger siblings when his father and mother died early in his adolescence. As a young man, Keats began training as a doctor, spending several years studying and apprenticing with surgeons. Keats’s great ambition, however, was to be a poet, a calling he struggled to cultivate in the midst of his professional and familial responsibilities. At the age of 21, Keats had begun to publish his poetry in journals such as The Examiner, as well as in Poems, a volume of his verse. In 1817 Keats walked away from his training as a doctor. The next several years of Keats’s life were a maelstrom of intense artistic development, financial stresses (the family trusts intended for him never came through), first love with a woman named Fanny Brawne, and physical decay caused by tuberculosis. 

  • Final Years: Keats likely contracted the disease in 1817 from his brother Tom, whom he lived with and cared for. In the final months of his life, Keats moved to Rome with the hope that the warm weather might help cure his tuberculosis. He died four months later, in February of 1821, and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. Many critics speculate that the explosion of creativity in the final four years of Keats’s life were spurred by his declining health. 

Romanticism in 19th-Century England: Romanticism is a philosophical, artistic, musical, and literary movement that arose in Europe near the end of the 18th century and reached its peak during the first half of the 19th century. While difficult to define, the movement can described as a turn toward the emotions, the imagination, the artistic process, and the capacities of the heroic individual. Romantics thinkers and artists were interested in sublime and mystical experience, which they sought out in nature, in art, and in solitude. The 1781 publication of German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s seminal Critique of Pure Reason provided one of the foundations for romantic thought, particular for the German romantics. Romanticism in Great Britain was chiefly championed by poets. The movement began in earnest with the 1798 publication of Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poems by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Other key British romantic poets include William Blake, George Gordon Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. 

  • A Reaction to the Enlightenment: While critics argue over the precise origins of romanticism, it is clear that the movement developed as a reaction against the enlightenment thinking that had dominated European intellectual life during the 18th century. Romanticism sought to move away from the reason and rationality of enlightenment philosophers such as René Descartes, John Locke, and Isaac Newton. 

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