John Keats | Biography, Facts, Famous Poems & Quotes



John Keats was a 19th century English poet who is widely regarded as one of the greatest figures of the Romanticism movement. He was born in a well-to-do lower-middle-class family with his father being an ostler. His childhood was difficult with his father dying in an accident when he was 8 while his mother succumbing to tuberculosis 6 years later. Keats educated in the field of medicine but abandoned his career to pursue poetry. In 1816, his first poem was published in The Examiner. 1818-19 was his best period as a poet, in which he produced some of his most famous poems including the six great odes. Around this time, he got secretly engaged to his love and muse Fanny Brawne. Keats died at the age of 25 in 1921; in relative obscurity, unfulfilled in love and ambition. His reputation grew in the second half of the 19th century and today he is regarded as one of the finest poets in the English language. Know all about John Keats through his biography, interesting facts about him, his most famous works and his best quotes.



BIODATA

BIRTHEither on October 29 or October 31, 1795, depending on family beliefs or Church baptism records respectively – in Moorgate, London, United Kingdom.
EDUCATION* John Clarke’s school in Enfield (1803 – 1810)
* Apprentice to the surgeon Thomas Hammond (1810 – 1815)
* Medical student at Guy’s Hospital, London (1815 – 1817)
OCCUPATIONMedicine and Poetry
KNOWN FORRegarded as one of the greatest poets in English literature. Considered as one of the leading figures of the second generation of Romantic poets, along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
FATHERThomas Keats (1763 – 1804) – head ostler at the livery stable.
MOTHERFrancis Jennings (1775 – 1810) – daughter of Thomas’s employer John Jennings.
SIBLINGS* George (1797 – 1841) – businessman and civic leader
* Thomas (1799 – 1818) – died young of tuberculosis
* Frances Mary “Fanny” (1803 – 1889)
DEATHFebruary 23, 1821 (aged 25) – due to tuberculosis.
PLACE OF DEATHRoma, Lazio, Italy

BIOGRAPHY

Early Life and Family

John Keats’s father Thomas had been the head ostler at the livery stable attached to the Swan and Opp Inn, located in the outskirts of North Eastern London. His mother Francis Jennings was from a well to do family and daughter of Thomas’s employer John Jennings. In 1804, tragedy struck the Keats family when Thomas Keats fell from a horse and lost his life in the accident. John was 8 years old. His mother would remarry in 2 months and the Keats children would subsequently live with their grandmother, Alice Jennings. Francis Jennings would eventually leave her new husband and join her mother and children in the village of Edmonton near London.

John Keats
Portrait of John Keats by William Hilton

In 1810, John was orphaned when he lost his mother to tuberculosis, a common disease that was ravaging Europe during the times. The unfortunate incident forced an old Mrs. Jennings to appoint legal guardians for the Keats’s children, with family friends Richard Abbey (tea dealer) and John Sandell (merchant) entrusted with the responsibility.


Education

In the summer of 1803, John, along with George, were sent to school in the nearby village of Enfeild. It was a small institution run by a gifted teacher John Clarke, and offering a fairly liberal education to students whose families were in trade or in the less affluent professions. Apart from Clarke, another more notable influence at school would be his son Charles Cowden Clarke, whose love of books, music and encouraging nature would be helpful to Keats in his following years.

Charles Cowden Clarke
Charles Cowden Clarke

Testimonies from schoolmates describe John as a fiery, generous little fellow (he was just over 5 ft tall), vehement both in tears and laughter, and as loveable as he was rough. Beneath the surface, he seemed to carry a strain of painful sensibility which made him subject to moods of unreasonable suspicion and self-tormenting melancholy. Keats is also known to have been deeply attached to his younger brothers with whom he shared and discussed his miseries.

George Keats
George Keats – Younger brother of John Keats

After his mother’s demise and under the guardianship of Mr. Abbey, John Keats was withdrawn from school in 1811. He was put to harness the practical skills and placed as a bound apprentice for 5 years to Mr. Thomas Hammond, a surgeon and apothecary of good repute. Keats apparently did not like talking about the days of his apprenticeship and has left no single written reference to them except a small phrase in a letter of 1819.


Move Towards Poetry

In 1815, Keats’s apprenticeship with Hammond was cancelled with consent and John joined the Guy’s and Thomas’s Hospital in London as a student. Four weeks later, around his twentieth birthday, he was accepted as a dresser to one of the Hospital’s surgeons Mr. Lucas. However, Keats’s interest in the profession seemed limited and he saw it as the career by which to live in a workaday world. Though more than reasonable at his studies and work at the hospital, his thoughts were prone to wonder and his love for poetry had blossomed. To him the greatest men in the world were the poets and to rank among them became the chief object of his ambition.

Statue of John Keats
Statue of John Keats in Guys Hospital

In 1816, Charles Cowden introduced Keats and his efforts at poetry to Leigh Hunt. Hunt was himself a poet and critic. He was editing the popular liberal weekly newspaper “The Examiner” at the time. Charles further introduced Keats to the group of Hunt, which included literary figures like William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, PB Shelley and John Hamilton Reynolds. On May 5, 1816, ‘O Solitude’ became the first published poem of Keats in Hunt’s newspaper.

Leigh Hunt
Leigh Hunt -Who got Keats published

Keats’s new associations were initially a source of unmixed encouragement and pleasure. In December 1816, Keats was listed as a certified apothecary in the London Medical Repository, which made him eligible to practice as an apothecary, physician and surgeon. But at this time he had reached a place where his sense of poetic vocation was conflicting with the commitment to his studies, and he decided to give up medicine.


Early Days as a Poet

The October of 1816 saw Keats compose one of his first masterpieces, the sonnet ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’. The poem was written overnight after Cowden Clarke had introduced Keats to Chapman’s translation of Homer. It is considered one of the finest sonnets in the English language. On December 1, 1816, Hunt published the first of his ‘Young poets’ articles along with the sonnet, and presented Keats along with Shelley and Reynolds as the new generation in English poetry. A few days later, Keats and Shelley would meet for the very first time.

In February the following year, two more sonnets appeared in ‘The Examiner’, where Keats now began to publish regularly. In March 1817, Keats’s first volume of poetry titled ‘Poems’ was published, which included poems like “I stood tiptoe” and “Sleep and Poetry”. The volume was the first of the three books that Keats published in his lifetime. The book aroused little interest in the public and was a failure among the critics.

Poems (1817) - John Keats
Poems (1817) – The first published poetry collection by Keats

In April 1817, Keats moved with his brothers to 1 Well Walk in the village of Hampstead, close to Hunt and his friends. Here John and George nursed their younger brother Tom Keats, who had been suffering from tuberculosis. Keats at this time enjoyed a constantly widening circle of friends and admirers. These would include Reynolds (poet), James Rice (solicitor), Benjamin Haydon (artist), William Haslam (solicitor), Joseph Severn (painter), Benjamin Bailey (clergyman), John Taylor and James Hessey (his publishers) and Richard Woodhouse (lawyer).

Tom Keats
Tom Keats

Determined to test his abilities as a poet, Keats dedicated the middle six months of 1817 to the writing of the classical mythological poem Endymion. Keats would write of the big project to Benjamin Bailey ‘it will be a test, a trial of my Powers of Imagination, and chiefly of my invention, which is a rare thing indeed – by which I must make 4000 lines of one bare circumstance, and fill them with poetry’ . The period would also mark the beginning of his friendship with Charles Armitage Brown. In October the same year, Keats was attacked in the ‘Cockney school’ articles of the Blackwood magazine. Caught in the aggressive crossfire of the literary politics of the time, Keats was called out for his low social origins and his poetry was criticised for being vulgar and pretentious.

In 1818, Keats would write his narrative poem ‘Isabella’ and see the publication of Endymion. The book would again fail to attract much attention and was viciously attacked in The Quarterly Review and Blackwood’s Magazine. In the summer he would take a walking tour of Ireland, Scotland and the Lake District with Charles Brown, gathering material for another classical poem ‘Hyperion’. At this time, financial troubles had begun to loom over him and he would often find himself in sickness, the first symptoms of his tuberculosis. The year would also see the departure of George Keats to America and the unfortunate death of Tom Keats to tuberculosis in early December.


Fanny Brawne

It is estimated that Keats came in acquaintance with the 18 year old Fanny Brawne in the later months of 1818, when he was still nursing Tom. Her mother, Mrs. Brawne, was a widow with three daughters and had rented Charles Brown’s house in Hampstead for the summer, while he and Keats were away in Scotland. After Brown’s return, the family moved to a house close by, on Downshire Hill. In December 1818, following the death of Tom, John Keats moved to Wentsworth Place and began to share accommodations with the Browns. At this time he managed to see more of Fanny Brawne, who despite seeming superficial, vain and flirtatious to him, fascinated and attracted him. Over the next few moths Keats developed a strong passion for Brawne which would sometimes lead him toward jealousy and unbalanced extremes of emotions.

Fanny Brawne
Fanny Brawne

The tumultuous relationship with Fanny saw Keats trying unsuccessfully to alienate himself from her in the Autumn of 1919. He, however, returned to Wentworth Place in October and, by the Christmas of 1919, his engagement to Fanny may have been formalized. However, from this time Keats’s health and hopes began to fall into terminal collapse.


Marvellous Year (1818-19)

The period beginning in the winter of 1818 and lasting for most of 1819 saw Keats take gigantic leaps as a poet. It is considered as Keats’s annus mirabilis (Latin for remarkable year), his most productive period where he composed his most remarkable and mature work. The period saw the composition of “The Eve of St. Agnes”, “La Belle Dame sans Merci”, “Hyperion” (abandoned), “Lamia”, “Bards of passion and of mirth”, “Fancy” and a play, Otho the Great. The most well known work for the period are however the six great odes; “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, “Ode on Indolence”, “Ode on Melancholy”, “Ode to a Nightingale”, “Ode to Psyche” and To Autumn”. However, he continued to struggle with his failing health, finances and love life during this period. His precarious circumstances are reflected in some of his work during this period; where love and death are consistent themes.


Illness and Death

In February 1820, Keats coughed blood for the first time and suffered a massive hemorrhage. After showing some improvement in March, his condition continued to slide in the following months with further attacks of blood spitting. In June, Keats’s 3rd and final book ‘Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and other Poems’ was published by Taylor and Hessey. The book included all the great odes along with the unfinished Hyperion. It is now recognized among the most important works of English poetry ever published.

By autumn of 1820, Keats was advised by doctors to move to warmer climates. Shelly invited him to his place in Pisa, Italy, and, in September, Keats sailed with his close friend Severn for the country. The duo arrived in Rome on November 14 and, instead, decided to move into a villa on the Spanish Steps in the city. The last few months in Rome saw Keats’s steady decline into the last stages of tuberculosis. During this period, Severn nursed him devotedly and observed in a letter how Keats would sometimes cry upon waking to find himself still alive.

John Keats Gravestone
The Gravestone of John Keats

Keats died on 23rd February 1921 in relative obscurity, unfulfilled in love and ambition. He was only 25 years of age. He would go on to achieve posthumous fame over the next century and be regarded among the greatest poets in the English language.


Post Death And Fame

When Keats died in 1821, he had been writing for just 6 years and had been published for 4 years, managing to sell only around 200 copies of his three books combined. During his era he was appreciated by a handful of contemporaries like Hunt and Shelley. He was thus denied the fame he truly desired. His early death at the time was thus widely attributed by the Keats circle to the vicious critical attacks on his work. Early reactions to the poet’s death gave the impression that Keats was embarrassed by his humble social origins, that George was an irresponsible brother and that Fanny Brawne was a heartless beloved. These allegations would later be seen as assumptions.

Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats
Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats – Richard Monckton Milnes

Quarrels amongst Keats’s close friends prevented an early biography of the poet by anyone who had been close to him. The period of obscurity thus continued for almost 3 decades until Richard Monckton Milnes’s “Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats” was published in 1848. The biography revived the poet and finally helped place Keats within the canon of English literature. The pre-Raphaelites took to the poet and furthered his reputation. The melancholic life of Keats, his genius, the sensuous texture of his poems, his brief career, and the obscurity in which he died, nourished a tendency to idealize Keats once his fame was established. Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson declared him to be the greatest poet of the 19th century while Matthew Arnold in 1880 placed his achievement on a plane with Shakespeare. Keats would gain several noteworthy admirers over time and is now counted among the greatest writers in the English language.


Main Sources

Colvin, Sidney. (1925). “John Keats: his life and poetry, his friends, critics and after-fame”. P1-11, 529-532. Macmillan and Co. Ltd. London.
Bate, Walter Jackson. (1963). “John Keats”. P1-10,15-17, 27, 30-35, 40-41, 77, 321, 329. Harvard University Press, Massachusetts.
Motion, Andrew. (1999). “Keats”. P46. Faber & Faber.
Roe, Nicholas (Sep 11, 2009). “The Hunt Era”. erudit.org.
Drabble, Margaret (1985). “The Oxford Companion to English Literature”. P872-874.
Everest, Kelvin (May 25, 2006). “Keats, John”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Colvin, Sidney. (1891). “Letters of John Keats to his family and friends”. P33,34. Macmillan and co. and New York.
O’Neill, Michael and Mahoney, Charles. (2007) ed. “Romantic Poetry An Annotated Anthology”.
Watts, Cedric Thomas. (1985). “A preface to Keats”. P90. Longman, University of Michigan.
Motion, Andrew (2010). “An introduction to the poetry of John Keats”. The Guardian. London.
Gittings, Robert (1979). “John Keats”. Penguin Books, London.


INTERESTING FACTS

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#1 Spencer’s “Faerie Queene” may have awakened his genius

#2 Keats never forgave Wordsworth for his insult

#3 His sonnet “To the Nile” was composed in a 15 minute competition

#4 Tuberculosis was like a ‘family curse’ to the Keats family

#5 He wished that his name should not appear on his tombstone

#6 Rare copies of his life and death masks are precious collectables

#7 There are no early biographies of Keats by anyone who had been close to him

#8 His first full biography was written 27 years after his death

#9 One of P.B. Shelly’s greatest works is an elegy written in the memory of Keats

#10 Keats’s letters are considered as the most important ever written by any English poet


FAMOUS POEMS

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RankTitlePublishedType of Work
#10On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer1816Petrarchan Sonnet
#9The Eve of St. Agnes1820Narrative Poem
#8Ode on Melancholy1820Ode
#7When I Have Fears1816Shakespearean Sonnet
#6Endymion1818Narrative Poem
#5Bright Star1940Shakespearean Sonnet
#4La Belle Dame sans Merci1812Ballad
#3Ode on a Grecian Urn1819Ode
#2To Autumn1820Ode
#1Ode to a Nightingale1819Ode

JOHN KEATS AS A ROMANTIC POET

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Romanticism was an artistic and literary movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century and peaked in the first half of the 19th century. It was characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as glorification of all the past and of nature. Keats, referred to as “a pure Romantic” poet, was part of the Second Generation of Romantics. Among other things, Keats is regarded as a Romantic poet for his fondness of sensation, the rich aesthetic of his language and his love for nature.


FAMOUS QUOTES

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

Endymion

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all. Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Ode on a Grecian Urn

“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”

Keats on Growth

“Heard Melodies Are Sweet, but Those Unheard Are Sweeter”

Ode on a Grecian Urn

“Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity, it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.”

Keats on Poetry

“Life is but a day; A fragile dew-drop on its perilous way. From a tree’s summit.”

Sleep and Poetry

“I have met with women whom I really think would like to be married to a Poem and to be given away by a Novel.”

Keats on Women

“When I have fears that I may cease to be; Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain”

When I have Fears

“Life is divine Chaos. It’s messy, and it’s supposed to be that way.”

Keats on Life

“But what, without the social thought of thee, Would be the wonders of the sky and sea?”

To My Brother George



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