Born October 31, 1795, in London, England; died of tuberculosis, February 23, 1821, in Rome, Italy; Education: Attended Enfield Academy; apprenticed with Dr. Thomas Hammond, 1811-1815; Guy's Hospital, London, England, trained as a surgeon and apothecary, 1815-1816.
Poems, C. & J. Ollier (London, England), 1817.
Endymion: A Poetic Romance, Taylor & Hessey (London, England), 1818.
Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems, Taylor & Hessey (London, England), 1820.
The Poetical Works of Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats, A. & W. Galignani (Paris, France), 1829, stereotyped by J. Howe (Philadelphia, PA), 1831.
Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats, edited by Richard Monckton Milnes, Lord Houghton, Putnam (Philadelphia, PA), 1848.
The Poems of John Keats, edited by Jack Stillinger, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1978.
Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats, introduction by Edward Hirsch, notes by Tim Pollock, Modern Library (New York, NY), 2001.
The 64 Sonnets, Paul Dry Books (Philadelphia, PA), 2004.
The Letters of John Keats, two volumes, edited by Hyder Edward Rollins, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1958.
Letters of John Keats: A New Selection, edited by Robert Gittings, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1970, revised, with a new introduction and notes by Jon Mee, 2002.
The Selected Letters of John Keats, edited by Grant F. Scott, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2002.
A Song about Myself (taken from an untitled Keats poem, the first line of which reads: "There was a naughty boy"), illustrated by James Prosek, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2005.
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," wrote the Romantic poet John Keats in his "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and those lines could just as well describe the short arc of his own life. The rest of the line, "that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know," defines precisely the "in-the-moment" philosophy of this poet who, with a mere fifty-four poems to his credit, has captured the imaginations and sentiments of generations since his death in 1821. Keats was one of the short-lived stars in the firmament that the Romantic age seemed to launch—Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley were others—who died young and left a lasting legacy in the world of letters. Byron was thirty-six at his death, Shelley thirty-two. Keats, dead at twenty-five, differs from the other two in that he was not born into the aristocracy or the upper classes; rather, he was the son of a livery stable keeper, a scrapper dubbed one of the "Cockney" poets by his contemporary critics. Not the likeliest candidate for the hallowed shelves of the Great Literature canon, yet Keats left behind—in his tragically short life and his mere four years of active writing—poems that have come to be treasured in the English language: the early sonnets "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" and "O Solitude," gathered in his first collection, Poems; the long mythical/allegorical romance Endymion, so badly maligned by critics of the day; the unfinished lines of Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion; his third and most praised collection of poetry, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems, which contains, in addition to the eponymous verses, the ballad "La Belle Dame sans Merci," and "three poems considered among the finest in the English language," according to a contributor for the Academy of American Poets Web site, "Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode on Melancholy," and "Ode to a Nightingale." In his three published volumes of poetry, Keats explored a full range of poetic forms, from the "sonnet, to the Spenserian romance, to the Miltonic epic, defining anew their possibilities with his own distinctive fusion of earnest energy, control of conflicting perspectives and forces, poetic self-consciousness, and, occasionally, dry ironic with," according to Mark Kipperman in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Kipperman further noted, "In the case of the English ode [Keats] brought its form, in the five great odes of 1819, to its most perfect definition." Keats carried on the tradition of William Wordsworth, willing to face a world that had lost its "mythic grandeur," as Kipperman observed, by creating poetry "that sought its wonder in the desires and sufferings of the human heart." This poet who stressed sensation over rumination, developed a "rich, powerful, and exactly controlled poetic style that ranks Keats, with the William Shakespeare of the sonnets, as one of the greatest lyric poets in English," Kipperman added.
Keats's poems and tragic life has had staying power; more popular two centuries after his death than during his life, Keats has become the poster child of Romanticism. "It's a sure-fire subject," noted Morris Dickstein in the New York Times Book Review. Here are all the elements of a tragic tale in Keats's very life: the early loss of his parents, the machinations of a trustee who ultimately cheated the young man out of his inheritance, the abandonment of medical studies to devote his life to poetry, a beloved younger brother's prolonged death from tuberculosis, the savage attacks by conservative reviewers of his work, a love affair never to be consummated as his life was cut short by tuberculosis, his lonely death in Rome. It is indeed a tale that all but equals the poems themselves. Keats was "virtually forgotten for almost three decades after his death," Dickstein wrote, "but since the late 19th century his work has never been out of fashion." Championed by poets and critics such as Matthew Arnold, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and later T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, the works of Keats have long been a cornerstone of the English tradition. The bicentennial of his birth in 1995 saw a spate of new critical works and biographies on the poet. His sensibilities prove as telling in the twenty-first century as they did in the early nineteenth. Reviewing a reissue of Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems in 1999, Lavinia Greenlaw, writing in the New Statesman remarked on "all those phrases that have become such common currency that one half expects them to turn up on T-shirts and beermats. . .: 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'; 'Was it a vision, or a waking dream?'; 'Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness....'The poems from which they come, though, are undiminished by such overfamiliarity." Greenlaw went on to point out that "Keats is an excited presence in his poems, but his ego dissolves in his relish language, the depth of what he experiences and the extent to which he probes. He is a joy to read." For Keats biographer Aileen Ward, "what seems most significant in his art—his sureness of ear and firmness of structure, the dialectic of imagery, the tragic vision of life—remains a lesson which every poet must learn for himself." Ward concluded that "Keats earned his place in the tradition of English poetry by his courage to take the great dare of self-creation, his willingness to accept failure and move beyond it, his patience in learning his craft from those who could teach him."
The Early Years
Keats was born on October 31, 1795, in London, England, the first of five children (one of whom died in infancy) of Thomas and Frances Jennings Keats. Keats's father had come from humble origins in the West of England to make his way in London. He had done well for himself, rising from a stable boy and groom to the head of the stables at the Swan and Hoop tavern, owned by the Jennings family. It was there that he met Frances Jennings, daughter of the owner. The couple struck it off, and despite the protestations of her parents, she married her father's foreman in October of 1974. Despite their disapproval, the Jennings family welcomed their daughter and new husband into the family home, and it was there, in an apartment over the stables, where Keats was born. Three more brothers followed: George in 1797, Thomas in 1799, Edward (who died young) in 1801, and Frances Mary in 1803.
It has often been said that Keats came from lower class origins, but in fact his family was not poor at all. Thomas managed the stables before the elder Jennings retired to the country; thereafter he owned it and the family income was large enough to send the three surviving sons to a small private school in Enfield, run by the progressive teacher John Clarke. Even with the death of both parents, neither Keats nor his brothers had to give up their studies, for their maternal grandmother thereafter stepped in to take care of them, leaving each a living income at the time of her death. Thus, while not born into the aristocracy like Lord Byron, or to the upper and upper middle classes like Shelley, Keats did not rise out of poverty.
Firstborn John was most like his mercurial mother in appearance and temperament and became her favorite. By all accounts, the boy returned this affection, and Keats's early life was a happy one. When Thomas took over the business, he did so wisely and prudently; he had dreams of sending his oldest son to Harrow. When he was eight, Keats was sent off to an academy in the pleasant village of Enfield, about twelve miles north of London, where he became fast friends with Charles Cowden Clarke, the fifteen-year-old son of the headmaster. Despite the age difference, the two boys would be confidantes for the rest of Keats's life. The Enfield Academy prided itself on providing a liberal education and for allowing its pupils a degree of freedom in choosing and designing their own curriculum. As Ward noted in her biography, "Clarke had enlightened theories of education, which, like his liberal stand in politics, were rare in schoolmasters of his day. He thought that a school should bring out the good in boys, not merely hold the bad in check." The smallest of about seventy other pupils (full grown he was just over five feet in height), Keats was anything but a bookish boy. In fact, fighting was his favorite pastime. But he was not a mean boy or a bully; the other students all liked him for his generosity and spirit of fairness. Tragedy struck the Keats family, however, a little less than a year after John Keats entered the Enfield Academy. His father was fatally injured when thrown from a horse as he rode home late one April evening of 1804. Fracturing his skull against the road railings, he died the next morning. Frances Keats was now left alone to bring up her four young children. Her parents were in the country and aging; Frances turned for help instead to a new suitor. With her husband dead only two months, she remarried. Her choice this time was a bank clerk, William Rawlings, who, as it turned out, was more interested in the Swan and Hoop tavern than he was in Frances and her children. The marriage did not last long. Rawlings proved to be so unbearable, that Frances left him, and according to the law of the time, such desertion caused her to forfeit all property as well as custody of her children. The children went to live with their grandmother at Edmonton, near Enfield; Rawlings sold the tavern in 1806 and was no longer a part of Keats's life. Meanwhile, Frances apparently went to live with another man, returning to her children only in 1808, suffering from the last stages of tuberculosis, from which she died the following year.
Through all these tragedies and dislocations, Keats remained at Clarke's school, finding a rock-like port in the storm of his turbulent emotional life. His brothers George and Tom were by this time also enrolled at the school. Keats began to read voraciously and competed in essay contests. He also began translating Latin and French texts, throwing himself into an intellectual world as if in compensation for the ravages to his family life. "Keats's love for literature, and his association of the life of the imagination with the politics of a liberal intelligentsia, really began in Clarke's school," according to Kipperman. His reading encompassed texts in Latin and French, as well as Greek mythology, and in English, he poured through books such as Robinson Crusoe and The Arabian Nights, in addition to nonfiction, including the accounts of Captain Cook's voyages and a history of Scotland. Keats would later call this world of literature and books that he discovered as a young student his "realms of gold." Clarke's son, Charles, once Keats's tutor, now became a closer friend as the intellectual gap narrowed between the two.
In 1810, Alice Jennings, Keats's grandmother, decided to name on old family friend, Richard Abbey, a London tea merchant, trustee to the estate Keats and his siblings would inherit on her death. Ultimately, sister Frances Mary would go to live with the Abbeys, and the merchant was in charge of doling out the income or allowance to the boys, which he did grudgingly over the years. Kipperman calculated that, knowingly or unknowingly, Abbey cheated Keats out of at least two thousand pounds of his inheritance—this at a time when one hundred to two hundred pounds a year would provide a good living. The following year, perhaps at the insistence of Abbey, and also partly out of his own keen desire to be of service in the world, Keats left Clarke's school to be apprenticed to Thomas Hammond in Edmonton, there to study to become a surgeon. Unlike medical doctors, surgeon's then did not need a university degree: they functioned more like nurse practitioners of today, dressing wounds, setting bones, and assisting doctors. Keats was apprenticed for a period of five years, but in his final years transferred to Guy's Hospital in London, where he continued his medical education, while also learning the trade of apothecary.
Keats maintained his friendship with the Clarkes during these years, often visiting them and their library in nearby Enfield, and also enjoying quiet country walks. In 1813 or 1814, he read Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queen, a work that "decisively awakened his love of poetry," according to Kipperman, "indeed shocked him suddenly into self-awareness of his own powers of imagination." The work inspired him to write his first poem, the 1814 "In Imitation of Spenser." Kipperman found the "vitality" of this effort "remarkable." Another early influence was the liberal voice of Leigh Hunt, radical publisher of The Examiner, a weekly broadside which was unafraid to take on the decadent monarchy. Hunt earned a prison term in 1813 for libel against the Prince Regent, an event which made Hunt even more of a hero in the eyes of this young journeyman surgeon and poet. That Charles Cowden Clarke had personally met Hunt and his crowd also impressed Keats. When Hunt was released from prison in 1815, Keats memorialized the day with a sonnet, "Written on the Day That Mr. Leigh Hunt Left Prison."
Perhaps it was over politics that Keats and the more conservative Hammond argued; by the fall of 1815 he had left the Edmonton surgeon to register for a six-month course in London's Guy's Hospital. With the death of his grandmother in 1814, his brothers had moved to Abbey's counting house; at least now he could be near his siblings again. In this period, Keats also met and was influenced by another young poet, George Felton Mathew, and wrote his longest poem yet to this new friend, "To George Felton Mathew." Here Keats practiced the Elizabethan verse epistle format and developed a theme that became increasingly important to him: that poets in fact help heal the suffering of the world. Kipperman termed this verse "colloquial yet descriptively lush." Meanwhile his studies and work at the hospital were going well, but Keats was beginning to have trouble balancing the poetic and practical sides of his life. In the spring of 1816 he decided to send a poem to Hunt, whose poetry Keats admired. "Solitude" was published on May 5, 1816, and was integral in changing the young man's conception of himself. Other poems from this same period include the sonnets "How Many Bards Gild the Lapses of Time!" and "Oh! How I Love, On a Fair Summer's Eve," as well as "Ode to Apollo."
In the summer of 1816, Keats passed the examinations permitting him to become a surgeon; he had only to wait for his twenty-first birthday that fall to attain his license. He left for a seaside writing holiday to Margate, where he wrote "Epistle to My Brother George," and a further letter-poem, "To Charles Cowden Clarke," both of which, according to Kipperman, are "remarkable for their brave and serious tone or self-exploration." Returning to London in late September, he composed another sonnet after visiting his old friend, Clarke, and examining a translation of Homer by George Chapman. He was so moved by this "direct" contact with an ancient poet, that overnight he composed "On the First Looking into Chapman's Homer." Here, for the first time in his poetical works, Keats manages to keep emotion level "sustained and controlled throughout the entire verse," as Kipperman noted. Published in the December 1, 1816, volume of Examiner, the verse "takes its place with Wordsworth's and some of Keats's own, as among the finest of the nineteen century," Kipperman further observed. Hunt and Keats finally met that autumn, and became close friends. Keats continued to find a refuge in Hunt's home even after he no longer found the man important as a literary model. Moving to Cheapside, Keats took up lodging with his two brothers; he would maintain a household with his brothers here and on Hampstead Heath until the death of Tom from consumption (tuberculosis) two years later. Almost unnoticed that autumn was the fact that Keats had turned twenty-one, but his plans to go into medicine seem to have been left behind. Keats was caught up in the whirlwind of becoming a poet.
Poems and Endymion
Through Hunt and Clarke, as well as through his own brother George, Keats met new friends and supporters in 1816, including John Hamilton Reynolds, Shelley, and Benjamin Haydon, and also the poet Shelley's publisher, Charles Ollier. Two more long poems appeared in late 1816: "I Stood Tip-Toe" and "Sleep and Beauty." Though marked by couplets that are often "clumsy and adolescent," according to Kipperman, these verses also introduce themes with "enduring concerns." In the latter poem he presents the idea of poetry as a healing force in the world, and of poets forming a brotherhood to lift man's spirits and soul. Keats was also working on a verse about the mythic Endymion, a mortal who falls in love with the moon, Cynthia.
Keats's first volume, Poems, was published in the spring of 1817 by Ollier, a collection of thirty-one poems that went largely unnoticed by critics and the public alike. Some of Keats's friends organized positive reviews, but so few copies were sold that his publishers regretted they had even brought the collection out. But Keats was too busy working to notice. The day following a festive publication dinner at Hunt's, Keats accompanied his new friend, the painter Haydon, to view the Elgin Marbles, and thereafter wrote the sonnet "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles," which Kipperman found to be a "splendid evocation of the grandeur of monumental art set against the aspirations of the individual artist, or human weakness and pain poised against an aesthetic vision of the gods."
Increasingly, Keats felt that he needed to distance himself from the influence of Hunt and to head out in his own direction. "That which is creative must create itself," Keats wrote, and such self-creation took the form of an ambitious 4,000 line poem built around the theme of Endymion, which he had earlier addressed in a much smaller verse. Keats set about this monumental task with a daily quota of forty lines. Leaving London for the time, he first settled on the Isle of Wight, then went back to Margate, and finally to rooms of a friend of his at Oxford. This mythical story of a shepherd's love for the moon goddess gave Keats a narrative skeleton around which to weave his poetic structure. In Keats's hands, this myth became an allegory of romantic desire to conquer and go beyond the bounds of narrow human experience. After many adventures in which he unsuccessfully chases his dream vision of Cynthia, Endymion decides that in fact this vision is illusory after all, and falls in love with an Indian maiden, who, it turns out, is actually Cynthia, the moon goddess. The important theme of reaching the ideal through earthly pursuits is thus set forward strongly in the work. Keats also hit on more themes during the composition of Endymion that would inform all his work, including the belief that a realization of the beauty and oneness of nature would overcome and transform the self. He additionally formulated his theory of "negative capability," which involves an absolute receptivity to experience. As Keats explained it in a later letter, his theory posited the condition "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." Indeed, the "mind becomes a thoroughfare for all thought," Keats wrote in another letter.
Published in 1818, Endymion occasioned vitriolic responses from critics who took Keats to task for association with Hunt and his so-called "Cockney school" of writers and thinkers. Conservative critics called Keats uneducated and advised the young poet to give up versification. The harshest criticism appeared in the influential journals Quarterly Review and Blackwood's Magazine. Part of the criticism was the result of class, but more than that was the furor over Keats's implicit argument in the poem that women are as capable as men of having strong sexual drives. As John Barnard noted in Critical Essays on John Keats, "Throughout the pastoral it is the women who seduce the men." Barnard went on to note that "from a twentieth-century viewpoint Keats may seem frequently guilty of an adolescent failure of taste. The poem now looks naive rather than shocking." Barnard also felt that while Endymion "does not succeed in establishing a properly meaningful relation between the 'ethereal' and 'mundane,'" it does "show Keats struggling with his major preoccupations."
Much has been made of the negative reviews and Keats's subsequent ill health. Shelley put forth the idea that these scornful reviews broke the young man's spirit and led to his tuberculosis. Keats, however, was not greatly put out by such criticism; by the time the book appeared, he had already moved beyond that stage in his life. He was on a personal quest for the transcendent.
Keats began working in the Shakespearian sonnet form in verses such as "When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be" and "Great Spirits Now on Earth Are Sojourning" even before publication of Endymion. He also composed a verse romance based on the story from Bocaccio about the tragic love of Isabella for the clerk Lorenzo. Isabella's brothers murder the young man and Isabella goes mad. An "uneven poem," according to Kipperman, "Isabella" was also later set aside by the poet himself as inferior. Keats began work on the long blank verse epic Hyperion shortly after publication of Endymion. Here he set out a further allegory built on myth, this time using Apollo to show how the poet reaches ever deeper levels of understanding and empathy through acceptance of change and sorrow. With this poem, he imitates and partly challenges the epic form of Milton from Paradise Lost.
Keats's work was made all the more difficult by a recurring sore throat he got while on a walking tour in the Lake District in the autumn of 1818. Also, now with his brother George married and living in America, Keats was in full charge of his brother Tom, who was in steady decline from tuberculosis. Tom died in December, and the following year was one of incredible creativity for Keats. Indeed, 1819 has been referred to as his "annus mirabilis," for the amazing amount of work he turned out. In addition to the work on Hyperion, which he began revising later as The Fall of Hyperion, Keats also wrote love poems, including "Bright Star," to a woman he met shortly after Tom's death. Fanny Brawne was a former neighbor on Hampstead Heath, a young girl who captured his heart in a time of personal sorrow and grieving for his dead brother. Though engaged, the couple never married, for Keats felt he must first be able to support his young bride with the pen; his illness then stopped any thoughts of marrying. There were other long poems in 1819, such as "The Eve of St. Agnes," "one of [Keats's] finest and best-loved long poems," according to Kipperman, a romance built in Spenserian stanzas with a story reminiscent of the frustrated love in Romeo and Juliet. In this case, the love is between the young heroine, Madeline, and Porphyro. Enchantment is also the subject of "La Belle Dame sans Merci," a "haunting, beautifully suggestive ballad," according to Kipperman.
From the spring to fall of 1819 Keats also produced five odes that explore the themes of eternity and the essential power of beauty in lives otherwise filled with pain and misery. "Ode to Psyche, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode on Melancholy," and "Ode on Indolence," as well as the poem "To Autumn," are Keats's deepest exploration of dichotomies from sorrow and happiness, art and reality, dream and reality, romance and truth, and death and immortality. The Keats biographer, Walter Jackson Bate, called "To Autumn" a favorite of generations of readers and "one of the most perfect poems in English." The three stanzas of the poem deal with a metaphorical acceptance of the cycle of life, and contain the famous lines, "Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness, / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun."
Immortality, indeed, was much on Keats's mind that autumn, for he was still plagued by the recurring sore throat, which may have been the onset of his tuberculosis. He was collaborating on a verse drama, Otho the Great, which he hoped would cure his money problems and allow him to marry Fanny. He also composed his last full-length poem, "Lamia." Thereafter he returned to work on The Fall of Hyperion, but his work was cut short by sudden illness. In subsequent years, this fragment, finally published in 1856, has been praised as containing some of Keats's best work. For Kipperman the poem is Keats's "most ambitious attempt to understand the meaning of imaginative aspiration." He also characterized The Fall of Hyperion as a "broad Dantesque vision." The work of Keats's miraculous year were published in July 1820 as Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems. By this time, however, the poet, just twenty-four, was already dying.
A Name "Writ in Water"
Keats's health declined in 1820; in February he suffered his first lung hemorrhage. His own medical background and personal experience with tuberculosis told him that his days were now numbered. He tried to work, but did not have the strength. As his sickness progressed, he was taken in by Fanny Brawne and her mother; it was as close as he would ever come to living with his beloved. Advised by doctors to seek a warmer climate, he left for Italy in November of 1820, accompanied by a young painter, John Severn. They took rooms on the Piazza di Spagna and Keats tried to regain his health, taking short walks in the Roman air. A few months later, on the night of February 23, 1821, Keats died, and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. He requested a stone with no name and the simple epitaph: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."
For a generation, it seemed Keats's prophesy would be true, and that his work would be forgotten. However, as the Romantic period began to be mined during the Victorian years, Keats's life and work were held up as exemplary. His letters, some 240 of them, helped in this rehabilitation process. "Moving and engrossing in their own right, [the letters] are the unintended but essential complement to Keats's poetry," wrote James Kissane in a prose evaluation of the poet for Dictionary of Literary Biography. Kissane further noted that the letters form "an indispensable human accompaniment to and commentary upon the poetry itself," and that they "constitute a literary treasure hardly less valuable than the poems themselves."
By the late nineteenth-century, Keats's posterity was assured. In a letter to his friend Clarke as he lay dying in Rome, he longed for death, writing, "How long is this posthumous life of mine to last?" As the biographer Andrew Motion noted, "[Keats's] readers have answered him in ways he did not expect. They have made him immortal. So have the pilgrims to his house in Hampstead, and to his lodgings in the Piazza di Spagna." Motion concluded, "Even in his last desperate hours, [Keats] never embraced the 'pious frauds of religion,' or betrayed his belief that suffering was a means of soul-making. . . . He had immersed himself in history, so as to understand better the mortality of transcendence. He had refined but never abandoned the attempt to combine 'thought' with 'sensation.'" Ward also confirms this immortality: "[Keats's] sober prophesy as he started Hyperion—'I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death'—has been fulfilled; as Matthew Arnold confirmed it, sixty years later, 'He is—he is with Shakespeare.'"
If you enjoy the works of John Keats
If you enjoy the works of John Keats, you might want to check out the following books:
Matthew Arnold, New Poems, 1867.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Complete Poems, 1997.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Poems, 1833.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Almeida, Hermione de, editor, Critical Essays on John Keats, G. K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1990.
Bate, Walter Jackson, John Keats, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1979.
Bate, Walter Jackson, editor, Keats: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1964.
Bush, Douglas, John Keats: His Life and Writings, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1966.
Clarke, Mary and Charles Cowden, "Keats," in Recollections of Writers, Scribner (New York, NY), 1878.
Colvin, Sidney, John Keats: His Life and Poetry, Scribner (New York, NY), 1917.
Dickstein, Morris, Keats and His Poetry: A Study in Development, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1971.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 96: British Romantic Poets, 1789-1832, 1990, pp. 179-219, Volume 110: British Romantic Prose Writers, 1789-1832, 1992, pp. 166-179.
Elkins A. C., and L. J. Forstner, The Romantic Movement Bibliography, 1936-1970, seven volumes, Pierian Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1973.
Evert, Walter, Aesthetic and Myth in the Poetry of Keats, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1965.
Finney, Claude Lee, Evolution of Keats's Poetry, two volumes, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1936.
Fraser, G. S., editor, John Keats: The Odes: A Casebook, Macmillan (London, England), 1971.
Gittings, Robert, John Keats, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1968.
Green, David Bonnell, and Edwin Graves Wilson, editors, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Hunt, and Their Circles: A Bibliography, July 1, 1950-June 30, 1962, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1964.
Hartley, Robert A., editor, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Hunt, and Their Circles: A Bibliography, July 1, 1962-December 31, 1974, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1978.
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Motion, Andrew, Keats, Faber and Faber (London, England), 1997.
Muir, Kenneth, editor, John Keats: A Reassessment, Liverpool University Press (Liverpool, England), 1958.
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Perkins, David, The Quest for Permanence: The Symbolism of Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1959.
Rajan, Tilottama, Dark Interpreter: The Discourse of Romanticism, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1980.
Ricks, Christopher, Keats and Embarrassment, Clarendon Press (Oxford, England), 1974.
Ridley, H. R., Keats's Craftsmanship: A Study in Poetic Development, Clarendon Press (Oxford, England), 1933.
Rollins, Hyder Edward, editor, The Keats Circle: Letters and Papers and More Letters and Papers of the Keats Circle, two volumes, revised edition, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1965.
Simpson, David, Irony and Authority in Romantic Poetry, Macmillan (London, England), 1979.
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Stillinger, Jack, The Hoodwinking of Madeline, University of Illinois Press (Urbana IL), 1971.
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Ward, Aileen, John Keats: The Making of a Poet, Viking (New York, NY), 1963, revised edition, Farrar, Straus, Giroux (New York, NY), 1983.
Wasserman, Earl, The Finer Tone, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1953.
Wolfson, Susan, The Questioning Presence: Wordsworth, Keats, and the Interrogative Mode in Romantic Poetry, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1986.
America, September 12, 1998, Nicholas Jones, "Keats," p. 21.
American Poetry Review, September-October, 1993, Louise Gluck, "Against Sincerity," p. 27-29; September-October, 1997, Edward Hirsch, "A Hand, A Hook, A Prayer," pp. 17-21.
American Scholar, autumn, 2002, Jean Haynes, "Keats the Surgeon," p. 160.
Economist, November 4, 1995, "Poetic Injustice," p. 95.
Library Journal, May 1, 2002, Robert L. Kelly, review of Selected Letters of John Keats, p. 101.
New Statesman, October 18, 1999, Lavinia Greenlaw, "Gale of Life," review of Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St. Agnes and Other Poems, p. 56.
Review of English Studies, August, 1996, John Barnard, "Keats Echoes Kirke White," pp. 389-372; November, 1997, William Christie, "Intimations of Immortality in Swift and Keats: A Note," pp. 501-503.
Saturday Night, July-August, 1997, Stephen Finucan, "In the Ilins' Den," pp. 67-70.
Southwest Review, autumn, 1996, David Bromwich, "John Keats at 200," pp. 533-537.
Twentieth Century Literature, spring, 2001, James Najarian, "'Greater Love': Wilfred Owen, Keats, and a Tradition of Desire," p. 20.
Academy of American Poetshttp://www.poets.org/ (July 23, 2001).
John-Keats.com,http://www.john-keats.com/ (March 9, 2004).
Open Directory,http://dmoz.org/Arts/Literature/Authors/K/Keats,_John/ (March 14, 2004), "Keats, John."*
BORN: 1795, London
DIED: 1821, Rome
GENRE: Poetry, letters, nonfiction
Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820)
The Letters of John Keats (1958)
John Keats is recognized as a key figure in the English Romantic movement, a period in which writers placed the individual at the core of all experience, valued imagination and beauty, and looked to nature for revelation of truth. Although his literary career spanned only four years and consisted of a mere fifty-four poems, Keats demonstrated remarkable intellectual and artistic development.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood and Family Tragedies Scholars often note that Keats's childhood provides no hint of the genius to emerge. Born October 31, 1795, the oldest of four children of a stable-keeper, Keats was raised in Moor-fields, London. His father died from injuries sustained in a fall from a horse when Keats was seven. This accident
proved to be the first in a series of losses and dislocations that would pursue Keats throughout his brief life and convince him of art's power to bring solace and meaning to human suffering. In 1803, Keats enrolled at the Clarke School in nearby Enfield, where he was distinguished only by his small stature (he was barely over five feet tall as an adult) and somewhat confrontational disposition. At the Clarke school, Keats first encountered the works that influenced his early poetry, including Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene and John Lempriere's Classical Dictionary, on which he based his knowledge of Greek mythology.
Keats's mother died of tuberculosis in 1810, and the Keats children were placed in the care of a guardian, Richard Abbey. At the time, tuberculosis was a pandemic in Europe. About 25 percent of all deaths in the early nineteenth century in Europe were attributable to tuberculosis. Doctors did not yet understand how the disease was spread, and accepted treatment for the disease often made the condition worse.
Writing in Secret While Pursuing a Medical Career At fifteen, Keats was apprenticed to an apothecary. Four years later, he entered Guy's and St. Thomas's Hospitals in London, where he completed medical courses and in 1816 passed the examinations to become an apothecary. Keats had begun to compose poetry as early as 1812, however, and secretly decided to support himself on his small inheritance after graduation and devote himself to writing. To avoid a confrontation with his guardian, Keats continued his studies to become a surgeon, carefully concealing his decision from Abbey until he had reached the age of majority and was free of his guardian's jurisdiction.
An Influential Circle of Friends Keats's meeting in 1816 with Leigh Hunt influenced his decision to pursue a career as a poet, and Hunt published Keats's early poems in his liberal journal, the Examiner. Keats was drawn readily into Hunt's circle, which included the poet John Hamilton Reynolds, the critic William Hazlitt, and the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon. Poems, an early collection, was published in 1817 but received little attention. His next work, Endymion: A Poetic Romance, a full-length allegory based on Greek mythology, was published the following year to mixed reviews. Soon after the appearance of Endymion, Keats began to experience the first symptoms of tuberculosis, the disease that had killed his mother and in 1818 his brother, Tom. Following Tom's death, Keats lived with his close friend Charles Armitage Brown in Hampstead.
“Half in love with easeful Death …” It was around this time that he composed his famous “Ode to a Nightingale,” a moody, sumptuous poem in which the speaker lauds the beautiful sound of the nightingale and fantasizes about dying—”to cease upon the midnight with no pain”—and forgetting all “the weariness, the fever, and the fret.” The poem seems to be a clear reaction to Tom's death and his own infirmity, as Keats laments that he lives in a world where “youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies.” At the same time, the poem calls the bird “immortal” and timeless. The bird represents Keats the poet, capable of producing a beautiful “song” that will live after he is gone.
Keats continued writing and spent a considerable amount of time reading the works of William Wordsworth, John Milton, and Shakespeare. Here Keats also fell in love with Fanny Brawne, a neighbor's daughter. The rigors of work, poor health, and constant financial difficulties prevented the two from fulfilling their desire to be married.
In a final effort to regain his health, Keats sailed to Italy in September 1820; he died in Rome in February of the following year. He is buried there beneath a gravestone that bears an epitaph he himself composed: “Here lies one whose name was writ on water.”
Works in Literary Context
Keats's poems, especially the later works published in Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820), are praised not only for their sensuous imagery and passionate tone but also for the insight they provide into aesthetic and human concerns, particularly the transience of beauty and happiness. The artistic philosophy described in the famous quote from Keats's “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—”beauty is truth, truth beauty”—is clarified in his correspondence with his family and friends. In these letters, which some readers value as much as his poems, it is possible to trace the evolution of Keats's poetic thought and technique as he matured.
Romantic Movement Keats was a quintessential Romantic poet. The Romantic Movement in literature, which began in the late eighteenth century, was a reaction against what was seen as the cold rationality of the Enlightenment period. During the Enlightenment, developments in science and technology ushered in the massive social changes in western society. The Industrial Revolution brought about population explosions in European cities while the works of political scientists and philosophers laid the groundwork for the American and French Revolutions. The Romantics viewed science and technology skeptically, and stressed the beauty of nature and individual emotion in their work.
Transience of Life Perhaps because of the widespread presence of tuberculosis among those he loved and in Europe in general, Keats seemed to recognize that time moved swiftly and that life was fleeting. “I have lov'd the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remembered,” Keats wrote to Fanny Brawne in February 1820, just after he became ill. In Keats's work, the struggle with aesthetic form becomes an image of a struggle for meaning against the limits of experience. The very form of his art seems to embody and interpret the conflicts of mortality and desire. The urgency of this poetry has always appeared greater to his readers for his intense love of beauty and his tragically short life. Keats approached the relations among experience, imagination, art, and illusion with penetrating thoughtfulness, with neither sentimentality nor cynicism but with a delight in the ways in which beauty, in its own subtle and often surprising ways, reveals the truth.
Negative Capability Two prevalent themes in Keats's poetry are the power of imaginative perception and the capacity of a truly creative nature to go beyond the self. In a letter written to his brothers, Keats mentions having seen a painting by Benjamin West and finding it lacking: “It is a wonderful picture …; But there is nothing to be intense upon; no woman one feels mad to kiss…. the excellence of every Art is its intensity.” Keats then coined a term that is one of his most distinctive contributions to aesthetic discourse: negative capability, which is present, Keats explains, “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Perhaps Keats himself provided the best gloss on this term when he wrote, in a marginal jotting on a passage in John Milton's masterwork Paradise Lost, of “the intense pleasure of not knowing[,] a sense of independence, of power, from the fancy's creating a world of its own by the sense of probabilities.”
Works in Critical Context
The history of Keats's early reputation is dominated by two hostile, unsigned reviews of Endymion, one credited to John Gibson Lockhart in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, and the other to John Wilson Croker in the Quarterly Review. Lockhart, a vociferous critic of what he termed “The Cockney School,” named for its members' ties to London and their alleged lack of refinement, attacked not only Keats's poem, which he denigrated on artistic and moral grounds, but on what he perceived as the poet's lack of taste, education, and upbringing. While Croker was neither so vitriolic nor personally degrading as Lockhart—critics acknowledge, in fact, the legitimacy of several of his complaints—his essay was singled out as damaging and unjust by Keats's supporters, who rushed to the poet's defense. While Keats was apparently disturbed only temporarily by these attacks, they gave rise to the legend that his death had been caused, or at least hastened, by these two reviews. A chief perpetrator of this notion was Percy Bysshe Shelley, who composed and published his famous Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of the Poet John Keats shortly after Keats's death. The preface to this work implicated Croker as Keats's murderer. In conjunction with the writings of Keats's well-meaning friends, Shelley's work effectively created an image of Keats as a sickly and unnaturally delicate man, so fragile that a magazine article was capable of killing him. Lord Byron commented wryly on this idea in a famous couplet in his poem Don Juan: “‘Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle / Should let itself be snuffed out by an article.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Keat's famous contemporaries include:
Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821): General of the French Revolution and, later, emperor of France.
William Wordsworth (1770–1850): Wordsworth was the most influential of the Romantic poets and the one who most emphasized the importance of nature.
Simón Bolívar (1783–1830): This South American liberator eventually died of tuberculosis.
George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788–1824): This notorious and melancholy Romantic poet was known for his dark moods and stormy lines.
Walt Whitman (1819–1892): Although American, Whitman wrote poems on some of the same themes as his fellow Romantics across the ocean; namely, a celebration of nature and an appreciation of artistic passion.
Matthew Arnold (1822–1888): A great poet of the late Victorian era, Arnold cited Keats as a major influence.
Legacy Keats's dying fears of eternal obscurity were proved wrong in the generations after his death. Even as early as 1820, people were beginning to write of Keats's legacy. The influential Francis Jeffrey wrote an approving, if belated, essay in The Edinburgh Review, and the obituary in The London Magazine (April 1921), noted, “There is but a small portion of the public acquainted with the writings of this young man, yet they were full of high imagination and delicate fancy.” By 1853 Matthew Arnold could speak of Keats as “in the school of Shakespeare,” and, despite his weak sense of dramatic action and his overly lush imagery was “one whose exquisite genius and pathetic death render him forever interesting.” Yet it was just this quality of lush, “pictorial” imagery that Victorians admired in Keats, as reflected in popular paintings related to his works by Pre-Raphaelites such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and poets such as Alfred Tennyson and Algernon Charles Swinburne, who wrote of “mastery of visual detail, his instinct for the absolute expression of absolute natural beauty.” In 1857, Alexander Smith, in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (eighth edition) entry on Keats, could proclaim, with some exaggeration, that “With but one or two exceptions, no poet of the last generation stands at this moment higher in the popular estimation, and certainly no one has in a greater degree influenced the poetic development of the last thirty years.”
Responses to Literature
- If you are interested in the impact of tuberculosis on nineteenth-century European culture, The White Plague: Tuberculosis, Man, and Society (1952), by René DuBos, provides an excellent introduction. In this landmark study of the social meaning of tuberculosis, DuBos prominently features Keats and the myths surrounding his illness.
- Research the myth of Endymion, and then read Keats's poem. What do you think attracted Keats to the myth? What changes did he make to it?
- Do you also see Keats as a tragic and sympathetic personality? What advice would you give him if you could?
- Keats and many other Romantics were preoccupied with perception and how an individual's view of the world alters what is seen and experienced. Look up the definition of solipsism and argue whether Keats is a solipsist at heart.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Issues of immortality and human transience have preoccupied thinkers for millennia. Rulers, philosophers, and poets have pondered whether human accomplishments will be remembered or make a lasting impact. Keats was extremely interested in his own literary legacy. Here are some other works that examine the idea of the transience or permanence of man's efforts:
The Iliad (7th–8th century b.c.e.), by Homer. The famous hero of this epic, Achilles, chooses death in battle over a long, peaceful life because attaining glory in battle means his name will be immortalized.
The Stranger (1942), by Albert Camus. This novel's protagonist is convinced that the universe is indifferent to the desires and actions of humans.
“Annabel Lee” (1849), by Edgar Allan Poe. This long poem commemorates, rather morbidly, the death of a young girl and her influence on the speaker.
The Diary of a Young Girl (1942), by Anne Frank. Written while hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam, this diary details the trials Frank's family went through before they were sent to a concentration camp.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1982), by Milan Kundera. Set in springtime in a politically unbalanced Prague, the characters, most of them artists, feel that their lives are fleeting; thus, although they create with purpose, they also hesitate and often choose badly when it comes to their personal lives.
Bush, Douglas. John Keats: His Life and Writings. NewYork: Macmillan, 1966.
Colvin, Sidney. John Keats: His Life and Poetry. London: Macmillan / New York: Scribners, 1917.
Evert, Walter. Aesthetic and Myth in the Poetry of Keats. Princeton, U.K.: Princeton University Press, 1965.
Levinson, Marjorie. Keats's Life of Allegory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988.
Matthews, G. M., ed. Keats: The Critical Heritage. NewYork: Barnes and Noble, 1971.
Ryan, Robert M. Keats: The Religious Sense. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976.
Sharp, Ronald A. Keats, Skepticism, and the Religion of Beauty. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1979.
Sperry, Stuart. Keats the Poet. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Thorpe, Clarence De Witt. The Mind of John Keats. NewYork: Oxford University Press, 1962.
The English poet John Keats (1795-1821) stressed that man's quest for happiness and fulfillment is thwarted by the sorrow and corruption inherent in human nature. His works are marked by rich imagery and melodic beauty.
John Keats was born on Oct. 31, 1795, the first child of a London lower-middle-class family. In 1803 he was sent to school at Enfield, where he gained a favorable reputation for high spirits and boyish pugnaciousness. His father died in an accident in 1804, and his mother in 1810, presumably of tuberculosis. Meanwhile, Keats's interest had shifted from fighting to reading.
When he left school in 1811, Keats was apprenticed to an apothecary-surgeon in Edmonton. Then it was that Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene awakened him to the charm and power of poetry. The imaginative beauty of Spenser's world of fantasy fulfilled some romantic yearning in his adolescent mind, and he was even more impressed by the poet's mastery of language as evidenced in the aptness and the sensory intensity of his imagery. It was probably during his last months at Edmonton that Keats first tried his hand at writing: four stanzas entitled "Imitation of Spenser."
On Oct. 2, 1815, Keats was registered at Guy's Hospital, where he was to pursue his medical studies. He was a conscientious student, but poetry gained increasing hold on his imagination. Some growing sense of alienation may be perceived in his first published poem, the sonnet "O solitude! If I must with thee dwell," which Leigh Hunt printed in the Examiner on May 5, 1816.
Autumn 1816 brought decisive weeks in the maturation of Keats's art and personality. In late September he read George Chapman's translation of Homer, and this impressed upon him a new aspect of both Elizabethan and Greek poetry: no longer the mellow sensuousness, the exquisite fantasy that he had found in Spenser, but a virility in theme and style that was to encourage him in his turn to "speak out loud and bold." In October he made the acquaintance of Hunt and of some of the young men who were to become his devoted friends and to whom he addressed so many admirable letters over the next 4 years. During November and December he wrote most of the poems for his first volume, which was published in March 1817.
Although it contains many felicitous, and at times arresting, phrases, the book testifies to the young poet's inexperience and immaturity. The derivative mannerisms of some of the sonnets, the easy sybaritic nature description in "I stood tiptoe," the romantic diffuseness and facile escapism of "Sleep and Poetry" do much to account for the criticism—though not the venomous malice—it received at the hands of Blackwood's Magazine in October. In retrospect, this first volume has a character of anticipation rather than achievement.
Publication of Endymion
The same cannot be said of Endymion: A Poetic Romance, to the writing of which Keats devoted most of his time from April to December 1817 and which appeared in May 1818. This mythical story of the Latmian shepherd's love for the moon goddess provided him with a narrative framework through which he hoped to discipline his exuberant imagination; within a firm structure that takes the hero through the bowels of the earth, under the sea, and through the sky, he could nevertheless give free rein to his fancy in a great variety of incidents. Keats turned the story of Endymion into an allegory of the romantic longing to overcome the boundaries of ordinary human experience. The similarity with Percy Bysshe Shelley's Alastor, which had been published in 1816, is obvious; but whereas the quest led Shelley's hero to despair and death, Endymion significantly realizes that ultimate identification with transcendence is not to be achieved through the unmediated vision he had sought, but through humble acceptance of human limitations and of the misery built into man's condition.
Keats's letters reveal that at this time several of his friends were ill or suffering from some sort of vexation. His brother was very unwell, and he himself, after a bad cold, prophetically feared in October 1817 that "I shall never be again secure in Robustness." Like other romantic writers, Keats had a central need somehow to adjust the evidence that, as he put it, "The world is full of troubles" with an exalted intuition of cosmic harmony; this preoccupation runs as a major trend through his letters.
Another basic problem with which Keats's letters deal is how to reconcile the rival claims of romantic subjectivity, which makes for sincerity, concreteness, intensity, and originality, and of esthetic objectivity, which alone raises poetry to universal meaningfulness. Such reconciliation, he thought, had been achieved by Shakespeare through a quality which Keats, in December 1817, had called "Negative Capability."
It may have been in a deliberate attempt to secure greater impersonality that in March-April 1818, after the allegory of Endymion, he turned to straightforward narrative in Isabella, which is based on a story by Boccaccio. Although the poem is distinctly inferior, its theme was connected with Keats's more philosophical preoccupations, as it centers on the beauty and greatness of tragic love.
On the whole, 1818 brought a lull in Keats's creative output. His letters, however, show that it was also a period of rapid inner growth. By May he had become articulately conscious of several pregnant verities: that experience, rather than unbridled fancy, is the key to true poetry; that sorrow and suffering are not to be eschewed but should be expected—in 1819 he was to say "greeted"—as a necessary step in the making of the soul; that no great poetry can be achieved if "high Sensations" are not completed by "extensive knowledge" and that he himself, in his exploration of life's "dark passages," had not yet reached further than the "Chamber of Maiden-Thought."
It was presumably in order to give poetic utterance to this enriched view of life and art that Keats started work on Hyperion in September 1818. This new poem linked up with Endymion, as an essential part of its purpose was to describe the growth of Apollo into a true poet through ever deeper acceptance and understanding of change and sorrow. But Keats was unable to get ahead with it for a number of reasons: a trip to Scotland had impaired his health; Blackwood's had published a vitriolic attack on Endymion; his brother, Tom, had died after several weeks' painful illness. Keats's friends were trying to entertain him, and he was reluctantly swept up in the absorbing trivialities of social life. Moreover, at this time he fell in love with Fanny Brawne.
In spring 1819 Keats sought creative relief from his failure to give satisfactory shape to his idea in new ventures which were apparently less ambitious, yet proved to be the crowning work of his annus mirabilis. Turning once more to verse narrative, he first produced the opulent Eve of St. Agnes, in deliberate revulsion against what he now saw as the "mawkish" sentimentality of Isabella. The rape of Madeline in this poem was soon to find its dialectical counterpart in the ghostlike idealism of La Belle dame sans merci, a ballad that tells of the mysterious seduction of a medieval knight by another of Keats's elusive, enigmatic, half-divine ladies. Each poem embodies an important trend in Keats's poetry: his sybaritic sense of exquisite sensuality verging at times on eroticism, and a longing mixed with fear and diffidence for some experience beyond human mortality.
These were followed in the spring and summer of 1819 by the first great odes: "Ode to Psyche," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and "Ode to a Nightingale." These, together with the later "Ode on Indolence" and "Ode on Melancholy," are among the most acute imaginative explorations of the intricate relation between the contrasting experiences and aspirations whose interplay had always controlled Keats's inspiration: sorrow and bliss, art and reality, life and dream, truth and romance, death and immortality.
The triumphant balance and integration achieved in the odes was inevitably precarious. They coincided with the positive conception of the world as a "Vale of Soulmaking," which the poet had framed in April. But incipient financial trouble, together with his tortured love for Fanny, were beginning to press upon Keats. The three schemes that kept him busy during the latter half of 1819 illustrate his confusion and perplexity. In cooperation with one of his friends, he wrote his only drama, Otho the Great, in the futile hope of acquiring both money and public recognition. He also made his last attempt to define the function of the poet in The Fall of Hyperion; but this, like the former Hyperion, was never completed and remains a tantalizing fragment of cryptic, inconclusive beauty. Significantly, the last long poem that he managed to bring to completion was Lamia, a brilliantly ambiguous piece which leads to the disenchanted conclusion that both the artist and the lover live on deceptive illusions.
Keats's health had been declining for some time. In February 1820 a severe hemorrhage in the lungs revealed the seriousness of the disease. His third and last volume, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes and Other Poems, was printed in July. In September, Keats left for Italy on an invitation from Shelley. He died in Rome on Feb. 23, 1821.
The best complete introduction to Keats, biographical and critical, is Douglas Bush, John Keats (1966). The standard biography is Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats (1963). For bibliography and general information on Keats see James Robertson MacGillivray, Keats: A Bibliography and Reference Guide with an Essay on Keats' Reputation (1949).
Clarence Dewitt Thorpe, The Mind of John Keats (1926; repr. 1964), combines critical insight into the poetry with illumination of Keats's personality. Extensive critical treatment of Keats's poetry is in Maurice Roy Ridley, Keats' Craftsmanship (1933); Claude Lee Finney, The Evolution of Keats's Poetry (1936); Walter Jackson Bate, The Stylistic Development of Keats (1945); Richard Harter Fogle, The Imagery of Keats and Shelley (1949); John Middleton Murry, Keats (1955); E. C. Pettet, On the Poetry of Keats (1957); Kenneth Muir, ed., John Keats: A Reassessment (1958); W. J. Bate, ed., Keats (1964); and Douglas Hill, John Keats (1969). For detailed analyses of individual poems see Earl R. Wasserman, The Finer Tone (1955); Harvey T. Lyon, Keats' Well-read Urn (1958); Jack Stillinger, ed., Keats's Odes (1968); and Albert S. Gérard, English Romantic Poetry (1968).
For general background the reader may consult Ian Jack, English Literature, 1815-1832 (1963), which has very convenient bibliographies. □
The English Romantic poet John Keats stressed that man's quest for happiness and fulfillment is thwarted (prevented from taking place) by the sorrow and corruption inherent (existing as an essential characteristic) in human nature. His works are marked with rich imagery and melodic beauty.
John Keats was born in London, England, on October 31, 1795, the first of Thomas and Frances Keats's five children. Thomas was working as a stable manager for John Jennings when he met Jennings's daughter, Francis. Thomas, known for his charm, energy, and respectability, crossed the social barrier and won Francis's heart and the two were married. Both of John's parents were affectionate and loving toward their children. John especially shared a close relationship with his mother. His father died in an accident in 1804. His mother, after a second marriage and divorce, died from a lung disease in 1810.
In 1811 Keats became an apprentice (worked for someone to learn a trade with little or no pay) to an apothecary (druggist) in Edmonton, England. There Keats first tried his hand at writing and produced four stanzas (short poems) entitled "Imitation of Spenser." These were inspired by the poem "Fairie Queene" by Edmund Spenser (c. 1552–1599).
On October 2, 1815, Keats started medical studies at Guy's Hospital. He was a conscientious (careful) student, but poetry gained an increasing hold on his imagination. It is thought that Keats was influenced at this time by the boldness evident in a translation by George Chapman (c. 1559–1634) of the Odyssey by the Greek poet Homer (c. 850 b.c.e.). His first volume of poems was published in March 1817.
Publication of Endymion
Keats's next work, Endymion: A Poetic Romance, was published in May 1818. Keats turned the story of Endymion, a mythical shepherd, into an allegory (a narrative in which abstract ideas are represented by people) of the romantic longing to overcome the boundaries of ordinary human experience. Endymion realizes that ultimate identification with transcendence (rising above the universe) is to be achieved through humble acceptance of human limitations and of the misery built into man's condition. Keats's letters reveal that at this time several of his friends were ill. His brother was very unwell, and he himself, after a bad cold, prophetically (foretellingly) feared in October 1817 that "I shall never be again secure in Robustness (health and strength)."
In early 1818 Keats turned to straightforward narrative in Isabella, which is based on a story by Boccaccio (1313–1375). Its theme was connected with Keats's more philosophical (pertaining to inquiry concerning the source and nature of human knowledge) preoccupations—the beauty and greatness of tragic love.
Keats started work on Hyperion in September 1818. An essential part of its purpose was to describe the growth of the Greek god Apollo into a true poet through ever deeper acceptance and understanding of change and sorrow. But Keats was unable to get ahead with it for a number of reasons, including impaired health, negative reception of Endymion by an influential critic, and the death of his brother, Tom.
In spring 1819 Keats turned once more to verse narrative. He first produced the opulent "Eve of St. Agnes" in deliberate revulsion (extreme displeasure) against what he now saw as the "mawkish" (sickly sentimental) sentimentality of Isabella. This was followed by "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," a simple narrative poem that tells of the mysterious seduction of a medieval knight by another of Keats's elusive, enigmatic (mysterious), half-divine ladies. Each poem embodies an important trend in Keats's poetry, a longing mixed with fear and diffidence (lack of self-confidence) for some experience beyond human mortality.
These were followed in the spring and summer of 1819 by the first of his great odes: "Ode to Psyche," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and "Ode to a Nightingale." These, together with the later "Ode on Indolence" and "Ode on Melancholy," are acutely imaginative explorations of the intricate (complex) relation between sorrow and bliss, life and dream.
During the latter half of 1819 Keats wrote his only drama, Otho the Great. He also made his last attempt to define the function of the poet in The Fall of Hyperion. However, like the earlier Hyperion, it was never completed and remains a tantalizing (fascinating) fragment of cryptic (mysterious) beauty.
His last years
Significantly, the last long poem that Keats wrote was Lamia. This is a brilliantly ambiguous (likely to be interpreted in more than one way) piece which leads to the conclusion that both the artist and the lover live on deceptive illusions (a world of the imagination not based on reality and likely to mislead). His third and last volume, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes and Other Poems, was printed in July 1820.
In September 1820, although his health had been declining for some time, Keats left for Italy on an invitation from the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822). He died in Rome on February 23, 1821, at the age of twenty-five.
All of Keats's poetry is filled with a mysterious yet uplifting sense of beauty and joy. His works explore many possibilities but do not insist on any one answer to the enduring problems of life. The experience of life, not its perfect understanding, was Keats's major concern.
For More Information
Hebron, Stephen. John Keats. London: British Library, 2002.
Keats, John. Keats: Truth & Imagination. Edited by K. E. Sullivan. New York: Gramercy Books, 1999.
Motion, Andrew. Keats. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
Walsh, John Evangelist. Darkling I Listen: The Last Days and Death of John Keats. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Ward, Aileen. John Keats: The Making of a Poet. Rev. ed. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1986.