John Keats (October 31, 1795 - February 23, 1821) was one of the principal poets in the English Romantic movement. During his short life, his work was the subject of constant politically motivated critical attack, and it was not until much later that the significance of the cultural change which his work both presaged and helped to form was fully appreciated. Keats's poetry is characterised by an exuberant love of language and the imagination, tempered by melancholy. He often felt that he was working in the shadow of past poets, and only towards the end of his life was he able to produce his most unique and memorable poems.
Born on Hallowe'en day, 1795 near London to a stable-keeper and his wife, the first seven years of Keats's life were happy. The beginnings of his troubles occurred in 1803, when his father died from a fractured skull after falling from his horse. His mother remarried soon afterwards, but as quickly left the new husband and moved herself and her children to live with Keats' grandmother. There, Keats attended a school that first instilled in him a love of literature. In 1810, however, his mother died of tuberculosis, leaving him and his siblings in the custody of their grandmother.
The grandmother appointed two guardians to take care of her new charges, and these guardians removed Keats from his old school to become a surgeon's apprentice. This continued until 1814, when, after a fight with his master, he left his apprenticeship and became a student at a local hospital. During that year, he devoted more and more of his time to the study of literature.
His introduction to the work of Edmund Spenser, particularly The Faerie Queene, was to prove a turning point in Keats' development as a poet; it was to inspire Keats to write his first poem, Imitation of Spenser.
He befriended Leigh Hunt, a writer who helped him publish his first poem in 1816. In 1817, Keats published his first volume of poetry entitled simply Poems. Keats' Poems was not well received, largely due to his connection with the controversial Hunt.
Keats moved to the Isle of Wight in the summer of 1817.
Working on his writing, he soon found his brother, Tom Keats, entrusted to his care. Tom was, like their mother, suffering from tuberculosis. Finishing his epic poem "Endymion," Keats left to hike in Scotland and Ireland with his friend Charles Brown. However, he too began to show signs of tuberculosis infection on that trip, and returned prematurely. When he did, he found that Tom's condition had deteriorated, and that Endymion had, as had Poems before it, been the target of much abuse from the critics.
In 1818, Tom Keats died from his infection, and John Keats moved again, to live in Brown's house in London. There he met Fanny Brawne , who with her mother had been staying at Brown's house, and he quickly fell in love. The later (posthumous) publication of their correspondence was to scandalise Victorian society.
This relationship was cut short, however, when by 1820 Keats began to show worse signs of the disease that had plagued his family. On the suggestion of his doctors, he left the cold airs of London behind and moved to Italy with his friend Joseph Severn invited by Shelley. For one year, this seemed to help his condition, but his health finally deteriorated. He died on February 23 1821 and was interred in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome. His last request was followed, and thus he was buried under a tombstone reading "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."
Oscar Wilde, the aestheticist non pareil was to later write:
- "[..] who but the supreme and perfect artist could have got from a mere colour a motive so full of marvel: and now I am half enamoured of the paper that touched his hand, and the ink that did his bidding, grown fond of the sweet comeliness of his charactery, for since my childhood I have loved none better than your marvellous kinsman, that godlike boy, the real Adonis of our age[..] In my heaven he walks eternally with Shakespeare and the Greeks."
William Butler Yeats was intrigued by the contrast between the "deliberate happiness" of Keats's poetry and the sadness that characterised his life. He wrote in Ego Dominus Tuus (1915):
- I see a schoolboy when I think of him,
- With face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window,
- For certainly he sank into his grave
- His senses and his heart unsatisfied,
- And made - being poor, ailing and ignorant,
- Shut out from all the luxury of the world,
- The coarse-bred son of a livery-stable keeper -
- Luxurious song.
Perhaps an even greater tribute to this mercurial and wayward genius is contained within one of the finest works of the poet himself:
- Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all
- Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. -- John Keats, in Ode on a Grecian Urn
- On First Looking into Chapman's Homer (1816)
- Sleep and Poetry (1816)
- Hyperion (1818)
- The Eve of St. Agnes (1819)
- Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art (1819)
- La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad (1819)
- Ode to Psyche (1819)
- Ode to a Nightingale (1819)
- Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819)
- Ode on Melancholy (1819)
- Ode on Indolence (1819)
- Lamia (1819)
- To Autumn (1819)