The son of a livery stable keeper, Keats attended school at Enfield, where he became the friend of Charles Cowden Clarke, the headmaster's son, who encouraged his early learning. Apprenticed to a surgeon (1811), Keats came to know Leigh Hunt and his literary circle, and in 1816 he gave up surgery to write poetry. His first volume of poems appeared in 1817. It included "I stood tip-toe upon a little hill," "Sleep and Poetry," and the famous sonnet "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer."
Endymion, a long poem, was published in 1818. Although faulty in structure, it is nevertheless full of rich imagery and color. Keats returned from a walking tour in the Highlands to find himself attacked in Blackwood's Magazine—an article berated him for belonging to Leigh Hunt's "Cockney school" of poetry—and in the Quarterly Review. The critical assaults of 1818 mark a turning point in Keats's life; he was forced to examine his work more carefully, and as a result the influence of Hunt was diminished. However, these attacks did not contribute to Keats's decline in health and his early death, as Shelley maintained in his elegy "Adonais."
Keats's passionate love for Fanny Brawne seems to have begun in 1818. Fanny's letters to Keats's sister show that her critics' contention that she was a cruel flirt was not true. Only Keats's failing health prevented their marriage. He had contracted tuberculosis, probably from nursing his brother Tom, who died in 1818. With his friend, the artist Joseph Severn, Keats sailed for Italy shortly after the publication of Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820), which contains most of his important work and is probably the greatest single volume of poetry published in England in the 19th cent. He died in Rome in Feb., 1821, at the age of 25.
In spite of his tragically brief career, Keats is one of the most important English poets. He is also among the most personally appealing. Noble, generous, and sympathetic, he was capable not only of passionate love but also of warm, steadfast friendship. Keats is ranked, with Shelley and Byron, as one of the three great Romantic poets. Such poems as "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "To Autumn," and "Ode on Melancholy" are unequaled for dignity, melody, and richness of sensuous imagery. All of his poetry is filled with a mysterious and elevating sense of beauty and joy.
Keats's posthumously published pieces include "La Belle Dame sans Merci," in its way as great an evocation of romantic medievalism as his "The Eve of St. Agnes." Among his sonnets, familiar ones are "When I have fears that I may cease to be" and "Bright star! would I were as steadfast as thou art." "Lines on the Mermaid Tavern," "Fancy," and "Bards of Passion and of Mirth" are delightful short poems.
Some of Keats's finest work is in the unfinished epic "Hyperion." In recent years critical attention has focused on Keats's philosophy, which involves not abstract thought but rather absolute receptivity to experience. This attitude is indicated in his celebrated term "negative capability"—"to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thought."
Keats's letters (ed. by H. E. Rollins, 1958) vividly reveal his character, opinions, and feelings. See his poetical works, ed. by H. W. Garrod (2d ed. 1958); his autobiography, ed. by E. V. Weller (1933); biographies by A. Ward (1963), W. J. Bate (1963, repr. 1979), R. Gittings (1968), and A. Motion (1998); account of his last days by J. E. Walsh (2000); studies by W. J. Bate (1945), M. Dickstein (1971), D. van Ghent (1983), and S. Plumly (2008).
Keats, detail of an oil painting by Joseph Severn, 1821; in the National Portrait Gallery, London
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John Keats (31 October 1795 – 23 February 1821) was one of the principal poets of the English Romantic movement. During his short life, his work received constant critical attacks from periodicals of the day, but his posthumous influence on poets such as Alfred Tennyson has been immense. Elaborate word choice and sensual imagery characterize Keats's poetry, including a series of odes that were his masterpieces and which remain among the most popular poems in English literature. Keats's letters, which expound on his aesthetic theory of "negative capability, are among the most celebrated by any writer.
Keats's 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 at Thomas Hammond's apothecary shop in Edmonton (now part of the London Borough of Enfield). This continued until 1814, when, after a fight with his master, he left his apprenticeship and became a student at Guy's Hospital (now part of King's College London). During that year, he devoted more and more of his time to the study of literature. Keats traveled to the Isle of Wight in the spring of 1819, where he spent a week. Later that year he stayed in Winchester. It was here that Keats wrote Isabella, St. Agnes' Eve and Lamia. Parts of Hyperion and the five-act poetic tragedy Otho The Great were also written in Winchester.
Following the death of his grandmother, he soon found his brother, Tom Keats, entrusted to his care. Tom was suffering, as his mother had, from tuberculosis. Finishing his epic poem "Endymion", Keats left to work in Scotland and Ireland with his friend Charles Armitage 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. On 1 December 1818, Tom Keats died of his disease, and John Keats moved again, to live in Brown's house in Hampstead, next to Hampstead Heath. There he lived next door to Fanny Brawne, who had been staying there with her mother. He then quickly fell in love with Fanny. However, it was overall an unhappy affair for the poet; Keats's ardour for her seemed to bring him more vexation than comfort. The later (posthumous) publication of their correspondence was to scandalise Victorian society. In the diary of Fanny Brawne was found only one sentence regarding the separation: "Mr. Keats has left Hampstead." Fanny's letters to Keats were, as the poet had requested, destroyed upon his death. However, in 1937, a collection of 31 letters, written by Fanny Brawne to Keats's sister, Frances, were published by Oxford University Press. These letters revealed the depth of Brawne's feelings toward Keats and in many ways attempted to redeem her rather promiscuous reputation, it is arguable whether or not they succeeded.
This relationship was cut short when, by 1820, Keats began showing serious signs of tuberculosis, 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. Keats moved into a house, which is now a museum that is dedicated to his life and work, The Keats-Shelley House, on the Spanish Steps, in Rome, where despite attentive care from Severn and Dr. John Clark, the poet's health rapidly deteriorated. He died in 1821 and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome. His last request was to be buried under a tombstone reading, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water." His name was not to appear on the stone. Despite these requests, however, Severn and Brown also added the epitaph: "This Grave contains all that was mortal, of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone" along with the image of a lyre with broken strings.
Shelley blamed his death on an article published shortly before in the Quarterly Review, with a scathing attack on Keats's Endymion. The offending article was long believed to have been written by William Gifford, though later shown to be the work of John Wilson Croker. Keats's death inspired Shelley to write the poem Adonais.'; Byron later composed a short poem on this theme using the phrase "snuffed out by an article." However Byron, far less admiring of Keats's poetry than Shelley and generally more cynical in nature, was here probably just as much poking fun at Shelley's interpretation as he was having a dig at his old fencing partners the critics. (see below, Byron's other less than serious poem on the same subject).
The largest collection of Keats's letters, manuscripts, and other papers is in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Other collections of such material can be found at the British Library; Keats House, Hampstead; The Keats-Shelley House, Rome; and the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.