Keats' Poems and Letters


Early life

John Keats was born in Moorgate, London, on 31 October 1795 to Thomas Keats and his wife, born Frances Jennings. There is no clear evidence of his exact birthplace.[3] Although Keats and his family seem to have marked his birthday on 29 October, baptism records give the date as the 31st.[4] He was the eldest of four surviving children; his younger siblings were George (1797–1841), Thomas (1799–1818), and Frances Mary "Fanny" (1803–1889) who eventually married Spanish author Valentín Llanos Gutiérrez.[5] Another son was lost in infancy. His father first worked as a hostler[6] at the stables attached to the Swan and Hoop inn, an establishment he later managed and where the growing family lived for some years. Keats believed that he was born at the inn, a birthplace of humble origins, but there is no evidence to support his belief.[4] The Globe pub now occupies the site (2012), a few yards from the modern-day Moorgate station.[7] He was baptised at St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate, and sent to a local dame school as a child.[3][8]

His parents were unable to afford Eton or Harrow,[9][10] so in the summer of 1803, he was sent to board at John Clarke's school in Enfield, close to his grandparents' house. The small school had a liberal outlook and a progressive curriculum more modern than the larger, more prestigious schools.[11] In the family atmosphere at Clarke's, Keats developed an interest in classics and history, which would stay with him throughout his short life. The headmaster's son, Charles Cowden Clarke, also became an important mentor and friend, introducing Keats to Renaissance literature, including Tasso, Spenser, and Chapman's translations. The young Keats was described by his friend Edward Holmes as a volatile character, "always in extremes", given to indolence and fighting. However, at 13 he began focusing his energy on reading and study, winning his first academic prize in midsummer 1809.[11]

In April 1804, when Keats was eight, his father died. The cause of death was a skull fracture, suffered when he fell from his horse while returning from a visit to Keats and his brother George at school.[12] Thomas Keats died intestate. Frances remarried two months later, but left her new husband soon afterwards, and the four children went to live with their grandmother, Alice Jennings, in the village of Edmonton.[13] In March 1810 when Keats was 14, his mother died of tuberculosis, leaving the children in the custody of their grandmother. She appointed two guardians, Richard Abbey and John Sandell to take care of them. That autumn, Keats left Clarke's school, to apprentice with Thomas Hammond, a surgeon and apothecary who was a neighbour and the doctor of the Jennings family. Keats lodged in the attic above the surgery at 7 Church Street until 1813.[4] Cowden Clarke, who remained a close friend of Keats, described this period as "the most placid time in Keats's life."[14]

Early career

From 1814 Keats had two bequests, held in trust for him until his 21st birthday: £800 willed by his grandfather John Jennings (about £34,000 in today's money) and a portion of his mother's legacy, £8000 (about £340,000 today), to be equally divided between her living children.[nb 1] It seems he was not told of either, since he never applied for any of the money. Historically, blame has often been laid on Abbey as legal guardian, but he may also have been unaware. William Walton, solicitor for Keats's mother and grandmother, definitely did know and had a duty of care to relay the information to Keats. It seems he did not. The money would have made a critical difference to the poet's expectations. Money was always a great concern and difficulty for him, as he struggled to stay out of debt and make his way in the world independently.[4][15]

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold, And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; Round many western islands have I been Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold. Oft of one wide expanse had I been told That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne; Yet did I never breathe its pure serene Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold: Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken; Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men Look'd at each other with a wild surmise — Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

“ ” The sonnet "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" October 1816

Having finished his apprenticeship with Hammond, Keats registered as a medical student at Guy's Hospital (now part of King's College London) and began studying there in October 1815. Within a month of starting, he was accepted as a dresser at the hospital, assisting surgeons during operations, the equivalent of a junior house surgeon today. It was a significant promotion that marked a distinct aptitude for medicine; it brought greater responsibility and a heavier workload.[4] Keats's long and expensive medical training with Hammond and at Guy's Hospital led his family to assume he would pursue a lifelong career in medicine, assuring financial security, and it seems that at this point Keats had a genuine desire to become a doctor.[4][11] He lodged near the hospital at 28 St Thomas's Street in Southwark, with other medical students, including Henry Stephens who became a famous inventor and ink magnate.[16]

However, Keats's training took up increasing amounts of his writing time, and he was increasingly ambivalent about his medical career. He felt that he faced a stark choice.[11][17] He had written his first extant poem, "An Imitation of Spenser," in 1814, when he was 19. Now, strongly drawn by ambition, inspired by fellow poets such as Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron, and beleaguered by family financial crises, he suffered periods of depression. His brother George wrote that John "feared that he should never be a poet, & if he was not he would destroy himself".[18] In 1816, Keats received his apothecary's licence, which made him eligible to practise as an apothecary, physician, and surgeon, but before the end of the year he announced to his guardian that he was resolved to be a poet, not a surgeon.[4]

Although he continued his work and training at Guy's, Keats devoted more and more time to the study of literature, experimenting with verse forms, particularly the sonnet.[4] In May 1816, Leigh Hunt agreed to publish the sonnet "O Solitude" in his magazine The Examiner, a leading liberal magazine of the day.[19] It was the first appearance in print of Keats's poetry, and Charles Cowden Clarke described it as his friend's red letter day,[20] the first proof that Keats's ambitions were valid. In the summer of the same year Keats went with Clarke to the seaside town of Margate to write. There he began "Calidore" and initiated the era of his great letter writing. On his return to London he took lodgings at 8 Dean Street, Southwark, and braced himself for further study in order to become a member of the Royal College of Surgeons.[21]

In October, Clarke introduced Keats to the influential Leigh Hunt, a close friend of Byron and Shelley. Five months later came the publication of Poems, the first volume of Keats's verse, which included "I stood tiptoe" and "Sleep and Poetry," both strongly influenced by Hunt.[19] The book was a critical failure, arousing little interest, although Reynolds reviewed it favourably in The Champion.[11] Clarke commented that the book "might have emerged in Timbuctoo."[4] Keats's publishers, Charles and James Ollier, felt ashamed of the book. Keats immediately changed publishers to Taylor and Hessey on Fleet Street.[22] Unlike the Olliers, Keats's new publishers were enthusiastic about his work. Within a month of the publication of Poems they were planning a new Keats volume and had paid him an advance. Hessey became a steady friend to Keats and made the company's rooms available for young writers to meet. Their publishing lists eventually included Coleridge, Hazlitt, Clare, Hogg, Carlyle and Lamb.[23]

Through Taylor and Hessey, Keats met their Eton-educated lawyer, Richard Woodhouse, who advised them on literary as well as legal matters and was deeply impressed by Poems. Although he noted that Keats could be "wayward, trembling, easily daunted," Woodhouse was convinced of Keats's genius, a poet to support as he became one of England's greatest writers. Soon after they met, the two became close friends, and Woodhouse started to collect Keatsiana, documenting as much as he could about Keats's poetry. This archive survives as one of the main sources of information on Keats's work.[4] Andrew Motion represents him as Boswell to Keats' Johnson, ceaselessly promoting the writer's work, fighting his corner, and spurring his poetry to greater heights. In later years, Woodhouse was one of the few people to accompany Keats to Gravesend to embark on his final trip to Rome.[24]

In spite of the bad reviews of Poems, Hunt published the essay "Three Young Poets" (Shelley, Keats, and Reynolds) and the sonnet "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," foreseeing great things to come.[25] He introduced Keats to many prominent men in his circle, including the editor of The Times, Thomas Barnes; the writer Charles Lamb; the conductor Vincent Novello; and the poet John Hamilton Reynolds, who would become a close friend.[26] He was also regularly meeting William Hazlitt, a powerful literary figure of the day. It was a decisive turning point for Keats, establishing him in the public eye as a figure in what Hunt termed "a new school of poetry."[27] At this time Keats wrote to his friend Bailey: "I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of the imagination. What imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth."[1][28] This passage would eventually be transmuted into the concluding lines of "Ode on a Grecian Urn": "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty' – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know". In early December, under the heady influence of his artistic friends, Keats told Abbey that he had decided to give up medicine in favour of poetry, to Abbey's fury. Keats had spent a great deal on his medical training and, despite his state of financial hardship and indebtedness, had made large loans to friends such as painter Benjamin Haydon. Keats would go on to lend £700 to his brother George. By lending so much, Keats could no longer cover the interest of his own debts.[4][29]

Having left his training at the hospital, suffering from a succession of colds, and unhappy with living in damp rooms in London, Keats moved with his brothers into rooms at 1 Well Walk in the village of Hampstead in April 1817. Both John and George nursed their brother Tom, who was suffering from tuberculosis. The house was close to Hunt and others from his circle in Hampstead, as well as to Coleridge, respected elder of the first wave of Romantic poets, at that time living in Highgate. On 11 April 1818, Keats and Coleridge had a long walk together on Hampstead Heath. In a letter to his brother George, Keats wrote that they talked about "a thousand things,... nightingales, poetry, poetical sensation, metaphysics."[30] Around this time he was introduced to Charles Wentworth Dilke and James Rice.[31]

In June 1818, Keats began a walking tour of Scotland, Ireland, and the Lake District with his friend Charles Armitage Brown. Keats' brother George and his wife Georgina accompanied them as far as Lancaster and then continued to Liverpool, from where the couple emigrated to America. They lived in Ohio and Louisville, Kentucky, until 1841, when George's investments failed. Like Keats' other brother, they both died penniless and racked by tuberculosis, for which there was no effective treatment until the next century.[32][33] In July, while on the Isle of Mull, Keats caught a bad cold and "was too thin and fevered to proceed on the journey."[34] After his return south in August, Keats continued to nurse Tom, exposing himself to infection. Some biographers suggest that this is when tuberculosis, his "family disease," first took hold.[35][36] "Consumption" was not identified as a disease with a single infectious origin until 1820, and there was considerable stigma attached to the condition, as it was often associated with weakness, repressed sexual passion, or masturbation. Keats "refuses to give it a name" in his letters.[37] Tom Keats died on 1 December 1818.

Wentworth Place

John Keats moved to the newly built Wentworth Place, owned by his friend Charles Armitage Brown. It was also on the edge of Hampstead Heath, ten minutes' walk south of his old home in Well Walk. The winter of 1818–19, though a difficult period for the poet, marked the beginning of his annus mirabilis in which he wrote his most mature work.[1] He had been inspired by a series of recent lectures by Hazlitt on English poets and poetic identity and had also met Wordsworth.[38][39] Keats may have seemed to his friends to be living on comfortable means, but in reality he was borrowing regularly from Abbey and his friends.[4]

He composed five of his six great odes at Wentworth Place in April and May and, although it is debated in which order they were written, "Ode to Psyche" opened the published series. According to Brown, "Ode to a Nightingale" was composed under a plum tree in the garden.[nb 2][40][41] Brown wrote, "In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feelings on the song of our nightingale."[42] Dilke, co-owner of the house, strenuously denied the story, printed in Richard Monckton Milnes' 1848 biography of Keats, dismissing it as 'pure delusion'.[43]

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains  My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains  One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk: 'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,  But being too happy in thine happiness,—  That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,  In some melodious plot  Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,  Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

“ ” First stanza of "Ode to a Nightingale", May 1819

"Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "Ode on Melancholy" were inspired by sonnet forms and probably written after "Ode to a Nightingale".[4] Keats's new and progressive publishers Taylor and Hessey issued Endymion, which Keats dedicated to Thomas Chatterton, a work that he termed "a trial of my Powers of Imagination".[4] It was damned by the critics, giving rise to Byron's quip that Keats was ultimately "snuffed out by an article", suggesting that he never truly got over it. A particularly harsh review by John Wilson Croker appeared in the April 1818 edition of The Quarterly Review.[nb 3] John Gibson Lockhart writing in Blackwood's Magazine, described Endymion as "imperturbable drivelling idiocy". With biting sarcasm, Lockhart advised, "It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr John, back to plasters, pills, and ointment boxes".[nb 4] It was Lockhart at Blackwoods who coined the defamatory term "the Cockney School" for Hunt and his circle, which included both Hazlitt and Keats. The dismissal was as much political as literary, aimed at upstart young writers deemed uncouth for their lack of education, non-formal rhyming and "low diction". They had not attended Eton, Harrow or Oxbridge and they were not from the upper classes.[44]

In 1819, Keats wrote "The Eve of St. Agnes", "La Belle Dame sans Merci", "Hyperion", "Lamia" and a play, Otho the Great (critically damned and not performed until 1950).[45] The poems "Fancy" and "Bards of passion and of mirth" were inspired by the garden of Wentworth Place. In September, very short of money and in despair considering taking up journalism or a post as a ship's surgeon, he approached his publishers with a new book of poems.[4] They were unimpressed with the collection, finding the presented versions of "Lamia" confusing, and describing "St Agnes" as having a "sense of pettish disgust" and "a 'Don Juan' style of mingling up sentiment and sneering" concluding it was "a poem unfit for ladies".[46] The final volume Keats lived to see, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems, was eventually published in July 1820. It received greater acclaim than had Endymion or Poems, finding favourable notices in both The Examiner and Edinburgh Review. It would come to be recognised as one of the most important poetic works ever published.[4]

Wentworth Place now houses the Keats House museum.[47]

Isabella Jones and Fanny Brawne

Keats befriended Isabella Jones in May 1817, while on holiday in the village of Bo Peep, near Hastings. She is described as beautiful, talented and widely read, not of the top flight of society yet financially secure, an enigmatic figure who would become a part of Keats's circle.[48][49] Throughout their friendship Keats never hesitates to own his sexual attraction to her, although they seem to enjoy circling each other rather than offering commitment. He writes that he "frequented her rooms" in the winter of 1818–19, and in his letters to George says that he "warmed with her" and "kissed her".[49] It is unclear how close they were, but Bate and Gittings suggest the trysts may represent a sexual initiation for Keats.[49] Jones' greatest significance may be as an inspiration and steward of Keats's writing. The themes of "The Eve of St. Agnes" and "The Eve of St Mark" may well have been suggested by her, the lyric Hush, Hush! ["o sweet Isabel"] was about her, and that the first version of "Bright Star" may have originally been for her.[50][51] In 1821, Jones was one of the first in England to be notified of Keats's death.[48]

Letters and drafts of poems suggest that Keats first met Frances (Fanny) Brawne between September and November 1818.[52] It is likely that the 18-year-old Brawne visited the Dilke family at Wentworth Place before she lived there. She was born in the hamlet of West End (now in the district of West Hampstead), on 9 August 1800. Like Keats's grandfather, her grandfather kept a London inn, and both lost several family members to tuberculosis. She shared her first name with both Keats's sister and mother, and had a talent for dress-making and languages as well as a natural theatrical bent.[53] During November 1818 she developed an intimacy with Keats, but it was shadowed by the illness of Tom Keats, whom John was nursing through this period.[54]

On 3 April 1819, Brawne and her widowed mother moved into the other half of Dilke's Wentworth Place, and Keats and Brawne were able to see each other every day. Keats began to lend Brawne books, such as Dante's Inferno, and they would read together. He gave her the love sonnet "Bright Star" (perhaps revised for her) as a declaration. It was a work in progress which he continued at until the last months of his life, and the poem came to be associated with their relationship. "All his desires were concentrated on Fanny".[55] From this point there is no further documented mention of Isabella Jones.[55] Sometime before the end of June, he arrived at some sort of understanding with Brawne, far from a formal engagement as he still had too little to offer, with no prospects and financial stricture.[56] Keats endured great conflict knowing his expectations as a struggling poet in increasingly hard straits would preclude marriage to Brawne. Their love remained unconsummated; jealousy for his 'star' began to gnaw at him. Darkness, disease and depression surrounded him, reflected in poems such as "The Eve of St. Agnes" and "La Belle Dame sans Merci" where love and death both stalk. "I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks;" he wrote to her, "...your loveliness, and the hour of my death".[56]

In one of his many hundreds of notes and letters, Keats wrote to Brawne on 13 October 1819: "My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you – I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again – my Life seems to stop there – I see no further. You have absorb'd me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving – I should be exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you ... I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion – I have shudder'd at it – I shudder no more – I could be martyr'd for my Religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you."

Tuberculosis took hold and he was advised by his doctors to move to a warmer climate. In September 1820 Keats left for Rome knowing he would probably never see Brawne again. After leaving he felt unable to write to her or read her letters, although he did correspond with her mother.[4] He died there five months later. None of Brawne's letters to Keats survive.[57]

It took a month for the news of his death to reach London, after which Brawne stayed in mourning for six years. In 1833, more than 12 years after his death, she married and went on to have three children; she outlived Keats by more than 40 years.[47][58]

Last months: Rome

During 1820 Keats displayed increasingly serious symptoms of tuberculosis, suffering two lung haemorrhages in the first few days of February.[59][60] He lost large amounts of blood and was bled further by the attending physician. Hunt nursed him in London for much of the following summer. At the suggestion of his doctors, he agreed to move to Italy with his friend Joseph Severn. On 13 September, they left for Gravesend and four days later boarded the sailing brig "Maria Crowther", where he made the final revisions of "Bright Star". The journey was a minor catastrophe: storms broke out followed by a dead calm that slowed the ship's progress. When they finally docked in Naples, the ship was held in quarantine for ten days due to a suspected outbreak of cholera in Britain. Keats reached Rome on 14 November, by which time any hope of the warmer climate he sought had disappeared.[61]

Keats wrote his last letter on 30 November 1820 to Charles Armitage Brown; "Tis the most difficult thing in the world to me to write a letter. My stomach continues so bad, that I feel it worse on opening any book – yet I am much better than I was in Quarantine. Then I am afraid to encounter the proing and conning of any thing interesting to me in England. I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence".[62]

On arrival in Italy, he moved into a villa on the Spanish Steps in Rome, today the Keats-Shelley Memorial House museum. Despite care from Severn and Dr. James Clark, his health rapidly deteriorated. The medical attention Keats received may have hastened his death.[63] In November 1820, Clark declared that the source of his illness was "mental exertion" and that the source was largely situated in his stomach. Clark eventually diagnosed consumption (tuberculosis) and placed Keats on a starvation diet of an anchovy and a piece of bread a day intended to reduce the blood flow to his stomach. He also bled the poet; a standard treatment of the day, but was likely a significant contributor to Keats's weakness.[64] Severn's biographer Sue Brown writes: "They could have used opium in small doses, and Keats had asked Severn to buy a bottle of opium when they were setting off on their voyage. What Severn didn't realise was that Keats saw it as a possible resource if he wanted to commit suicide. He tried to get the bottle from Severn on the voyage but Severn wouldn't let him have it. Then in Rome he tried again... Severn was in such a quandary he didn't know what to do, so in the end he went to the doctor who took it away. As a result Keats went through dreadful agonies with nothing to ease the pain at all." Keats was angry with both Severn and Clark when they would not give him laudanum (opium). He repeatedly demanded "how long is this posthumous existence of mine to go on?".[64]


The first months of 1821 marked a slow and steady decline into the final stage of tuberculosis. Keats was coughing up blood and covered in sweat. Severn nursed him devotedly and observed in a letter how Keats would sometimes cry upon waking to find himself still alive. Severn writes,

"Keats raves till I am in a complete tremble for him[64]...about four, the approaches of death came on. [Keats said] 'Severn—I—lift me up—I am dying—I shall die easy; don't be frightened—be firm, and thank God it has come.' I lifted him up in my arms. The phlegm seem'd boiling in his throat, and increased until eleven, when he gradually sank into death, so quiet, that I still thought he slept."[65]

John Keats died in Rome on 23 February 1821 and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome. His last request was to be placed under a tombstone bearing no name or date, only the words, "Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water." Severn and Brown erected the stone, which under a relief of a lyre with broken strings, includes 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: / Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821"

The text bears an echo from Catullus LXX

"Sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti / in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua" (What a woman says to a passionate lover / should be written in the wind and the running water).

There is a discrepancy of one day between the official date of death and that on the gravestone. Severn and Brown added their lines to the stone in protest at the critical reception of Keats's work. Hunt blamed his death on the Quarterly Review's scathing attack of "Endymion". As Byron quipped in his narrative poem Don Juan;

'Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle Should let itself be snuffed out by an article. (canto 11, stanza 60)

Seven weeks after the funeral Shelley memorialised Keats in his poem Adonaïs.[66] Clark saw to the planting of daisies on the grave, saying that Keats would have wished it. For public health reasons, the Italian health authorities burned the furniture in Keats's room, scraped the walls, made new windows, doors and flooring.[67][68] The ashes of Shelley, one of Keats's most fervent champions, are buried in the cemetery and Joseph Severn is buried next to Keats. Describing the site today, Marsh wrote, "In the old part of the graveyard, barely a field when Keats was buried here, there are now umbrella pines, myrtle shrubs, roses, and carpets of wild violets".[61]

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