When Keats died at 25, he had been writing poetry seriously for only about six years, from 1814 until the summer of 1820; and publishing for only four. In his lifetime, sales of Keats's three volumes of poetry probably amounted to only 200 copies. His first poem, the sonnet O Solitude appeared in the Examiner in May 1816, while his collection Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes and other poems was published in July 1820 before his last visit to Rome. The compression of his poetic apprenticeship and maturity into so short a time is just one remarkable aspect of Keats's work.
Although prolific during his short career, and now one of the most studied and admired British poets, his reputation rests on a small body of work, centred on the Odes, and only in the creative outpouring of the last years of his short life was he able to express the inner intensity for which he has been lauded since his death. Keats was convinced that he had made no mark in his lifetime. Aware that he was dying, he wrote to Fanny Brawne in February 1820, "I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have lov'd the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember'd. "
Keats's ability and talent was acknowledged by several influential contemporary allies such as Shelley and Hunt. His admirers praised him for thinking "on his pulses", for having developed a style which was more heavily loaded with sensualities, more gorgeous in its effects, more voluptuously alive than any poet who had come before him: 'loading every rift with ore'. Shelley often corresponded with Keats in Rome and loudly declared that Keats's death had been brought on by bad reviews in the Quarterly Review. Seven weeks after the funeral he wrote Adonaïs, a despairing elegy, stating that Keats' early death was a personal and public tragedy:
The loveliest and the last, The bloom, whose petals nipped before they blew Died on the promise of the fruit.
Although Keats wrote that "if poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all", poetry did not come easily to him; his work was the fruit of a deliberate and prolonged classical self-education. He may have possessed an innate poetic sensibility, but his early works were clearly those of a young man learning his craft. His first attempts at verse were often vague, languorously narcotic and lacking a clear eye. His poetic sense was based on the conventional tastes of his friend Charles Cowden Clarke, who first introduced him to the classics, and also came from the predilections of Hunt's Examiner, which Keats read as a boy. Hunt scorned the Augustan or 'French' school, dominated by Pope, and attacked the earlier Romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, now in their forties, as unsophisticated, obscure and crude writers. Indeed, during Keats's few years as a published poet, the reputation of the older Romantic school was at its lowest ebb. Keats came to echo these sentiments in his work, identifying himself with a 'new school' for a time, somewhat alienating him from Wordsworth, Coleridge and Byron and providing the basis from the scathing attacks from Blackwoods and The Quarterly.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun Conspiring with him how to load and bless With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run; To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees, And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells With a sweet kernel; to set budding more, And still more, later flowers for the bees, Until they think warm days will never cease, For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.“ ” First stanza of "To Autumn", September 1819
By the time of his death, Keats had therefore been associated with the taints of both old and new schools: the obscurity of the first wave Romantics and the uneducated affectation of Hunt's "Cockney School". Keats's posthumous reputation mixed the reviewers' caricature of the simplistic bumbler with the image of the hyper-sensitive genius killed by high feeling, which Shelley later portrayed.
The Victorian sense of poetry as the work of indulgence and luxuriant fancy offered a schema into which Keats was posthumously fitted. Marked as the standard bearer of sensory writing, his reputation grew steadily and remarkably. His work had the full support of the influential Cambridge Apostles, whose members included the young Tennyson,[nb 5] later a popular Poet Laureate who came to regard Keats as the greatest poet of the 19th century. In 1848, twenty-seven years after Keats's death, Richard Monckton Milnes published the first full biography, which helped place Keats within the canon of English literature. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Millais and Rossetti, were inspired by Keats and painted scenes from his poems including "The Eve of St. Agnes", "Isabella" and "La Belle Dame sans Merci", lush, arresting and popular images which remain closely associated with Keats's work.
In 1882, Swinburne wrote in the Encyclopædia Britannica that "the Ode to a Nightingale, [is] one of the final masterpieces of human work in all time and for all ages". In the twentieth century, Keats remained the muse of poets such as Wilfred Owen, who kept his death date as a day of mourning, Yeats and T. S. Eliot. Critic Helen Vendler stated the odes "are a group of works in which the English language find ultimate embodiment". Bate declared of To Autumn: "Each generation has found it one of the most nearly perfect poems in English" and M. R. Ridley claimed the ode "is the most serenely flawless poem in our language."
The largest collection of the letters, manuscripts, and other papers of Keats is in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Other collections of material are archived at the British Library, Keats House, Hampstead, the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome and the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. Since 1998 the British Keats-Shelley Memorial Association have annually awarded a prize for romantic poetry. A Royal Society of Arts blue plaque was unveiled in 1896 to commemorate Keats at Keats House.
None of Keats' biographies were written by people who had known him. Shortly after his death, his publishers announced they would speedily publish The memoirs and remains of John Keats but his friends refused to cooperate and argued with each other to the extent that the project was abandoned. Leigh Hunt's Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries (1828) gives the first biographical account, strongly emphasising Keats's supposedly humble origins, a misconception which still continues. Given that he was becoming a significant figure within artistic circles, a succession of other publications followed, including anthologies of his many notes, chapters and letters. However, early accounts often gave contradictory or heavily biased versions of events and were subject to dispute. His friends Brown, Severn, Dilke, Shelley and his guardian Richard Abbey, his publisher Taylor, Fanny Brawne and many others issued posthumous commentary on Keats's life. These early writings coloured all subsequent biography and have become embedded in a body of Keats legend.
Shelley promoted Keats as someone whose achievement could not be separated from agony, who was 'spiritualised' by his decline and too fine-tuned to endure the harshness of life; the consumptive, suffering image popularly held today. The first full biography was published in 1848 by Richard Monckton Milnes. Landmark Keats biographers since include Sidney Colvin, Robert Gittings, Walter Jackson Bate and Andrew Motion. The idealised image of the heroic romantic poet who battled poverty and died young was inflated by the late arrival of an authoritative biography and the lack of an accurate likeness. Most of the surviving portraits of Keats were painted after his death, and those who knew him held that they did not succeed in capturing his unique quality and intensity.
The 2009 film Bright Star, written and directed by Jane Campion, focuses on Keats' relationship with Fanny Brawne. Inspired by the 1997 Keats biography penned by Andrew Motion, it stars Ben Whishaw as Keats and Abbie Cornish as Fanny.