John Keats is a paragon figure in the realm of English Romantic poetry. He wears this mantle mostly for the virtuosity of his language, but his untimely death—from tuberculosis, at 25 years old and in the prime of his writing life—certainly plays a role in his reputation as the ultimate "Romantic" poet.
Keats was born on October 31st, 1795, to Thomas and Frances Keats. Thomas worked in the stables of the Swan and Hoop Inn, which he later managed. A tragic equestrian accident took Thomas' life in 1804. Following his sudden death, Frances quickly remarried a London banker but left him soon afterward. The four Keats children—John, as well as George (1797-1841), Thomas (1799-1818), and Frances (1803-1899)—were sent to live with their maternal grandparents. Their mother died of tuberculosis in 1810. Keats himself was described as a volatile child, "always in extremes," and his uncertain family life did not help give him any more order.
At the age of fifteen, Keats decided to pursue medicine and subsequently apprenticed with the surgeon and apothecary Thomas Hammond for three years. He showed a genuine interest in, and aptitude for, medicine and was accepted as a dresser at Guy's Hospital in London just after starting medical school there. (The occupation of "dresser" involved physically restraining patients during surgery, and dressing their wounds afterward, in an era before anesthesia and painkillers; it was often a traumatic experience for Keats). Keats found himself drawn ever more strongly to poetry, and although he received his apothecary's license in 1816, he had resolved by then to be a poet.
During his medical training, he came to know Leigh Hunt and Joseph Severn, both of whom were impressed with the young Keats. Hunt was the editor of the liberal newspaper The Examiner; in 1816, he agreed to publish Keats' poem "To Solitude." Keats' first collection, Poems by John Keats, published in 1817, did not sell particularly well. Conservative newspapers who wanted to discredit Hunt published numerous scathing critiques of Keats' work. Keats' next poem, Endymion, which he had composed during a semi-friendly challenge with the poet Percy Blythe Shelley, also failed to attract significant attention.
In 1818, Keats went on a walking tour of Scotland and Ireland with his friend Charles Armitage Brown, but was called back to care for his brother, Thomas. He ended up nursing Thomas through his final months with tuberculosis, and naturally was greatly shaken by his brother's death in December 1818.
Soon thereafter, he moved into Brown's house. He then made the acquaintance of Fanny Brawne, the love of his life, although he did not recognize his feelings for her immediately. His friends initially discouraged him from the attachment, fearing that it would hinder his work, but 1819 was an enormously productive period for him: during this time, he wrote “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and “Ode to Psyche," among others.
Keats proposed to Fanny Brawne in October 1819 and was accepted. However, he was not wealthy enough to go through with the marriage.
In February, 1820, Keats coughed up blood for the first time and, being a physician, knew exactly what that meant. He ended up moving into the Brawnes' house (even though it was improper at the time for unmarried sweethearts to live under the same roof). Eventually, his friend, Severn, decided to take him to the warmer climate in Italy in hopes of a recovery. The journey was a difficult one, and after a few months of struggle, Keats died on February 23rd, 1821. He was buried along with unopened letters from Fanny Brawne, a lock of her hair, and a purse his sister, Fanny, had made, on February 26th.