BORN: 1795, London
DIED: 1821, Rome
GENRE: Poetry, letters, nonfiction
Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820)
The Letters of John Keats (1958)
John Keats. Keats, John, photograph. The Library of Congress.
John Keats is recognized as a key figure in the English Romantic movement, a period in which writers placed the individual at the core of all experience, valued imagination and beauty, and looked to nature for revelation of truth. Although his literary career spanned only four years and consisted of a mere fifty-four poems, Keats demonstrated remarkable intellectual and artistic development.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood and Family Tragedies. Scholars often note that Keats’s childhood provides no hint of the genius to emerge. Born October 31, 1795, the oldest of four children of a stable-keeper, Keats was raised in Moor-fields, London. His father died from injuries sustained in a fall from a horse when Keats was seven. This accident proved to be the first in a series of losses and dislocations that would pursue Keats throughout his brief life and convince him of art’s power to bring solace and meaning to human suffering. In 1803, Keats enrolled at the Clarke School in nearby Enfield, where he was distinguished only by his small stature (he was barely over five feet tall as an adult) and somewhat confrontational disposition. At the Clarke school, Keats first encountered the works that influenced his early poetry, including Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and John Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary, on which he based his knowledge of Greek mythology.
Keats’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1810, and the Keats children were placed in the care of a guardian, Richard Abbey. At the time, tuberculosis was a pandemic in Europe. About 25 percent of all deaths in the early nineteenth century in Europe were attributable to tuberculosis. Doctors did not yet understand how the disease was spread, and accepted treatment for the disease often made the condition worse.
Writing in Secret While Pursuing a Medical Career. At fifteen, Keats was apprenticed to an apothecary. Four years later, he entered Guy’s and St. Thomas’s Hospitals in London, where he completed medical courses and in 1816 passed the examinations to become an apothecary. Keats had begun to compose poetry as early as 1812, however, and secretly decided to support himself on his small inheritance after graduation and devote himself to writing. To avoid a confrontation with his guardian, Keats continued his studies to become a surgeon, carefully concealing his decision from Abbey until he had reached the age of majority and was free of his guardian’s jurisdiction.
An Influential Circle of Friends. Keats’s meeting in 1816 with Leigh Hunt influenced his decision to pursue a career as a poet, and Hunt published Keats’s early poems in his liberal journal, the Examiner. Keats was drawn readily into Hunt’s circle, which included the poet John Hamilton Reynolds, the critic William Hazlitt, and the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon. Poems, an early collection, was published in 1817 but received little attention. His next work, Endymion: A Poetic Romance, a full-length allegory based on Greek mythology, was published the following year to mixed reviews. Soon after the appearance of Endymion, Keats began to experience the first symptoms of tuberculosis, the disease that had killed his mother and in 1818 his brother, Tom. Following Tom’s death, Keats lived with his close friend Charles Armitage Brown in Hampstead.
‘‘Half in love with easeful Death...”. It was around this time that he composed his famous ‘‘Ode to a Nightingale,’’ a moody, sumptuous poem in which the speaker lauds the beautiful sound of the nightingale and fantasizes about dying—‘‘to cease upon the midnight with no pain’’—and forgetting all ‘‘the weariness, the fever, and the fret.’’ The poem seems to be a clear reaction to Tom’s death and his own infirmity, as Keats laments that he lives in a world where ‘‘youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies.’’ At the same time, the poem calls the bird ‘‘immortal’’ and timeless. The bird represents Keats the poet, capable of producing a beautiful ‘‘song’’ that will live after he is gone.
Keats continued writing and spent a considerable amount of time reading the works of William Wordsworth, John Milton, and Shakespeare. Here Keats also fell in love with Fanny Brawne, a neighbor’s daughter. The rigors of work, poor health, and constant financial difficulties prevented the two from fulfilling their desire to be married.
In a final effort to regain his health, Keats sailed to Italy in September 1820; he died in Rome in February of the following year. He is buried there beneath a gravestone that bears an epitaph he himself composed: ‘‘Here lies one whose name was writ on water.’’
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Keat's famous contemporaries include:
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821): General of the French Revolution and, later, emperor of France.
William Wordsworth (1770-1850): Wordsworth was the most influential of the Romantic poets and the one who most emphasized the importance of nature.
Simon Bolivar (1783-1830): This South American liberator eventually died of tuberculosis.
George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824): This notorious and melancholy Romantic poet was known for his dark moods and stormy lines.
Walt Whitman (1819-1892): Although American, Whitman wrote poems on some of the same themes as his fellow Romantics across the ocean; namely, a celebration of nature and an appreciation of artistic passion.
Matthew Arnold (1822-1888): A great poet of the late Victorian era, Arnold cited Keats as a major influence.
Works in Literary Context
Keats’s poems, especially the later works published in Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820), are praised not only for their sensuous imagery and passionate tone but also for the insight they provide into aesthetic and human concerns, particularly the transience of beauty and happiness. The artistic philosophy described in the famous quote from Keats’s ‘‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’’—‘‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’’—is clarified in his correspondence with his family and friends. In these letters, which some readers value as much as his poems, it is possible to trace the evolution of Keats’s poetic thought and technique as he matured.
Romantic Movement. Keats was a quintessential Romantic poet. The Romantic Movement in literature, which began in the late eighteenth century, was a reaction against what was seen as the cold rationality of the Enlightenment period. During the Enlightenment, developments in science and technology ushered in the massive social changes in western society. The Industrial Revolution brought about population explosions in European cities while the works of political scientists and philosophers laid the groundwork for the American and French Revolutions. The Romantics viewed science and technology skeptically, and stressed the beauty of nature and individual emotion in their work.
Transience of Life. Perhaps because of the widespread presence of tuberculosis among those he loved and in Europe in general, Keats seemed to recognize that time moved swiftly and that life was fleeting. ‘‘I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remembered,’’ Keats wrote to Fanny Brawne in February 1820, just after he became ill. In Keats’s work, the struggle with aesthetic form becomes an image of a struggle for meaning against the limits of experience. The very form of his art seems to embody and interpret the conflicts of mortality and desire. The urgency of this poetry has always appeared greater to his readers for his intense love of beauty and his tragically short life. Keats approached the relations among experience, imagination, art, and illusion with penetrating thoughtfulness, with neither sentimentality nor cynicism but with a delight in the ways in which beauty, in its own subtle and often surprising ways, reveals the truth.
Negative Capability. Two prevalent themes in Keats’s poetry are the power of imaginative perception and the capacity of a truly creative nature to go beyond the self. In a letter written to his brothers, Keats mentions having seen a painting by Benjamin West and finding it lacking: ‘‘It is a wonderful picture ...; But there is nothing to be intense upon; no woman one feels mad to kiss.... the excellence of every Art is its intensity.’’ Keats then coined a term that is one of his most distinctive contributions to aesthetic discourse: negative capability, which is present, Keats explains, ‘‘when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’’ Perhaps Keats himself provided the best gloss on this term when he wrote, in a marginal jotting on a passage in John Milton’s masterwork Paradise Lost, of ‘‘the intense pleasure of not knowing[,] a sense of independence, of power, from the fancy’s creating a world of its own by the sense of probabilities.’’
Works in Critical Context
The history of Keats’s early reputation is dominated by two hostile, unsigned reviews of Endymion, one credited to John Gibson Lockhart in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, and the other to John Wilson Croker in the Quarterly Review. Lockhart, a vociferous critic of what he termed ‘‘The Cockney School,’’ named for its members’ ties to London and their alleged lack of refinement, attacked not only Keats’s poem, which he denigrated on artistic and moral grounds, but on what he perceived as the poet’s lack of taste, education, and upbringing. While Croker was neither so vitriolic nor personally degrading as Lockhart—critics acknowledge, in fact, the legitimacy of several of his complaints—his essay was singled out as damaging and unjust by Keats’s supporters, who rushed to the poet’s defense. While Keats was apparently disturbed only temporarily by these attacks, they gave rise to the legend that his death had been caused, or at least hastened, by these two reviews. A chief perpetrator of this notion was Percy Bysshe Shelley, who composed and published his famous Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of the Poet John Keats shortly after Keats’s death. The preface to this work implicated Croker as Keats’s murderer. In conjunction with the writings of Keats’s well-meaning friends, Shelley’s work effectively created an image of Keats as a sickly and unnaturally delicate man, so fragile that a magazine article was capable of killing him. Lord Byron commented wryly on this idea in a famous couplet in his poem Don Juan: ‘‘‘Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle / Should let itself be snuffed out by an article.’’
Legacy. Keats’s dying fears of eternal obscurity were proved wrong in the generations after his death. Even as early as 1820, people were beginning to write of Keats’s legacy. The influential Francis Jeffrey wrote an approving, if belated, essay in The Edinburgh Review, and the obituary in The London Magazine (April 1921), noted, ‘‘There is but a small portion of the public acquainted with the writings of this young man, yet they were full of high imagination and delicate fancy.’’ By 1853 Matthew Arnold could speak of Keats as ‘‘in the school of Shakespeare,’’ and, despite his weak sense of dramatic action and his overly lush imagery was ‘‘one whose exquisite genius and pathetic death render him forever interesting.’’ Yet it was just this quality of lush, ‘‘pictorial’’ imagery that Victorians admired in Keats, as reflected in popular paintings related to his works by Pre- Raphaelites such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and poets such as Alfred Tennyson and Algernon Charles Swinburne, who wrote of ‘‘mastery of visual detail, his instinct for the absolute expression of absolute natural beauty.’’ In 1857, Alexander Smith, in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (eighth edition) entry on Keats, could proclaim, with some exaggeration, that ‘‘With but one or two exceptions, no poet of the last generation stands at this moment higher in the popular estimation, and certainly no one has in a greater degree influenced the poetic development of the last thirty years.’’
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Issues of immortality and human transience have preoccupied thinkers for millennia. Rulers, philosophers, and poets have pondered whether human accomplishments will be remembered or make a lasting impact. Keats was extremely interested in his own literary legacy. Here are some other works that examine the idea of the transience or permanence of man's efforts:
The Iliad (7th-8th century B.C.E.), by Homer. The famous hero of this epic, Achilles, chooses death in battle over a long, peaceful life because attaining glory in battle means his name will be immortalized.
The Stranger (1942), by Albert Camus. This novel's protagonist is convinced that the universe is indifferent to the desires and actions of humans.
''Annabel Lee'' (1849), by Edgar Allan Poe. This long poem commemorates, rather morbidly, the death of a young girl and her influence on the speaker.
The Diary of a Young Girl (1942), by Anne Frank. Written while hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam, this diary details the trials Frank's family went through before they were sent to a concentration camp.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1982), by Milan Kundera. Set in springtime in a politically unbalanced Prague, the characters, most of them artists, feel that their lives are fleeting; thus, although they create with purpose, they also hesitate and often choose badly when it comes to their personal lives.
Responses to Literature
1. If you are interested in the impact of tuberculosis on nineteenth-century European culture, The White Plague: Tuberculosis, Man, and Society (1952), by Rene DuBos, provides an excellent introduction. In this landmark study of the social meaning of tuberculosis, DuBos prominently features Keats and the myths surrounding his illness.
2. Research the myth of Endymion, and then read Keats’s poem. What do you think attracted Keats to the myth? What changes did he make to it?
3. Do you also see Keats as a tragic and sympathetic personality? What advice would you give him if you could?
4. Keats and many other Romantics were preoccupied with perception and how an individual’s view of the world alters what is seen and experienced. Look up the definition of solipsism and argue whether Keats is a solipsist at heart.
Bush, Douglas. John Keats: His Life and Writings. New York: Macmillan, 1966.
Colvin, Sidney. John Keats: His Life and Poetry. London: Macmillan / New York: Scribners, 1917.
Evert, Walter. Aesthetic and Myth in the Poetry of Keats. Princeton, U.K.: Princeton University Press, 1965.
Levinson, Marjorie. Keats’s Life of Allegory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988.
Matthews, G. M., ed. Keats: The Critical Heritage. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971.
Ryan, Robert M. Keats: The Religious Sense. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976.
Sharp, Ronald A. Keats, Skepticism, and the Religion of Beauty. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1979.
Sperry, Stuart. Keats the Poet. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Thorpe, Clarence De Witt. The Mind of John Keats. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.