The Life of John Keats

John Keats was an English Romantic poet. He was one of the main figures of the second generation of Romantic poets, along with Lord Byron and P B Shelley. Although his poems were not generally well-received by critics during his lifetime, his reputation grew after his death, and by the end of the 19th century, he had become one of the most beloved of all English poets. Today his poems and letters are some of the most popular and most analyzed in English literature.

John Keats was born in Moorgate, London on 31 October 1795 to Thomas Keats and his wife, Frances Jennings, and was the oldest of 5 siblings. He lost both his parents at a young age. Keats attended the Clarke school at Enfield, two miles away, that was run by John Clarke, whose son Charles Cowden Clarke did much to encourage Keats’s literary aspirations.

After the death of Keats’s mother in 1810, his grandmother made Richard Abbey their guardian. In 1811, John Keats was apprenticed to a surgeon at Edmonton. He broke off his apprenticeship in 1814 and went to London, where he worked as a dresser, or junior house surgeon, at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ hospitals. In 1816 Keats became a licensed apothecary, but he never practiced his profession, deciding instead to write poetry. His literary interests had crystallized by this time, and after 1817 he devoted himself entirely to poetry.

Charles Cowden Clarke had introduced the young Keats to the poetry of Edmund Spenser and the Elizabethans, and these were his earliest models. His first mature poem is the sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (1816), which was inspired by his reading of George Chapman’s classic 17th-century translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Clarke also introduced Keats to the journalist, contemporary poet, and editor of the Examiner – Leigh Hunt, and Keats made friends in Hunt’s circle of literary men, including poets Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth, and John Hamilton Reynolds. The group’s influence enabled Keats to see his first volume, Poems by John Keats, published in March 1817.

In 1817 Keats left London briefly for a trip to the Isle of Wight and Canterbury and began work on Endymion, his first long poem. On his return to London, he moved into lodgings in Hampstead with his brothers. Endymion appeared in 1818. This work is a long poem divided into four 1,000-line sections and composed in loose rhymed couplets. The poem narrates a version of the Greek legend of the love of the moon goddess Diana for Endymion, a mortal shepherd, but Keats emphasizes Endymion’s love for the goddess rather than on hers for him.

Soon after the completion of Endymion, Keats wrote “Isabella or the Pot of Basil” in 1818 which was a narrative poem based on a grotesque and tragic tale from Boccaccio’s Decameron. It was during the year 1819 that all his greatest poetry was written, which included: The Eve of St. Agnes, a romantic love story amid a family feud and Lamia, the story of a witch who is transformed by Hermes from a serpent into a beautiful maiden and then into a serpent again, and the two versions of Hyperion.

During the same year, he also wrote the great odes (“On Indolence,” “On a Grecian Urn,” “To Psyche,” “To a Nightingale,” “On Melancholy,” and “To Autumn”). All the odes were composed between March and June 1819 except “To Autumn,” which is from September. These odes are Keats’s most distinctive poetic achievement. They are essentially lyrical meditations on some object or quality that prompts the poet to confront the conflicting impulses of his inner being and to reflect upon his longings and their relations to the wider world around him. This subject was forced upon Keats by the painful death of his brother and his failing health, and the odes highlight his struggle for self-awareness and certainty through the liberating powers of his imagination.

Keats’ central theme of all his poetry is imagination mainly concerned with beauty because it was the only consolation he found in a life full of sadness and misunderstanding. The memory of beauty was to him a source of pure joy. For Keats, beauty is intrinsically tied to life as it should be, where humans and nature are in complete harmony with one another, where beauty is dynamic, changeable, in process, and includes its fulfillment. He loved nature just for its own sake and for the glory and loveliness’ which he everywhere found in it, and no modern poet has even been nearer than he was to the simple ‘poetry of earth’.

Keats’ letters were first published in 1848 and 1878. During the 19th century, critics disregarded them as distractions from his poetic works. During the 20th century, they became almost as admired and studied as his poetry, and are highly regarded within the canon of English literary correspondence. T. S. Eliot described them as, “certainly the most notable and most important ever written by any English poet.”

He had been increasingly ill throughout 1819, and by the beginning of 1820, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a disease that had afflicted many of his family members, Keats traveled along with Joseph Severn to Italy in hopes of finding treatment. Keats died in Rome on 23 February 1821 at the age of 25.