Featured Image: John Keats (detail) by Joseph Severn (1793-1879), 1819.
John Keats’s first book of poems was published in 1817 when the English poet was 22 years old. From an early age, Keats, studying under the literary Rev. John Clarke, became a passionate reader of poetry and was introduced to the theater and music which he loved. Though both of his parents had died by the time Keats was in his early teens, their respectable estate never reached him in his short lifetime. His guardian sent the minor Keats to work in the medical field. But in 1813, the young Keats abandoned that apprenticeship for another — and began to write poetry.
Keats’ early poetic mentor was Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), editor of the Examiner, who introduced Keats to great established poets such as William Hazlitt (1778-1830), Charles Lamb (1775-1834), and Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Keats also made the acquaintance of painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846) and made other intimate lifelong friends. In 1816 Keats wrote his first major sonnet (On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer) in which he laid out an ambitious plan for his poetry.
In 1817 Keats wrote the 4,000-line Endymion though, ever a perfectionist, Keats considered it merely a poetic exercise. Keats soon isolated himself consciously from others to benefit his art. His over-riding quest was to seek his artistic individuality and poetic voice.
In 1818 external personal and professional events circumscribed Keats’ precious independence. First, his poetry for political rather than artistic reasons was ridiculed in the press. But more problematic for the brave Keats was that some of his immediate family members had become suddenly destitute or died. Keats’ spring and summer walking tour in 1818 of England, Scotland, and Ireland resulted in Keats’s personal inspiration but a chronically weakened state of physical health. In those same months, the 23-year-old poet had fallen in love with the vivacious, pretty and thoroughly nonliterary 18-year-old Fanny Brawne (1800-1865). They soon became engaged, but Keats’ inferior health and his strained to nonexistent finances impeded their getting married which frustrated Keats.
In the rapidly reached final period of his life and poetic career, Keats wrote several of his masterpieces. In 1819 Keats wrote, one after another, The Eve of St. Agnes, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, his Odes (including Ode To a Grecian Urn), Lamia, and several major sonnets. These poems possess the characteristics of Keats’ mature work—that of grace, sensuality, and sympathetic objectivity. It sets before the reader the conflicting and contradictory nature of existence, signaling a “both-and” experience of living in the world, including grappling with the problem of good and evil. Keats writes plainly in a letter in that period about life’s suffering—it is a “world…full of misery and heartbreak, pain, sickness and oppression.”
Weakened by tuberculosis, Keats’ health took a bad turn in February 1820 so much so that the poet realized he was dying. By that fall he traveled to Italy seeking a milder climate for his health. He stayed in Rome until the end came. On February 23, 1821 —like his mother and brother before him— Keats died of tuberculosis. The 25-year-old poet was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.
Despite his gallant reluctance to yield to bitterness or despair for his life’s wasteful circumstances, with death died Keats’ ambitious plans of renewed poetic achievement and an ongoing passionate love for Fanny Brawne. Although today’s reader can continue to savor John Keats’ poems and letters prior to his having stopped writing at 24 years old, what might have been in terms of the English Romantic poet’s fully realized potential is to offer a conjecture about one of the English language’s greatest poets.
SOURCES: The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Third Edition, Volume 2, W.W. Norton & company, Inc. New York, 1974.
John Keats, Walter Jackson Bate, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1964.
John Keats, letter to his brother and sister, 1819.
John Keats, letter to his brother George Keats (1797-1841) and his wife Georgiana Augusta Wylie Keats (1798-1879). Married in England in May 1818, the Keats soon departed for America, specifically to Kentucky and southeastern Illinois by way of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The Keats are buried in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky. Mrs. Keats re-married following the death of the poet’s brother who died of natural causes while experiencing serious financial setbacks.
The poet suffered from– and died of– tuberculosis at the age of 25 years.
Letter to his brothers, George and Thomas Keats, January 13-19, 1818. Letters of John Keats, no. 37, edited by Frederick Page, 1954.
Endymion, Preface (1818). The complete line is : “This may be speaking too presumptuously, and may deserve a punishment: but no feeling man will be forward to inflict it: he will leave me alone, with the conviction that there is not a fiercer hell than the failure in a great object.”