John Keats, born on 31 October 1795 & died on 23 February 1821, was one of the principal poets of the English Romantic movement. John Keats was born in 1795 at 85 Moorgate in London, where his father, Thomas Keats, was an hostler. During his short life, his work received constant critical attacks from the periodicals of the day, but his posthumous influence on poets such as Alfred Tennyson has been immense. Elaborate word choice and sensual imagery characterize Keats’s poetry, including a series of odes that were his masterpieces and which remain among the most popular poems in English literature. Keats’s letters, which expound on his aesthetic theory of “negative capability”, are among the most celebrated by any writer.
Keats was baptised at St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate and lived happily for the first seven years of his life. The beginnings of his troubles occurred in 1804, when his father died from a fractured skull after falling from his horse. A year later, in 1805, Keats’ grandfather died. His mother, Frances Jennings Keats, remarried soon afterwards, but quickly left the new husband and moved herself and her four children (a son had died in infancy) to live with Keats’s grandmother, Alice Jennings. There, Keats attended a school that first instilled in him a love of literature. In 1810, however, his mother died of tuberculosis, leaving him and his siblings in the custody of their grandmother.
Keats’s grandmother appointed two guardians to take care of her new “charges”, and these guardians removed Keats from his old school to become a surgeon’s apprentice at Thomas Hammond’s apothecary shop in Edmonton (now part of the London Borough of Enfield). This continued until 1814, when, after a fight with his master, he left his apprenticeship and became a student at Guy’s Hospital (now part of King’s College London). During that year, he devoted more and more of his time to the study of literature. Keats travelled to the Isle of Wight in the spring of 1819, where he spent a week. Later that year he stayed in Winchester. It was here that Keats wrote Isabella, St. Agnes’ Eve and Lamia. Parts of Hyperion and the five-act poetic tragedy Otho The Great were also written in Winchester.
Following the death of his grandmother, he soon found his brother, Tom Keats, entrusted to his care. Tom was suffering, as his mother had, from tuberculosis. Finishing his epic poem “Endymion”, Keats left to work in Scotland and Ireland with his friend Charles Armitage Brown. However, he too began to show signs of tuberculosis infection on that trip, and returned prematurely. When he did, he found that Tom’s condition had deteriorated, and that Endymion had, as had Poems before it, been the target of much abuse from the critics. On 1 December 1818, Tom Keats died from his disease, and John Keats moved again, to live in Brown’s house in Hampstead, next to Hampstead Heath. There he lived next door to Fanny Brawne, who had been staying there with her mother. He then quickly fell in love with Fanny. However, it was overall an unhappy affair for the poet; Keats’s ardour for her seemed to bring him more vexation than comfort. The later (posthumous) publication of their correspondence was to scandalise Victorian society. In the diary of Fanny Brawne was found only one sentence regarding the separation: “Mr. Keats has left Hampstead.” Fanny’s letters to Keats were, as the poet had requested, destroyed upon his death. However, in 1937, a collection of 31 letters written by Fanny Brawne to Keats’s sister, Frances, were published by Oxford University Press. These letters revealed the depth of Brawne’s feelings toward Keats and in many ways attempted to redeem her rather promiscuous reputation, it is arguable whether or not they succeeded.
This relationship was cut short when, by 1820, Keats began showing worse signs of the disease that had plagued his family. On the suggestion of his doctors, he left the cold airs of London behind and moved to Italy with his friend Joseph Severn. Keats moved into a house, now a museum dedicated to his life and work, The Keats-Shelley House, on the Spanish Steps, in Rome, where despite attentive care from Severn and Dr. John Clark, the poet’s health rapidly deteriorated. He died in 1821 and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome. His last request was to be buried under a tombstone reading, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” His name was not to appear on the stone. Despite these requests, however, Severn and Brown also added the epitaph: “This Grave contains all that was mortal, of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone” along with the image of a lyre with broken strings.
Shelley blamed his death on an article published shortly before in the Quarterly Review, with a scathing attack on Keats’s Endymion. The offending article was long believed to have been written by William Gifford, though later shown to be the work of John Wilson Croker. Keats’s death inspired Shelley to write the poem Adonais.’; Byron later composed a short poem on this theme using the phrase “snuffed out by an article.” However Byron, far less admiring of Keats’s poetry than Shelley and generally more cynical in nature, was here probably just as much poking fun at Shelley’s interpretation as he was having a dig at his old fencing partners the critics. (see below, Byron’s other less than serious poem on the same subject).
The largest collection of Keats’s letters, manuscripts, and other papers is in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Other collections of such material can be found at the British Library; Keats House, Hampstead; The Keats-Shelley House, Rome; and the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.