John Keats (1795-1821), renowned poet of the English Romantic Movement, wrote some of the greatest English language poems including "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", "Ode To A Nightingale", and "Ode On a Grecian Urn";
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
John Keats was born on 31 October 1795 in Moorgate, London, England, the first child born to Frances Jennings (b.1775-d.1810) and Thomas Keats (d.1804), an employee of a livery stable. He had three siblings: George (1797-1841), Thomas (1799-1818), and Frances Mary "Fanny" (1803-1889). After leaving school in Enfield, Keats went on to apprentice with Dr. Hammond, a surgeon in Edmonton. After his father died in a riding accident, and his mother died of tuberculosis, John and his brothers moved to Hampstead. It was here that Keats met Charles Armitage Brown (1787-1842) who would become a great friend. Remembering his first meeting with him, Brown writes "His full fine eyes were lustrously intellectual, and beaming (at that time!)". Much grieved by his death, Brown worked for many years on his memoir and biography, Life of John Keats (1841). In it Brown claims that it was not until Keats read Edmund Spencer's Faery Queen that he realised his own gift for the poetic. Keats was an avid student in the fields of medicine and natural history, but he then turned his attentions to the literary works of such authors as William Shakespeare and Geoffrey Chaucer.
Keats had his poems published in the magazines of the day at the encouragement of many including James Henry Leigh Hunt Esq. (1784-1859), editor of the Examiner and to whom Keats dedicated his first collection Poems (1817). It includes "To My Brother George", "O Solitude! If I Must With Thee Dwell", and "Happy is England! I Could Be Content". Upon its appearance a series of personal attacks directed at Keats ensued in the pages of Blackwood's Magazine. Despite the controversy surrounding his life, Keats's literary merit prevailed. That same year Keats met Percy Bysshe Shelley who would also become a great friend. When Shelley invited the ailing Keats to stay with him and his family in Italy, he declined. When Shelley's body was washed ashore after drowning, a volume of Keats's poetry was found in his pocket.
Having worked on it for many months, Keats finished his epic poem comprising four books, Endymion: A Poetic Romance--"A thing of beauty is a joy for ever"--in 1818. That summer he travelled to the Lake District of England and on to Ireland and Scotland on a walking tour with Brown. They visited the grave of Robert Burns and reminisced upon John Milton's poetry. While he was not aware of the seriousness of it, Keats was suffering from the initial stages of the deadly infectious disease tuberculosis. He cut his trip short and upon return to Hampstead immediately tended to his brother Tom who was then in the last stages of the disease. After Tom's death in December of 1818, Keats lived with Brown.
Early one morning I was awakened in my bed by a pressure on my hand. It was Keats, who came to tell me his brother was no more. I said nothing, and we both remained silent for awhile, my hand fast locked in his. At length, my thoughts returning from the dead to the living, I said--'Have 'nothing more to do with those lodgings,--and 'alone too. Had you not better live with me?' He paused, pressed my hand warmly, and replied,-'I think it would be better.' From that moment he was my inmate.--Life of John Keats.
Around this time Keats met, fell in love with, and became engaged to eighteen year old Frances "Fanny" Brawne (1800-1865). He wrote one of his more famous sonnets to her titled "Bright Star, would I were steadfast as thou art". While their relationship inspired much spiritual development for Keats, it also proved to be tempestuous, filled with the highs and lows from jealousy and infatuation of first love. Brown was not impressed and tried to provide some emotional stability to Keats. Many for a time were convinced that Fanny was the cause of his illness, or, used that as an excuse to try to keep her away from him. For a while even Keats entertained the possibility that he was merely suffering physical manifestations of emotional anxieties--but after suffering a hemorrhage he gave Fanny permission to break their engagement. She would hear nothing of it and by her word provided much comfort to Keats in his last days that she was ultimately loyal to him.
Although 1819 proved to be his most prolific year of writing, Keats was also in dire financial straits. His brother George had borrowed money he could ill-afford to part with. His earning Fanny's mother's approval to marry depended on his earning as a writer and he started plans with his publisher John Taylor (1781-1864) for his next volume of poems. At the beginning of 1820 Keats started to show more pronounced signs of the deadly tuberculosis that had killed his mother and brother. After a lung hemorrhage, Keats calmly accepted his fate, and he enjoyed several weeks of respite under Brown's watchful eye. As was common belief at the time that bleeding a patient was beneficial to healing, Keats was bled and given opium to relieve his anxiety and pain. He was at times put on a starvation diet, then at other times prescribed to eat meat and drink red wine to gain strength. Despite these ill-advised good-intentions, and suffering increasing weakness and fever, Keats was able to emerge from his fugue and organise the publication of his next volume of poetry.
Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820) includes some of his best-known and oft-quoted works: "Hyperion", "To Autumn", and "Ode To A Nightingale". "Nightingale" evokes all the pain and suffering that Keats experienced during his short life-time: the death of his mother; the physical anguish he saw as a young apprentice tending to the sick and dying at St. Guy's Hospital; the death of his brother; and ultimately his own physical and spiritual suffering in love and illness. Keats lived to see positive reviews of Lamia, even in Blackwood's magazine. But the positivity was not to last long; Brown left for Scotland and the ailing Keats lived with Hunt for a time. But it was unbearable to him and only exacerbated his condition--he was unable to see Fanny, so, when he showed up at the Brawne's residence in much emotional agitation, sick, and feverish, they could not refuse him. He enjoyed a month with them, blissfully under the constant care of his beloved Fanny. Possibly bolstered by his finally having unrestricted time with her, and able to imagine a happy future with her, Keats considered his last hope of recovery of a rest cure in the warm climes of Italy. As a parting gift Fanny gave him a piece of marble which she had often clasped to cool her hand. In September of 1820 Keats sailed to Rome with friend and painter Joseph Severn (1793-1879, who was unaware of his circumstances with Fanny and the gravity of his health.
Keats put on a bold front but it soon became apparent to Severn that he was terminally ill. They stayed in rooms on the Piazza Navona near the Spanish Steps, and enjoyed the lively sights and sounds of the people and culture, but Keats soon fell into a deep depression. When his attending doctor James Clark (1788-1870) finally voiced aloud the grim prognosis, Keats's medical background came to the fore and he longed to end his life and avoid the humiliating physical and mental torments of tuberculosis. By early 1821 he was confined to bed, Severn a devoted nurse. Keats had resolved not to write to Fanny and would not read a letter from her for fear of the pain it would cause him, although he constantly clasped her marble. During bouts of coughing, fever, nightmares, Keats also tried to cheer his friend, who held him till the end.
John Keats died on 23 February 1821 in Rome, Italy, and now rests in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, by the pyramid of Caius Cestius, near his friend Shelley. His epitaph reads "Here lies one whose name was writ in water", inspired by the line "all your better deeds, Shall be in water writ" from Francis Beaumont (1584-1616) and John Fletcher's (1579-1625) five act play Philaster or: Love Lies A-bleeding. Just a year later, Shelley was buried in the same cemetery, not long after he had written "Adonais" (1821) in tribute to his friend;
I weep for Adonais--he is dead!
O, weep for Adonais! though our tears
Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head!
And thou, sad Hour, selected from all years
To mourn our loss, rouse thy obscure compeers,
And teach them thine own sorrow, say: "With me
Died Adonais; till the Future dares
Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be
An echo and a light unto eternity!"
Fanny Brawne married in 1833 and died at the age of sixty-five. English poet and friend of Brown's, Richard Monckton Milnes (1809-1885) wrote Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats (1848). During his lifetime and since, John Keats inspired numerous other authors, poets, and artists, and remains one of the most widely read and studied 19th century poets.
Biography written by C. D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2007. All Rights Reserved.
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