One of the best known of the English Romantic poets, John Keats wrote only 54 poems during his short life (he died at the age of 25). This 1911 biography provides an overview of his life and work, though it is written in the wordy, florid style of the early 20th century. You may prefer to read the more contemporary biography at Poetry Foundation.
John Keats (1795-1821), English poet, was born on the 29th or 31st of October 1795 at the sign of the Swan and Hoop, 24 The Pavement, Moorfields, London. He published his first volume of verse in 1817, his second in the following year, his third in 1820, and died of consumption at Rome on the 23rd of February 1821 in the fourth month of his twenty-sixth year. (For the biographical facts see the later section of this article.)
- Analysis of Keat’s work
- A poet of the first rank
- The unrivaled odes
- Keats’s place in literary history
- Details of Keats’s life
- Keats turns to poetry
In Keats’s first book there was little foretaste of anything greatly or even genuinely good; but between the marshy and sandy flats of sterile or futile verse there were undoubtedly some few purple patches of floral promise. The style was frequently detestable—a mixture of sham Spenserian and mock Wordsworthian, alternately florid and arid.
His second book, Endymion, rises in its best passages to the highest level of Barnfield and of Lodge, the two previous poets with whom, had he published nothing more, he might most properly have been classed; and this, among minor minstrels, is no unenviable place. His third book raised him at once to a foremost rank in the highest class of English poets.
Shelley, up to twenty, had written little or nothing that would have done credit to a boy of ten; and of Keats also it may be said that the merit of his work at twenty five was hardly by comparison more wonderful than its demerit at twenty-two. His first book fell as flat as it deserved to fall; the reception of his second, though less considerate than on the whole it deserved, was not more contemptuous than that of immeasurably better books published about the same time by Coleridge, Landor and Shelley.
A critic of exceptional carefulness and candour might have noted in the first book so singular an example of a stork among the cranes as the famous and notable sonnet on Chapman’s Homer; a just judge would have indicated, a partial advocate might have exaggerated, the value of such golden grain amid a garish harvest of tares as the hymn to Pan and the translation into verse of Titian’s Bacchanal which glorify the weedy wilderness of Endymion.
Critical response to Endymion
But the hardest thing said of that poem by the Quarterly reviewer was unconsciously echoed by the future author of Adonais—that it was all but absolutely impossible to read through; and the obscener insolence of the “Blackguard’s Magazine,” as Landor afterwards very justly labelled it, is explicable though certainly not excusable if we glance back at such a passage as that where Endymion exchanges fulsome and liquorish endearments with the “known unknown from whom his being sips such darling (!) essence. Such nauseous and pitiful phrases as these, and certain passages in his correspondence, make us understand the source of the most offensive imputations or insinuations levelled against the writer’s manhood; and, while admitting that neither his love-letters, nor the last piteous outcries of his wailing and shrieking agony, would ever have been made public by merciful or respectful editors, we must also admit that, if they ought never to have been published, it is no less certain that they ought never to have been written; that a manful kind of man or even a manly sort of boy, in his love-making or in his suffering, will not howl and snivel after such a lamentable fashion.
One thing hitherto inexplicable a very slight and rapid glance at his amatory correspondence will amply suffice to explain: how it came to pass that the woman so passionately beloved by so great a poet should have thought it the hopeless attempt of a mistaken kindness to revive the memory of a man for whom the best that could be wished was complete and compassionate oblivion. For the side of the man’s nature presented to her inspection, this probably was all that charity or reason could have desired. But that there was a finer side to the man, even if considered apart from the poet, his correspondence with his friends and their general evidence to his character give more sufficient proof than perhaps we might have derived from the general impression left on us by his works; though indeed the preface to Endymion itself, however illogical in its obviously implied suggestion that the poem published was undeniably unworthy of publication, gave proof or hint at least that after all its author was something of a man. And the eighteenth of his letters to Miss Brawne stands out in bright and brave contrast with such as seem incompatible with the traditions of his character on its manlier side.
But if it must be said that he lived long enough only to give promise of being a man, it must also be said that he lived long enough to give assurance of being a poet who was not born to come short of the first rank. Not even a hint of such a probability could have been gathered from his first or even from his second appearance; after the publication of his third volume it was no longer a matter of possible debate among judges of tolerable competence that this improbability had become a certainty. Two or three phrases cancelled, two or three lines erased, would have left us in Lamia one of the most faultless as surely as one of the most glorious jewels in the crown of English poetry. Isabella, feeble and awkward in narrative to a degree almost incredible in a student of Dryden and a pupil of Leigh Hunt, is overcharged with episodical effects of splendid and pathetic expression beyond the reach of either.
The Eve of St Agnes, aiming at no doubtful success, succeeds in evading all casual difficulty in the line of narrative; with no shadow of pretence to such interest as may be derived from stress of incident or depth of sentiment, it stands out among all other famous poems as a perfect and unsurpassable study in pure colour and clear melody—a study in which the figure of Madeline brings back upon the mind’s eye, if only as moonlight recalls a sense of sunshine, the nuptial picture of Marlowe’s Hero and the sleeping presence of Shakespeare’s Imogen. Beside this poem should always be placed the less famous but not less precious Eve of St Mark, a fragment unexcelled for the simple perfection of its perfect simplicity, exquisite alike in suggestion and in accomplishment.
The triumph of Hyperion is as nearly complete as the failure of Endymion; yet Keats never gave such proof of a manly devotion and rational sense of duty to his art as in his resolution to leave this great poem unfinished; not, as we may gather from his correspondence on the subject, for the pitiful reason assigned by his publishers, that of discouragement at the reception given to his former work, but on the solid and reasonable ground that a Miltonic study had something in its very scheme and nature too artificial, too studious of a foreign influence, to be carried on and carried out at such length as was implied by his original design. Fortified and purified as it had been on a first revision, when much introductory allegory and much tentative effusion of sonorous and superfluous verse had been rigorously clipped down or pruned away, it could not long have retained spirit enough to support or inform the shadowy body of a subject so little charged with tangible significance. The faculty of assimilation as distinguished from imitation, than which there can be no surer or stronger sign of strong and sure original genius, is not more evident in the most Miltonic passages of the revised Hyperion than in the more Shakespearian passages of the unrevised tragedy which no radical correction could have left other than radically incorrigible.
It is no conventional exaggeration, no hyperbolical phrase of flattery with more sound than sense in it, to say that in this chaotic and puerile play of Otho the Great there are such verses as Shakespeare might not without pride have signed at the age when he wrote and even at the age when he rewrote the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. The dramatic fragment of King Stephen shows far more power of hand and gives far more promise of success than does that of Shelley’s Charles the First. Yet we cannot say with any confidence that even this far from extravagant promise would certainly or probably have been kept; it is certain only that Keats in these attempts did at least succeed in showing a possibility of future excellence as a tragic or at least a romantic dramatist. In every other line of high and serious poetry his triumph was actual and consummate; here only was it no more than potential or incomplete.
As a ballad of the more lyrical order, La Belle dame sans merci is not less absolutely excellent, less triumphantly perfect in force and clearness of impression, that as a narrative poem is Lamia. In his lines on Robin Hood, and in one or two other less noticeable studies of the kind, he has shown thorough and easy mastery of the beautiful metre inherited by Fletcher from Barnfield and by Milton from Fletcher. The simple force of spirit and style which distinguishes the genuine ballad manner from all spurious attempts at an artificial simplicity was once more at least achieved in his verses on the crowning creation of Scott’s humaner and manlier genius—Meg Merrilies.
No little injustice has been done to Keats by such devotees as fix their mind’s eye only on the more salient and distinctive notes of a genius which in fact was very much more various and tentative, less limited and peculiar, than would be inferred from an exclusive study of his more specially characteristic work. But within the limits of that work must we look of course for the genuine credentials of his fame; and highest among them we must rate his unequalled and unrivalled odes. Of these perhaps the two nearest to absolute perfection, to the triumphant achievement and accomplishment of the very utmost beauty possible to human words, may be that to Autumn and that on a Grecian Urn; the most radiant, fervent and musical is that to a Nightingale; the most pictorial and perhaps the tenderest in its ardour of passionate fancy is that to Psyche; the subtlest in sweetness of thought and feeling is that on Melancholy.
Greater lyrical poetry the world may have seen than any that is in these; lovelier it surely has never seen, nor ever can it possibly see. From the divine fragment of an unfinished ode to Maia we can but guess that if completed it would have been worthy of a place beside the highest. His remaining lyrics have many beauties about them, but none perhaps can be called thoroughly beautiful. He has certainly left us one perfect sonnet of the first rank and as certainly he has left us but one.
Keats has been promoted by modern criticism to a place beside Shakespeare. The faultless force and the profound subtlety of his deep and cunning instinct for the absolute expression of absolute natural beauty can hardly be questioned or overlooked; and this is doubtless the one main distinctive gift or power which denotes him as a poet among all his equals, and gives him a right to rank for ever beside Coleridge and Shelley.
As a man, the two admirers who did best service to his memory were Lord Houghton and Matthew Arnold. These alone, among all of their day who have written of him without the disadvantage or advantage of a personal acquaintance, have clearly seen and shown us the manhood of the man. That ridiculous and degrading legend which imposed so strangely on the generous tenderness of Shelley, while evoking the very natural and allowable laughter of Byron, fell to dust at once for ever on the appearance of Lord Houghton’s biography, which gave perfect proof to all time that “men have died and worms have eaten them” but not for fear of critics or through suffering inflicted by reviews.
Somewhat too sensually sensitive Keats may have been in either capacity, but the nature of the man was as far as was the quality of the poet above the pitiful level of a creature whose soul could “let itself be snuffed out by an article”; and, in fact, owing doubtless to the accident of a death which followed so fast on his early appearance and his dubious reception as a poet, the insolence and injustice of his reviewers in general have been comparatively and even considerably exaggerated. Except from the chief fountain-head of professional ribaldry then open in the world of literary journalism, no reek of personal insult arose to offend his nostrils; and the tactics of such unwashed malignants were inevitably suicidal; the references to his brief experiment of apprenticeship to a surgeon which are quoted from Blackwood, in the shorter as well as in the longer memoir by Lord Houghton, could leave no bad odour behind them save what might hang about men’s yet briefer recollection of his assailant’s unmemorable existence.
The false Keats, therefore, whom Shelley pitied and Byron despised would have been, had he ever existed, a thing beneath compassion or contempt. That such a man could have had such a genius is almost evidently impossible; and yet more evident is the proof which remains on everlasting record that none was ever further from the chance of decline to such degradation than the real and actual man who made that name immortal.
He was the eldest son of Thomas Keats and his wife Frances Jennings, and was baptized at St Botolph’s, Bishopsgate, on the 18th of December 1795. The entry of his baptism is supplemented by a marginal note stating that he was born on the 31st of October.
Thomas Keats was employed in the Swan and Hoop livery stables, Finsbury Pavement, London. He had married his master’s daughter, and managed the business on the retirement of his father-in-law. In April 1804 Thomas Keats was killed by a fall from his horse, and within a year of this event Mrs Keats married William Rawlings, a stable keeper. The marriage proved an unhappy one, and in 1806 Mrs Rawlings, with her children John, George, Thomas and Frances Mary (afterwards Mrs Llanos, d. 1889), went to live at Edmonton with her mother, who had inherited a considerable competence from her husband.
There is evidence that Keats’s parents were by no means of the commonplace type that might be hastily inferred from these associations. They had desired to send their sons to Harrow, but John Keats and his two brothers were eventually sent to a school kept by John Clarke at Enfield, where he became intimate with his master’s son, Charles Cowden Clarke. His vivacity of temperament showed itself at school in a love of fighting, but in the last year of his school life he developed a great appetite for reading of all sorts.
In 1810 he left school to be apprenticed to Mr Thomas Hammond, a surgeon in Edmonton. He was still within easy reach of his old school, where he frequently borrowed books, especially the works of Spenser and the Elizabethans. With Hammond he quarrelled before the termination of his apprenticeship, and in 1814 the connexion was broken by mutual consent.
His mother had died in 1810, and in 1814 Mrs Jennings. The children were left in the care of two guardians, one of whom, Richard Abbey, seems to have made himself solely responsible. John Keats went to London to study at Guy’s and St Thomas’s hospitals, living at first alone at 8 Dean Street, Borough, and later with two fellow students in St Thomas’s Street. It does not appear that he neglected his medical studies, but his chief interest was turned to poetry.
In March 1816 he became a dresser at Guy’s, but about the same time his poetic gifts were stimulated by an acquaintance formed with Leigh Hunt. His friendship with Benjamin Haydon, the painter, dates from later in the same year. Hunt introduced him to Shelley, who showed the younger poet a constant kindness. In 1816 Keats moved to the Poultry to be with his brothers George and Tom, the former of whom was then employed in his guardian’s counting-house, but much of the poet’s time was spent at Leigh Hunt’s cottage at Hampstead.
In the winter of 1816-1817 he definitely abandoned medicine, and in the spring appeared Poems by John Keats dedicated to Leigh Hunt, and published by Charles and James Ollier. On the 14th of April he left London to find quiet for work. He spent some time at Shanklin, Isle of Wight, then at Margate and Canterbury, where he was joined by his brother Tom. In the summer the three brothers took lodgings in Well Walk, Hampstead, where Keats formed a fast friendship with Charles Wentworth Dilke and Charles Armitage Brown. In September of the same year (1817) he paid a visit to his friend, Benjamin Bailey, at Oxford, and in November he finished Eudymion at Burford Bridge, near Dorking.
His youngest brother had developed consumption, and in March John went to Teignmouth to nurse him in place of his brother George, who had decided to sail for America with his newly married wife, Georgiana Wylie. In May (1818) Keats returned to London, and soon after appeared Endymion: A Poetic Romance (1818), bearing on the title-page as motto “The stretched metre of an antique song.” Late in June Keats and his friend Armitage Brown started on a walking tour in Scotland, vividly described in the poet’s letters. The fatigue and hardship involved proved too great a strain for Keats, who was forbidden by an Inverness doctor to continue his tour. He returned to London by boat, arriving on the 18th of August.
The autumn was spent in constant attendance on his brother Tom, who died at the beginning of December. There is no doubt that he resented the attacks on him in Blackwood’s Magazine (August 1818), and the Quarterly Review (April 1818, published only in September), but his chief preoccupations were elsewhere.
After his brother’s death he went to live with his friend Brown. He had already made the acquaintance of Fanny Brawne, a girl of seventeen, who lived with her mother close by. For her Keats quickly developed a consuming passion. He was in indifferent health, and, owing partly to Mr Abbey’s mismanagement, in difficulties for money. Nevertheless his best work belongs to this period. In July 1819 he went to Shanklin, living with James Rice. They were soon joined by Brown.
The next two months Keats spent with Brown at Winchester, enjoying an interval of calmness due to his absence from Fanny Brawne. At Winchester he completed Lamia and Otho the Great, which he had begun in conjunction with Brown, and began his historical tragedy of King Stephen. Before Christmas he had returned to London and his bondage to Fanny. In January 1820 his brother George paid a short visit to London, but received no confidence from him.
The fatal nature of Keats’s illness showed itself on the 3rd of February, but in March he recovered sufficiently to be present at the private view of Haydon’s picture of “Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem.” In May he removed to a lodging in Wesleyan Place, Kentish Town, to be near Leigh Hunt who eventually took him into his house. In July appeared his third and last book, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes and other Poems (1820).
Keats left the Hunts abruptly in August in consequence of a delay in receiving one of Fanny Brawne’s letters which had been broken open by a servant. He went to Wentworth Place, where he was taken in by the Brawnes. The suggestion that he should spend the winter in Italy was followed up by an invitation from Shelley to Pisa. This, however, he refused. But on the 18th of September 1820 he set out for Naples in company with Joseph Severn, the artist, who had long been his friend. The travellers settled in the Piazza de Spagna, Rome. Keats was devotedly tended by Dr (afterwards Sir) James Clarke and Severn, and died on the 23rd of February 1821. He was buried on the 27th in the old Protestant cemetery, near the pyramid of Cestius.
Bibliography—Keats’s friends provided the material for the authoritative biography of the poet by Richard Monckton Milnes (afterwards Lord Houghton) entitled Life, Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats (1848; revised ed., 1867). The Poetical Works of John Keats were issued with a memoir by R. M. Milnes in 1854, 1863, 1865, 1866, 1867, and in the Aldine edition, 1876. The standard edition of Keats is The Poetical Works and other Writings of John Keats now first brought together, including Poems and numerous Letters not before published, edited with notes and appendices by Harry Buxton Forman (4 vols., 1883; re-issue with corrections and additions, 1889). Of the many other editions of Keats’s poems may be mentioned that in the Muses’ Library, The Poems of John Keats (1896), edited by G. Thorn Drury with an introduction by Robert Bridges, and another by E. de Sélincourt, 1905. The Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (1889) were edited with introduction and notes by H. Buxton Forman, and the Letters of John Keats to his Family and Friends (1891) by Sidney Colvin, who is also the author of the monograph, Keats (1887), in the English Men of Letters Series. See also The Papers of a Critic. Selected from the Writings of the late Charles Wentworth Dilke (1875), and for further bibliographical information and particulars of MS. sources the “Editor’s Preface,” &c. to a reprint edited by H. Buxton Forman (Glasgow, 1900). A facsimile of Keats’s autograph MS. of “Hyperion,” purchased by the British Museum in 1904, was published by E. de Sélincourt (Oxford, 1905).
This brief biography is adapted from the Wikisource 1911 Encyclopedia Project, which offers the following disclaimer: “This document is based upon the knowledge available in 1911 and may be inaccurate, especially in the areas of science, law, and ethnography. Readers should only use the information as a historical reference.”
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