The life and times of John Keats (1795 to 1821)
John Keats was born on 31 October 1795, first child of Thomas Keats and Frances Jennings Keats, at the Swan and Hoop, 24 Finsbury Pavement, Moorfields, (Now Moorgate) London. Thomas Keats was a Livery – Stable Manager and the owner’s daughter was Frances Jennings (who became the mother), Frances Jennings father passed away and they inherited the Swan and Hoop Inn and stable for themselves. John was the oldest of five children, brothers George (born 28th February 1797) Tom (born 18th November 1799) Edward (born 28th April 1801 died in 1802) and little sister Frances Mary (Fanny) (born 3rd June 1803).
John Keats attended Clarke School in Enfield 1803, which was run by the Reverend John Clarke at school Keats read widely. He was educated at the progressive, where he began a translation of the Aeneid. John Keats, who was barely five feet tall, was not know at school for his enthusiasm for books, but his fist fighting. “My mind has been the most discontented and restless one that ever was put into a body too small for it,” he wrote. His best friend at the school was Charles Cowden Clarke the headmaster’s son; Charles would be a life long friend of Keats.
After John Keats father died in 1804 in a riding accident, Keats mother, Frances Jennings Keats, remarried a London Bank Clerk named William Rawlings but later separated from her husband and quickly moved with the children, taking nothing with her since the laws of the time decreed that all her property and even her children belonged to her husband, William Rawlings sold the Stables later. Frances Jennings Keats and the children moved in with her mother (Alice) to Ponders End Near Enfield and later moved to Church Street, Edmonton, near London. In 8 March 1805, Keats grandfather died. A lawsuit began over his will. (This lawsuit, led to Keats’s chronic anxiety over money; he was both embarrassed and intimidated by most financial matters.) Frances Jennings Keats died of Consumption (tuberculosis) in 1810.
After his mother’s death, Keats’s maternal grandmother appointed two London merchants, Richard Abbey and John Rowland Sandell, as guardians (It is believed Keats grandmother made a respectable amount of money for the benefit of the orphans). Abbey, a prosperous tea broker, assumed the bulk of this responsibility, while Sandell played only a minor role. George becomes an apprentice in Abbey’s business. Tom remained at Enfield.
In 1811 Richard Abbey withdrew him from the Clarke School, Enfield, to apprentice with an apothecary-surgeon and study medicine in a London hospital. While studying for the licence, he completed his translation of Aeneid. Sir Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene impressed him deeply and his first poem, written in 1814, was ‘Lines in Imitation of Spenser.’ In that year he moved to London and resumed his surgical studies as a student at Guy’s hospital this same year his grandmother Jennings died, and the family was split up, it being improper at that time for younger sisters to live with older brothers without a parental type around. Frances was sent to live with the childrens other financial guardian and the two boys went to work. Keats just kept to himself and wrote really sad poems. Tom joined George to work with Richard Abby. After a brief stay at a girls’ school, Fanny went to live with the Abbeys. In 1816 he became a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries and was allowed to practice surgery. Before devoting himself entirely to poetry, Keats worked as a dresser and junior house surgeon. Under the guidance of his friend Cowden Clarke he devoted himself increasingly to Literature. Around this time, Keats first meets Joseph Severn, the young painter who will later accompany him to Rome. They were introduced either by George Keats or a mutual friend from Enfield. He also met William Haslam, who becomes one of his closest friends.
Keats long time school friend Charles Cowden Clarke introduced him to two poets, the first was George Chapman, died May 12, 1634 and the other was James Henry Leigh Hunt, who had just served two years in prison for an article attacking the Prince Regent, the future King George IV he was also the editor of the leading liberal magazine of the day, The Examiner. In May 1816 Leigh helped him publish his first poem “To Solitude” Keats prophesied that meeting Leigh Hunt “will be an era in my existence”. “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” was published a few months later in Leigh Hunt’s The Examiner. Hunt was a supporter of young poets, and he had a high opinion of Keats’s poetry which is evident in the final couplet of Hunt’s sonnet “To John Keats”: “I see even now, Young Keats, a flowering laurel on your brow.” Keats regularly visited Hunt’s home in Hampstead and wrote of this time: “For I am brimful of the friendliness/ that in a little cottage I have found”.
Through Leigh Hunt, Keats met a number of artists and writers, including the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, who became a close friend, and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. When Haydon sent a copy of the sonnet, “Great Spirits now on Earth are sojourning” to Wordsworth, Keats expressed his regard for the older poet: “the very idea of your sending this to Wordsworth puts me out of breath: you know with what reverence I would send my well-wishes to him”. Wordsworth praised the sonnet as “vigorously conceived and well expressed”, but was later to dismiss Keats’s “Hymn to Pan” (from Endymion) as “A Very pretty piece of Paganism”. It was, however, a close group of companions who supported Keats throughout his life. Bailey wrote to the Oxford Herald, championing Keats’s poetry as “the richest promise I ever saw of an etherial imagination maintained by vast intellectual power”, while Reynolds remembered Keats as “the most loveable associate, – the deepest Listener to the griefs and disappointments of all around him”, who also had “the greatest power of poetry in him, of any one since Shakespere”. In November 1816 John moves in with George and Tom at 76 Cheapside London, to keep all costs down as being a poet in those times was extremely hard, Tom begins showing the first signs of Consumption.
Keats’s first book, Poems, was published on 3 March 1817, which didn’t sell very well. He spent the spring with his brother Tom and friends at Shankin. It was about this time Keats started to use his letters as the vehicle of his thoughts of poetry. They mixed the everyday events of his own life with comments with his correspondence. Among others T.S. Eliot considered the letters in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933) “certainly the most notable and most important ever written by any English poet,” but also said about Keats’s famous Hyperion: “it contains great lines, but I do not know whether it is a great poem.” The first of his famous letters Keats wrote to Benjamin Bailey on November 22, 1817. “You perhaps at one time thought there was such thing as Worldly Happiness to be arrived at, at certain periods of time marked out – you have necessity from your disposition been thus led away – I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness”.
In 1818 George Keats married and immigrated to Illinois, USA, leaving the consumptuous brother Tom to the John’s care. Apart from helping Tom against consumption, Shelley had challenged him to an epic poetry-writing contest over the summer and for the contest he wrote his first long Poem, which was written in 4000 lines called Endymion. This was about the love of the moon goddess Cynthia for the young shepherd Endymion. Though Keats never finished it before the deadline he decided to go on a hiking tour to Scotland and Ireland with his friend Charles Brown. First signs of his own fatal disease forced him to return prematurely, where he found his brother seriously ill and his poem harshly criticised among others by John Wilson Croker and John Gibson Lochard, who wrote in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine: ‘… it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with “old Tartary the fierce;” no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or feeling of classical poetry or classical history, could have stooped to profane and vulgarize every association in the manner which has been adopted by this “son of promise.”‘ Although the critical reaction was lukewarm, Keats was not discouraged by it, but wrote to Richard Woodhouse: “I am ambitious of doing the world some good: if I should be spared that may be the work of mature years – in the interval I will assay to reach to as high a summit in Poetry as the nerve bestowed upon me will suffer.” Keats’s greatest works were written in the late 1810s, among them Lamia, The Eve of St. Agnes, the great odes and two versions of Hyperion.
He worked briefly as a theatrical critic for The Champion, spent summer of 1818 touring the Lakes, Scotland and Northern Ireland. During his journey, which he made with his friend Charles Brown, he vowed: “I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever.”
In December 1818 Tom Keats died. Though Keats should have received £500 from Tom’s estate, Abbey (the guardian) decreed that he couldn’t have it until his sister Frances turned 21. It wasn’t until a year or so after Keats death that anyone realized that Abbey had misappropriated nearly £1000 from Alice Jennings’ estate. To make matters worse, brother George had gone broke and was begging Keats to send him whatever he could scavenge from the family funds. Desperate, John convinced his publishers to issue another volume of his poetry, but this was not a stunning success. Dead broke, he still allowed George to have the remnants of the family estate. Keats was rapidly becoming dependant on the help of his friends, people like Leigh Hunt (who’d gotten married and settled down) and Charles Brown. John was now developing consumption, coughing up blood in February of 1820.
John moved to Hampstead Heath, were he lived in the house of Charles Brown. While in Scotland with Keats, Brown had lent his house to a Mrs Brown a widowed neighbour, and her sixteen-year-old daughter Fanny. Since the ladies where still living in London, Keats soon made their acquaintance and fell in love with the beautiful, fashionable girl. In the winter of 1818-19 he worked mainly on Hyperion and The Eve of St Agnes. The fragmentary Eve of St Mark were composed during a visit to his friend Charles Wentworth Dilke’s parents and relatives in Sussex.
In 1820 appeared the second volume of Keats poems. It gained a huge critical success. However, Keats was suffering at that time from tuberculosis. His poems were marked with sadness partly because he was too poor to marry Fanny Brawne. Keats broke off his engagement and began what he called a “posthumous existence.” In a letter from 1819 he had written. “I love you more in that I believe you have liked me for my own sake and nothing else. I have met with women whom I relay think would like to be married to a Poem and given away by a Novel.”
In 1819 Keats finished his third and best volume of poetry, Lamia, Isabella and wrote another version of Hyperion, called The Fall of Hyperion. In July 1820, he published Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems. The three title poems, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode on Melancholy,” and “Ode to a Nightingale.” considered among the finest in the English dealing with mythical and legendary themes of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance times, are rich in imagery and phrasing. His famous poem ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ was inspired by a Wedgwood copy of a Roman copy of a Greek vase. Josiah Wedgwood’s copy was purchased by Sir William Hamilton, who sold it to the duchess of Portland. She denoted the vase to the British Museum in 1784. The book received enthusiastic praise from Hunt, Shelley, Charles Lamb, and others, and in August, Frances Jeffrey, influential editor of the Edinburgh Review, wrote a review praising both the new book and Endymion.
When Keats condition gradually worsened, Charles began arrangements for sending John to Italy. John didn’t want to be so far away from his ladylove, but he felt incapable of arguing. He left in September of 1820, on board the ‘Maria Crowther’ accompanied by the painter Joseph Severn, to escape England’s cold winter. On arrival in Naples he was instantly quarantined for 10 days. Once in Rome, the two men moved into lodgings at 26 Piazza Di Spagna across the piazza from an English doctor named Clark. John was not allowed to write poetry and only given the dullest books to read, as emotional excitement was considered very bad for consumptive patients. John was definitely in a state; he stopped opening letters, even from his beloved Frances, after a month or so. In December, he tried to commit suicide by taking laudanum, but Severn stopped him.
On 23 February 1821 Keats had a coughing fit that led him to haemorrhage some dark arterial blood. With his medical training, he recognized the gravity of the situation, and he told his friend Charles Armitage Brown, “That drop of blood is my death-warrant; I must die.” Aged just 25 John died and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. Frances, upon hearing the news, seemed all right for a few weeks, then fell ill, and after recovering began wearing widows’ weeds. Keats did not invent his own epitaph, but remembered words from the play Philaster, or Love Lies-Ableeding, written by Beaumont and Fletcher in 1611. “All your better deeds / Shall be in water writ,” one of the characters says. Keats told his friend Joseph Severn that he wanted on his grave just the line, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Charles Brown, feeling that was too brusque, had this carved on the stone instead: “This Grave contains all that was Mortal of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET Who on his Death Bed, in the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired these Words to be engraved on his Tomb Stone ‘Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water'”
Written by Roland Keates