John Keats
(1795-1821)

A Quick Overview

English Romantic lyric poet who devoted his short life to the perfection of a poetry marked by vivid imagery, great sensuous appeal, and an attempt to express a philosophy through classical legend.

"Keats, John" Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
<http://search.eb.com/bol/topic?eu=46003&sctn=1>
[Accessed 15 February 2000].
 

Comments:

His Life
Links
Some of His Works

Links

Some of his work can be found at

Representative Poetry Online:

 http://www.library.utoronto.ca /utel/rp/intro.html
These Links were taken from the Fred Moramarco's Poetry Page CD Cover

To the left is a detail of an oil painting by Joseph Severn, 1821; in the
National Portrait Gallery, London  By courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London

 

There is a CD of Keats' poetry available:

 A CD of the Poetry of John Keats CD-ROM

John Keats on the Web

Selected Poetry of John Keats (1795-1821) http://library.utoronto.ca/www/utel/rp/authors/keats.html
John Keats Chronology http://www.wfu.edu/users/nowvibp4/bio/chrono.htm
JOHN KEATS: A Hypermedia Guide http://www.wfu.edu/~nowvibp4/keats.htm
Poets' Corner http://www.lexmark.com/data/poem/keats03.html
John Keats (1795-1821): An exhibition in association with The Wordsworth Trust http://portico.bl.uk/exhibitions/keats/overview.html
John Keats (1795-1821) http://jackson.stark.k12.oh.us/English/Keats/Keats.html
The Poetical Works of John Keats  http://www.cc.columbia.edu/acis/bartleby/keats/

His Life

Youth.
 

The son of a livery-stable manager, John Keats received relatively
little formal education. His father died in 1804, and his mother
remarried almost immediately. Throughout his life Keats had close
emotional ties to his sister, Fanny, and his two brothers, George and
Tom. After the breakup of their mother's second marriage, the
Keats children lived with their widowed grandmother at Edmonton,
Middlesex. John attended a school at Enfield, two miles away, that
was run by John Clarke, whose son Charles Cowden Clarke did
much to encourage Keats's literary aspirations. At school Keats
was noted as a pugnacious lad and was decidedly "not literary," but
in 1809 he began to read voraciously. After the death of the Keats
children's mother in 1810, their grandmother put the children's
affairs into the hands of a guardian, Richard Abbey. At Abbey's
instigation John Keats was apprenticed to a surgeon at Edmonton
in 1811. He broke off his apprenticeship in 1814 and went to live in
London, where he worked as a dresser, or junior house surgeon, at
Guy's and St. Thomas' hospitals. His literary interests had
crystallized by this time, and after 1817 he devoted himself entirely
to poetry. From then until his early death, the story of his life is
largely the story of the poetry he wrote.
Early works.
Charles Cowden Clarke had introduced the young Keats to the
poetry of Edmund Spenser and the Elizabethans, and these were his
earliest models. His first mature poem is the sonnet "On First
Looking Into Chapman's Homer" (1816), which was inspired by his
excited reading of George Chapman's classic 17th-century
translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Clarke also introduced
Keats to the journalist and contemporary poet Leigh Hunt, and
Keats made friends in Hunt's circle with the young poet John
Hamilton Reynolds and with the painter Benjamin Haydon. Keats's
first book, Poems, was published in March 1817 and was written
largely under "Huntian" influence. This is evident in the relaxed and
rambling sentiments evinced and in Keats's use of a loose form of
the heroic couplet and light rhymes. The most interesting poem in
this volume is "Sleep and Poetry," the middle section of which
contains a prophetic view of Keats's own poetical progress. He
sees himself as, at present, plunged in the delighted contemplation of
sensuous natural beauty but realizes that he must leave this for an
understanding of "the agony and strife of human hearts." Otherwise
the volume is remarkable only for some delicate natural observation
and some obvious Spenserian influences. (See Hunt, James Henry
Leigh, "Sleep and Poetry".)

In 1817 Keats left London briefly for a trip to the Isle of Wight and
Canterbury and began work on Endymion, his first long poem. On
his return to London he moved into lodgings in Hampstead with his
brothers. Endymion appeared in 1818. This work is divided into
four 1,000-line sections, and its verse is composed in loose rhymed
couplets. The poem narrates a version of the Greek legend of the
moon goddess Diana's (or Cynthia's) love for Endymion, a mortal
shepherd, but Keats puts the emphasis on Endymion's love for
Diana rather than on hers for him. Keats transformed the tale to
express the widespread Romantic theme of the attempt to find in
actuality an ideal love that has been glimpsed heretofore only in
imaginative longings. This theme is realized through fantastic and
discursive adventures and through sensuous and luxuriant
description. In his wanderings in quest of Diana, Endymion is guilty
of an apparent infidelity to his visionary moon goddess and falls in
love with an earthly maiden to whom he is attracted by human
sympathy. But in the end Diana and the earthly maiden turn out to
be one and the same. The poem equates Endymion's original
romantic ardour with a more universal quest for a self-destroying
transcendence in which he might achieve a blissful personal unity
with all creation. Keats, however, was dissatisfied with the poem as
soon as it was finished.
 

Personal crisis.
 
In the summer of 1818 Keats went on a walking tour in the Lake
District (of northern England) and Scotland with his friend Charles
Brown, and his exposure and overexertions on that trip brought on
the first symptoms of the tuberculosis of which he was to die. On his
return to London a brutal criticism of his early poems appeared in
Blackwood's Magazine, followed by a similar attack on Endymion
in the Quarterly Review. Contrary to later assertions, Keats met
these reviews with a calm assertion of his own talents, and he went
on steadily writing poetry. But there were family troubles. Keats's
brother Tom had been suffering from tuberculosis for some time,
and in the autumn of 1818 the poet nursed him through his last
illness. About the same time, he met Fanny Brawne, a near
neighbour in Hampstead, with whom he soon fell hopelessly and
tragically in love. The relation with Fanny had a decisive effect on
Keats's development. She seems to have been an unexceptional
young woman, of firm and generous character, and kindly disposed
toward Keats. But he expected more, perhaps more than anyone
could give, as is evident from his overwrought letters. Both his
uncertain material situation and his failing health in any case made it
impossible for their relationship to run a normal course. After Tom's
death (George had already gone to America), Keats moved into
Wentworth Place with Brown; and in April 1819 Brawne and her
mother became his next-door neighbours. About October 1819
Keats became engaged to Fanny.
The year 1819.
Keats had written "Isabella," an adaptation of the story of the "Pot
of Basil" in Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, in 1817-18, soon
after the completion of Endymion, and again he was dissatisfied
with his work. It was during the year 1819 that all his greatest
poetry was written--"Lamia," "The Eve of St. Agnes," the great
odes ("On Indolence," "On a Grecian Urn," "To Psyche," "To a
Nightingale," "On Melancholy," and "To Autumn"), and the two
versions of Hyperion. This poetry was composed under the strain
of illness and his growing love for Brawne; and it is an astonishing
body of work, marked by careful and considered development,
technical, emotional, and intellectual. "Isabella," which Keats himself
called "a weak-sided poem," contains some of the emotional
weaknesses of Endymion; but "The Eve of St. Agnes" may be
considered the perfect culmination of Keats's earlier poetic style.
Written in the first flush of his meeting with Brawne, it conveys an
atmosphere of passion and excitement in its description of the
elopement of a pair of youthful lovers. Written in Spenserian
stanzas, the poem presents its theme with unrivaled delicacy but
displays no marked intellectual advance over Keats's earlier efforts.
"Lamia" is another narrative poem and is a deliberate attempt to
reform some of the technical weaknesses of Endymion. Keats
makes use in this poem of a far tighter and more disciplined couplet,
a firmer tone, and more controlled description. (See "Isabella".)

The odes are Keats's most distinctive poetic achievement. They are
essentially lyrical meditations on some object or quality that prompts
the poet to confront the conflicting impulses of his inner being and to
reflect upon his own longings and their relations to the wider world
around him. All the odes were composed between March and June
1819 except "To Autumn," which is from September. The internal
debates in the odes centre on the dichotomy of eternal, transcendent
ideals and the transience and change of the physical world. This
subject was forced upon Keats by the painful death of his brother
and his own failing health, and the odes highlight his struggle for
self-awareness and certainty through the liberating powers of his
imagination. In the "Ode to a Nightingale" a visionary happiness in
communing with the nightingale and its song is contrasted with the
dead weight of human grief and sickness, and the transience of
youth and beauty--strongly brought home to Keats in recent
months by his brother's death. The song of the nightingale is seen as
a symbol of art that outlasts the individual's mortal life. This theme is
taken up more distinctly in the "Ode on a Grecian Urn." The figures
of the lovers depicted on the Greek urn become for him the symbol
of an enduring but unconsummated passion that subtly belies the
poem's celebrated conclusion, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is
all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." The "Ode on
Melancholy" recognizes that sadness is the inevitable concomitant of
human passion and happiness; the transience of joy and desire is an
inevitable aspect of the natural process. But the rich, slow
movement of this and the other odes suggests an enjoyment of such
intensity and depth that it makes the moment eternal. The "Ode to
Autumn" is essentially the record of such an experience. Autumn is
seen not as a time of decay but as a season of complete ripeness
and fulfillment, a pause in time when everything has reached fruition,
and the question of transience is hardly raised. These poems, with
their rich and exquisitely sensuous detail and their meditative depth,
are among the greatest achievements of Romantic poetry. With them
should be mentioned the ballad "La Belle Dame sans merci," of
about the same time, which reveals the obverse and destructive side
of the idyllic love seen in "The Eve of St. Agnes."

Keats's fragmentary poetic epic, Hyperion, exists in two versions,
the second being a revision of the first with the addition of a long
prologue in a new style, which makes it into a different poem.
Hyperion was begun in the autumn of 1818, and all that there is of
the first version was finished by April 1819. In September Keats
wrote to Reynolds that he had given up Hyperion, but he appears
to have continued working on the revised edition, The Fall of
Hyperion, during the autumn of 1819. The two versions of
Hyperion cover the period of Keats's most intense experience,
both poetical and personal. The poem is his last attempt, in the face
of increasing illness and frustrated love, to come to terms with the
conflict between absolute value and mortal decay that appears in
other forms in his earlier poetry. The epic's subject is the
supersession of the earlier Greek gods, the Titans, by the later
Olympian gods. Keats's desire to write something unlike the
luxuriant wandering of Endymion is clear, and he thus consciously
attempts to emulate the epic loftiness of John Milton's Paradise
Lost. The poem opens with the Titans already fallen, like Milton's
fallen angels, and Hyperion, the sun god, is their one hope of further
resistance, like Milton's Satan. There are numerous Miltonisms of
style, but these are subdued in the revised version, as Keats felt
unhappy with them; and the basis of the writing is revealed after all
as a more austere and disciplined version of Keats's own manner.
There is not enough of the narrative to make its ultimate direction
clear; but it seems that the poem's hero was to be the young Apollo,
the god of poetry. So, as Endymion was an allegory of the fate of
the lover of beauty in the world, Hyperion was perhaps to be an
allegory of the poet as creator. Certainly this theme is taken up
explicitly in the new prologue to the second version.

The second version of Hyperion is one of the most remarkable
pieces of writing in Keats's work; the blank verse has a new energy
and rapidity, and the vision is presented with a spare grandeur, rising
to its height in the epiphany of the goddess Moneta, who reveals to
the dreamer the function of the poet in the world. It is his duty to
separate himself from the mere dreamer and to share in the
sufferings of humankind. The theme is not new to Keats--it appears
in his earliest poetry--but it is here realized far more intensely. Yet
with the threat of approaching death upon him, Keats could not
advance any further in the direction that he foresaw as the right one,
and the poem remains a fragment.

Last Years
There is no more to record of Keats's poetic career. The poems
"Isabella," "Lamia," "The Eve of St. Agnes," and Hyperion and the
odes were all published in the famous 1820 volume, the one that
gives the true measure of his powers. It appeared in July, by which
time Keats was evidently doomed. He had been increasingly ill
throughout 1819, and by the beginning of 1820 the evidence of
tuberculosis was clear. He realized that it was his death warrant, and
from that time sustained work became impossible. His friends
Brown, the Hunts, and Brawne and her mother nursed him
assiduously through the year. Percy Bysshe Shelley, hearing of his
condition, wrote offering him hospitality in Pisa; but Keats did not
accept. When Keats was ordered south for the winter, Joseph
Severn undertook to accompany him to Rome. They sailed in
September 1820, and from Naples they went to Rome, where in
early December Keats had a relapse. Faithfully tended by Severn
to the last, he died in Rome.

 
          Letters.
 

The prime authority both for Keats's life and for his poetical
development is to be found in his letters. This correspondence with
his brothers and sister, with his close friends, and with Fanny
Brawne gives the most intimate picture of the admirable integrity of
Keats's personal character and enables the reader to follow closely
the development of his thought about poetry--his own and that of
others.

His letters evince a profound thoughtfulness combined with a quick,
sensitive, undidactic critical response. Spontaneous, informal, deeply
thought, and deeply felt, these are among the best letters written by
any English poet. Apart from their interest as a commentary on his
work, they have the right to independent literary status.
 

Reputation.
 

It is impossible to say how much has been lost by Keats's early
death. His reputation grew steadily throughout the 19th century,
though as late as the 1840s the Pre-Raphaelite painter William
Holman could refer to him as "this little-known poet." His influence
is found everywhere in the decorative Romantic verse of the
Victorian Age, from the early work of Alfred Tennyson onward. His
general emotional temper and the minute delicacy of his natural
observation were greatly admired by the Pre-Raphaelites, who both
echoed his poetry in their own and illustrated it in their paintings.
Keats's 19th-century followers on the whole valued the more
superficial aspects of his work; and it has been largely left for the
20th century to realize the full range of his technical and intellectual
achievement.
(G.G.H./Ed.)

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