Birthplace: Finsbury Pavement, London, England
Location of death: Rome, Italy
Cause of death: Tuberculosis
Remains: Buried, Campo Cestio, Rome, Italy
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: English romantic poet
English poet, 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.
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 stablekeeper. The marriage proved an unhappy one, and in 1806 Mrs. Rawlings, with her children John, George, Thomas and Frances Mary, 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 Edmund Spenser and the Elizabethans. With Hammond he quarreled before the termination of his apprenticeship, and in 1814 the connection 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 Percy Bysshe 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 1816-17 he definitely abandoned medicine, and in the spring appeared Poems by John Keats dedicated to Leigh Hunt, and published by Charles and James Oilier. 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 Endymion 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 Biackwood'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 travelers 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.
Keats has sometimes been promoted by modern criticism to a place beside William Shakespeare. 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.
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 forever beside Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe 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 Lord 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.
Father: (stable keeper, d. 1803 after fall from horse)
Mother: (d. 1810 tuberculosis)
Brother: Tom Keats (d. 1818 tuberculosis)
Risk Factors: Depression
Author of books:
Poems (1817, poetry)
Endymion (1818, poetry)
The Fall of Hyperion (1819-21, poetry)
Lamia, Isabella, and the Eve of St. Agnes and Other Poems (1820, poetry)
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