October 1795 saw the birth of John Keats in London, one of the most studied and analysed poets of the second British Romantic era.
His life was marred by tragedy from a very early age – something which was to haunt him yet influence him greatly in his works.
John was the eldest of five children – George (was to die penniless in America), Thomas (tragically taken by tuberculosis in 1818), Francis ‘Fanny’ and Edward (died in infancy) being the other four.
His first heartache was when he was four years old, losing his father in a work-related accident. His mother died when he was just 14 years old, but not before remarrying and then leaving her new husband, forcing her children on their grandmother.
The death of his mother, however, seemed to many at that time a blessing in disguise as his appointed guardians removed him from his boarding school in Enfield (where he met long-term friend author Charles Cowden Clarke) and placed him in an apprenticeship to apothecary-surgeon Thomas Hammond in 1810.
Although Keats studied hard and progressed in the medical profession, studying at Guys’ Hospital in London and obtaining his license to practice as an apothecary in 1816, his true love was poetry. A brave decision was made and he gave up medicine in the pursuit of literary freedom.
‘Imitation of Spenser’ is Keats’ first surviving poem, written in 1814 alongside his medical studies. Even before reading the poem, the title itself guides us to one of Keats’ influences – Elizabethan poet Sir Edmund Spenser who was himself noted as being a lead in the Modern English verse.
Keats was introduced by Clarke to Leigh Hunt, an editor of ‘Examiner’, who printed Keats’ first sonnet ‘Ode to Solitude’ in 1816. This was followed in 1817 by the publishing of his first volume entitled ‘Poems’ which included 31 works. Although reviews were mixed, it did indicate promise in a young poet.
His second publication, ‘Endymion’ in 1818, was not so successful. Leading critical magazines of the time gave scathing reviews of the 4,000 line romantic and sometimes erotic piece on the Greek myth of the same name. Indeed, it is believed that Percy Shelley had advised Keats not to rush ahead with another publication but wait until he had a larger collection to offer.
After the failure of Endymion, however, he toured the north of England and Scotland, returning south to continue caring for his younger brother until Tom’s death in December 1818 of tuberculosis.
It was towards the end of Tom’s life that Keats wrote one of his most recognised works ‘Hyperion’ (a blank-verse epic based on the Greek myth of creation, written in the style of John Milton). His original work on ‘Hyperion’ remained unfinished with the death of his brother, however Keats returned to complete it in a reawakening of the piece entitled ‘The Fall of Hyperion’.
After Tom’s death Keats moved in with close friend Charles Armitage Brown, met William Wordsworth and fell in love with neighbour Fanny Brawne. It is believed that this period of his life was the time he wrote his best work (published in 1820 – ‘Lamina, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems’).
Indeed, Keats was unofficially engaged to Brawne but ill-health saw to it that they never married. On medical advice to be in warmer climates over the winter, he travelled with artist Joseph Severn to Italy – landing in Naples before renting on the Spanish Steps in Rome.
Keats was never to recover from tuberculosis, and he died on 23rd February 1821.
This poet has been recognised in recent years as being one of the few to have emerged over a short space of time – he had three works published in the space of four years, the last of which is arguably his best.
Like many poets, however, Keats’ reputation in the literary world was not truly acknowledged until after his death and the publication of his letters in the mid and late nineteenth century gave an additional if not more prominent insight into his workings. Students of poetry study his letters in equal measure to his poems.
It is through these letters that we really come to understand Keats’ view of ‘negative capability’ – in short, there are ‘uncertainties’ and not everything can be resolved.
Oscar Wilde wrote of Keats:
Rid of the world’s injustice, and his pain,
He rests at last beneath God’s veil of blue:
Taken from life when life and love were new
The youngest of the martyrs here is lain
(The Grave of Keats, Oscar Wilde)
And Keats himself wished only one line to be writ on his gravestone:
‘Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ in Water’.
Keats was a literary genius whose life was so tragically cut short at the age of 25.