Romance Poet: John Keats

Romance Poet: John Keats

John Keats (1795-1821)

John Keats by William Hilton, National Portrait Gallery, London (c. 1822)


John Keats was born in London on October 31, 1795, probably at the inn owned by his grandfather and where his father Thomas Keats worked in the stables as a hostler. His upbringing was humble, John one of four children with the most basic education available to those with limited finances. His parents were unable to afford the fees to send him to Eton or Harrow as they wished, but as a young boy John did attend Enfield Academy, a modest boarding school with a strong interest in classics and history. Here he established influential relationships benefitting him later in life.

Both of Keats’ parents died before he was 14. Fortunately, while far from rich, his mother did leave a significant monetary legacy to be equally divided between her four children. His grandparents assumed custody and arranged for Keats to apprentice with a local surgeon and apothecary. Upon completion of his apprenticeship in 1815, he registered at Guy’s Hospital as a medical student and the following year received his apothecary’s license.

By all accounts, Keats was an excellent student and had a genuine desire to become a doctor. However, his passion for writing poetry led to a dilemma and inevitable stark choice. The time necessary for medical training was consuming, taking away from his writing and attempts to improve the literary education sadly lacking at the boarding school. The conflicting desires, and financial expenses overwhelming his minor inheritance, brought on bouts of depression. His tendency toward moodiness and gloomy uncertainty were enhanced by the social and political upheavals of the decade, much of his poetry reflecting his state of mind.

His first published poem, “O Solitude” appeared in The Examiner (a magazine) in May of 1816. A couple others followed, arousing scant interest in general but with the aid of connections made while at Enfield Academy, Keats saw the publication of Poems, his first volume of verses, in March 1817. Alas, the book was a critical failure but generated interest from a different publisher and introduced Keats to a wider range of prominent men in the field. Undeterred, Keats left his hospital training permanently, and in between caring for his brother Tom (who was ill with tuberculosis), he devoted himself to writing while also going on “walking tours” through Scotland, Ireland, and northern England.

John Keats by Joseph Severn, 1821-1823


After the death of his brother in 1818, Keats settled at Hamstead Heath in the home of a friend, and began a period of intense writing noted as his most mature work. His poem Endymion was published in April 1818, and the critical reaction has become infamous for its ferocity. While some, such as the review noted below, lauded the poem, far too many proved the politics infesting literary circles. There was a concerted effort to attack and dismiss the so-called “Cockney School” of upstart young writers deemed uncouth for their lack of education, non-formal rhyming and “low diction” of the lower class. Poets and writers who had not attended Eton, Harrow or Oxbridge, and not from the upper classes, were to be scorned and ridiculed by the elites.

“Mr. Keats goes out of himself into a world of abstraction:—his passions, feelings, are all as much imaginative as his situations…when he writes of passion, it seems to have possessed him. This, however, is what Shakespeare did.” ~The Champion, June 14, 1818

Keats was deeply hurt by the criticism, his health suffering as a result of the stress, although it is clear he too was feeling the early symptoms of tuberculosis. He was not, however, utterly defeated.

“My own domestic criticism has given me pain without comparison beyond what Blackwood or the Quarterly could possibly inflict… The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man… That which is creative must create itself—In Endymion, I leaped headlong into the Sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the Soundings, the quicksands, & the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea & comfortable advice.” ~ John Keats, in a letter to James Hessey dated October 8, 1818

Throughout the winter of 1818 and all of 1819, Keats wrote a wealth of poems. Unfortunately, approaches to his publishers for a new book of poems were rejected. Finances became a severe issue, so much so he considered taking a post as a ship’s surgeon. Finally, late in the year, an agreement was reached.

In July 1820, his third volume of poetry, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems, was published. The reviews were overwhelmingly favorable and in time it would come to be recognized as one of the more important poetic works ever published. Tragically, Keats had reached the advanced stages of tuberculosis and was too ill to fully enjoy his success. In September, in a desperate attempt to prolong his life, friends accompanied Keats to Italy. It was a long, difficult journey, Keats arriving in Rome in November, dwelling at a villa that is now the Keats-Shelley Memorial House museum.

John Keats died in Rome on February 23, 1821. He was twenty-five years old. Per his request, his tombstone does not bear his name but only a brief epitaph and these words: “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water.”

Keats’ grave at Protestant Cemetery in Rome, Italy

I cry your mercy—pity—love!—aye, love

To Fanny

I cry your mercy—pity—love!—ay, love!
Merciful love that tantalises not
One-thoughted, never-wandering, guileless love,
Unmask’d, and being seen—without a blot!
O! let me have thee whole,—all—all—be mine!
That shape, that fairness, that sweet minor zest
Of love, your kiss,—those hands, those eyes divine,
That warm, white, lucent, million-pleasured breast,—
Yourself—your soul—in pity give me all,
Withhold no atom’s atom or I die,
Or living on, perhaps, your wretched thrall,
Forget, in the mist of idle misery,
Life’s purposes,—the palate of my mind
Losing its gust, and my ambition blind!

Sweet, Sweet Is the Greeting of Eyes

Sweet, sweet is the greeting of eyes,
And sweet is the voice in its greeting,
When adieus have grown old and goodbyes
Fade away where old Time is retreating.
Warm the nerve of a welcoming hand,
And earnest a kiss on the brow,
When we meet over sea and o’er land
Where furrows are new to the plough.

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art

Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.



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