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Short Biography

John Keats : Sketch by Joseph Severn (1816)

Sketch of John Keats by Joseph Severn dating from 1816 (21)

John Keats was born in Moorfields, London. His father, Thomas, worked in the Swan and Hoop Inn and Stables owned by his wife Frances’ father (Keats’ maternal grandfather). 

Early life and education
He attended a Dame school as an infant, moving to a school in Enfield in 1803 (8) whose headmaster, John Clarke, taught in the tradition of the dissenting academies. In 1804 (9) his father died after a fall from a horse. Two months later his mother married William Rawlings of Moorgate, who was a stable keeper. Her father (Keats’ maternal grandfather) died in 1805 (10), and a bitter dispute with her brother (Keats’ uncle) followed regarding the will. In the summer of 1805 (10) Frances and Rawlings filed a legal petition against her brother, her mother and the second executor of her father’s will. His mother’s new marriage collapsed, however, and she disappeared, leaving her 69 year old mother Alice (Keats’ maternal grandmother) to take responsibility for her children. When Keats’ mother returned in 1809 (14), she was already ill with tuberculosis. Keats tended her and read to her until she died in 1810 (15). She left Keats’ finances under the control of Richard Abbey, a prosperous partner in a firm of tea brokers. 

Keats was apprenticed to an apothecary, Thomas Hammond, but continued to visit Charles Clarke, son of John Clarke and himself a teacher at the Enfield school, who encouraged him to broaden his reading. In 1815 (20) he finished his apprenticeship, and registered at Guy’s Hospital to complete his training, becoming the assistant to a surgeon. 

First poetry
He sent his poem On Solitude anonymously to Leigh Hunt’s Examiner in 1816 (21), where it was published. Charles Clarke subsequently introduced him to Leigh Hunt, through whom he met Lamb, Hazlitt, and Shelley. He also met Charles Brown and Charles Wentworth Dilke who moved into a house at Wentworth Place, Hampstead, close to Leigh Hunt. In early 1817 (22) he abandoned his medical career, and his first book of poems, Poems, was published in March, but failed to achieve recognition. His publisher, Olliers, disappointed by their lack of success, made it clear that they did not wish to persevere with his work. Taylor & Hessey, however, agreed to keep him in funds against the promise of his future works, and, with this financial reassurance, he began Endymion, an epic poem projected to extend to some four thousand lines. He made a trip to the Isle of Wight, where he composed the sonnet To the Sea, and where he finished the first section of Endymion

Still working on his epic, he moved to Margate, then Canterbury, then Bo Peep near Hastings, where he met Isabella Jones, with whom he developed a ‘warm’ relationship. He visited Oxford, staying in his friend Benjamin Bailey’s rooms overlooking the quadrangle of Magdelen College, then moved to Devon with his consumptive brother, Tom (who died shortly after). Here, he completed Endymion, which was published in May 1818 (23). Charles Brown invited him to share lodgings at Wentworth Place, and shortly afterwards, they left on a walking tour of the North of England and Scotland, beginning in the Lake District. 

Wentworth Place

Hostile reviews
Endymion was not a success, and attracted hostile reviews particularly from Blackwoods Magazine, in which John Gibson Lockhart wrote in a review he called ‘The Cockney School of Poetry’ that ‘the phrenzy of the Poems was bad enough in its way; but it did not alarm us half so seriously as the calm, settled, imperturbable drivelling idiocy of Endymion.’

Further poetry
During the next few months, he wrote The Eve of St Agnes, La Belle Dame Sans Merci and his great odes To Melancholy, To a Nightingale, To Psyche and To a Grecian Urn, while he also attempted a second epic poem, Hyperion.

Fanny Brawn, tuberculosis, final poems and death in Italy
In 1819 (24) he met and fell in love with Fanny Brawn, his neighbour at Wentworth Place. Shortly afterwards he began to show the first signs of tuberculosis, and after overseeing the publication of his final book of poetry, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems, he left England for Italy with his friend Joseph Severn, arriving in Naples in late 1820 (25), then travelling on to Rome, where he died in February 1821 (26). 

He left instructions that he was to be buried with the unopened letters from Fanny Brawn which he had received since arriving in Rome, together with a lock of her hair and a purse made by his sister. His headstone was to be engraved with a lyre and with the words ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’. He was buried in the Protestant cemetery outside the walls of Rome.

John Keats Biography : Links

 La Belle Dame Sans Merci

La Belle Dame Sans Merci : painting by Frank Cadogan Cowper (1877-1958)

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Ode on Melancholy

Ode to a Nightingale

Where's the Poet

Ode to Autumn


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