About the Author
English lyric poet, the archetype of the Romantic writer. While still in good health, Keats was ambitious of doing the world some good, instead of focusing on his own sensitive soul. Keats felt that the deepest meaning of life lay in the apprehension of material beauty, although his mature poems reveal his fascination with a world of death and decay. Most of his best work appeared in one year.
John Keats was born in London as the son of a successful livery-stable manager. He was the oldest of four children, who remained deeply devoted to each other. Thomas, his father, was the chief hostler at the Swan and Hoop. After their father died in 1804 in a riding accident, Keats's mother, Frances Jennings Keats, remarried but the marriage was soon broken. She moved with the children, John and his sister Fanny and brothers George and Tom, to live with her mother at Edmonton, near London. She died of tuberculosis in 1810.
At school Keats read widely. He was educated at the progressive Clarke's School in Enfield, where he began a translation of the Aeneid. Keats, who was barely five feet tall, was not know at school for his enthusiasm for books, but his fighting. "My mind has been the most discontented and restless one that ever was put into a body too small for it," he wrote. 1811 Keats was apprenticed to a surgeon-apothecary. While studying for the licence, he completed his translation of Aeneid. Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene impressed him deeply and his first poem, written in 1814, was 'Lines in Imitation of Spenser.' In that year he moved to London and resumed his surgical studies in 1815 as a student at Guy's hospital. Next year he became a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries and was allowed to practice surgery. Before devoting himself entirely to poetry, Keats worked as a dresser and junior house surgeon. In London he had met Leigh Hunt, the editor of the leading liberal magazine of the day, The Examiner. He introduced Keats to other young Romantics, including Shelley, and published in the magazine Keats's sonnet, 'O Solitude'.
Keats's first book, Poems, was published in 1817. Sales were poor. He spent the spring with his brother Tom and friends at Shankin. It was about this time Keats started to use his letters as the vehicle of his thoughts of poetry. They mixed the everyday events of his own life with comments with his correspondence. Among others T.S. Eliot considered the letters in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933) "certainly the most notable and most important ever written by any English poet," but also said about Keats's famous Hyperion: "it contains great lines, but I do not know whether it is a great poem." The first of his famous letters Keats wrote to Benjamin Bailey on November 22, 1817. "You perhaps at one time thought there was such thing as Worldly Happiness to be arrived at, at certain periods of time marked out - you have necessity from your disposition been thus led away - I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness". Endymion, Keats's first long poem appeared, when he was 21. It told in 4000 lines of the love of the moon goddess Cynthia for the young shepherd Endymion. It was attacked among others by John Wilson Croker and John Gibson Lochard, who wrote in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine: '... it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with "old Tartary the fierce;" no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or feeling of classical poetry or classical history, could have stooped to profane and vulgarize every association in the manner which has been adopted by this "son of promise."' Although the critical reaction was lukewarm, Keats was not discouraged by it, but wrote to Richard Woodhouse: "I am ambitious of doing the world some good: if I should be spared that may be the work of mature years - in the interval I will assay to reach to as high a summit in Poetry as the nerve bestowed upon me will suffer." Keats's greatest works were written in the late 1810s, among them Lamia, The Eve of St. Agnes, the great odes and two versions of Hyperion. He worked briefly as a theatrical critic for The Champion, spent summer of 1818 touring the Lakes, Scotland and Northern Ireland. During his journey, which he made with his friend Charles Brown, a businessman, he vowed: "I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever." After returning to London he spent the next three months attending his brother Tom, who was seriously ill with tuberculosis.
After Tom's death in December, Keats moved to Hampstead to live with Charles Brown. Soon he fell in love with Fanny Brown, the daughter of a widowed neighbor, and they were betrothed. In the winter of 1818-19 he worked mainly on Hyperion and The Eve of St Agnes. The fragmentary Eve of St Mark were composed during a visit to his friend Charles Wentworth Dilke's parents and relatives in Sussex. In 1819 Keats finished Lamia, and wrote another version of Hyperion, called The Fall of Hyperion. His famous poem 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' was inspired by a Wedgwood copy of a Roman copy of a Greek vase. Josiah Wedgwood's copy was purchased by Sir William Hamilton, who sold it to the duchess of Portland. She denoted the vase to the British Museum in 1784.
In 1820 appeared the second volume of Keats poems. It gained a huge critical success. However, Keats was suffering at that time from tuberculosis. His poems were marked with sadness partly because he was too poor to marry Fanny Brawne. Keats broke off his engagement and began what he called a "posthumous existence." In a letter from 1819 he had written. "I love you more in that I believe you have liked me for my own sake and nothing else. I have met with women whom I relay think would like to be married to a Poem and given away by a Novel." When his condition gradually worsened, he sailed for Italy in September with the painter Joseph Severn, to escape England's cold winter. Declining Shelley's invitation to join him at Pisa, Keats went to Rome, where he took up residence in rooms overlooking the Piazza di Spagna. He died in Rome at the age of 25, on February 23, 1821, and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery. Keats did not invent his own epitaph, but remembered words from the play Philaster, or Love Lies-Ableeding, written by Beaumont and Fletcher in 1611. "All your better deeds / Shall be in water writ," one of the characters says. Keats told his friend Joseph Severn that he wanted on his grave just the line, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."
In spite of early harsh criticism, Keats's reputation grew after his death. The poet's letters were published in 1848 and 1878. Keats's works have influenced among others The Pre-Raphaelites, Oscar Wilde and Alfred Tennyson. Some later poets have attacked Keats and the Romantics: for T.S. Eliot Byron was "a disorderly mind, and an uninteresting one" and Keats and Shelley were "not nearly such great poets as they are supposed to be". Andrew Motion claims in his biography on Keats (1998) that the author was obsessed with sex and had venereal disease and these aspects of the poets life were hidden by early biographers, who underlined Keats's poverty, poor health, and misunderstanding criticism.
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