John Keats – profile


John Keats


John Keats (1795-1821), major English poet, despite his early death from tuberculosis at the age of 25. Keats’s poetry describes the beauty of the natural world and art as the vehicle for his poetic imagination. His skill with poetic imagery and sound reproduces this sensuous experience for his reader. Keats’s poetry evolves over his brief career from this love of nature and art into a deep compassion for humanity. He gave voice to the spirit of Romanticism in literature when he wrote, “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections, and the truth of imagination.” Twentieth-century poet T. S. Eliot judged Keats’s letters to be 'the most notable and the most important ever written by any English Poet,” for their acute reflections on poetry, poets, and the imagination.


Keats was born in north London, England. He was the eldest son of Thomas Keats, who worked at a livery stable, and Frances (Jennings) Keats. The couple had three other sons, one of whom died in infancy, and a daughter. Thomas Keats died in 1804, as a result of a riding accident. Frances Keats died in 1810 of tuberculosis, the disease that also took the lives of her three sons.

From 1803 to 1811 Keats attended school. Toward the end of his schooling, he began to read widely and even undertook a prose translation of the Aeneid from the Latin. After he left school at the age of 16, Keats was apprenticed to a surgeon for four years. During this time his interest in poetry grew. He wrote his first poems in 1814 and passed his medical and druggist examinations in 1816.


In May 1816 Keats published his first poem, the sonnet 'O Solitude,’ marking the beginning of his poetic career. In writing a sonnet, a 14-line poem with a strict rhyme scheme, Keats sought to take his place in the tradition established by great classical, European, and British epic poets. The speaker of this poem first expresses hope that, if he is to be alone, it will be in “Nature’s Observatory”; he then imagines the “highest bliss” to be writing poetry in nature rather than simply observing nature. In another sonnet published the same year, 'On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,’ Keats compares reading translations of poetry to awe-inspiring experiences such as an astronomer discovering a new planet or explorers first seeing the Pacific Ocean. In “Sleep and Poetry,” a longer poem from 1816, Keats articulates the purpose of poetry as he sees it: “To soothe the cares, and lift the thoughts of man.” Within a year of his first publications Keats had abandoned medicine, turned exclusively to writing poetry, and entered the mainstream of contemporary English poets. By the end of 1816 he had met poet and journalist Leigh Hunt, editor of the literary magazine that published his poems. He had also met the leading romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

“Endymion,” written between April and November 1817 and published the following year, is thought to be Keats’s richest although most unpolished poem. In the poem, the mortal hero Endymion’s quest for the goddess Cynthia serves as a metaphor for imaginative longing—the poet’s quest for a muse, or divine inspiration.

Following “Endymion,” Keats struggled with his assumptions about the power of poetry and philosophy to affect the suffering he saw in life. In June of 1818, John Keats went on a physically demanding walking tour of England’s Lake District and Scotland, perhaps in search of inspiration for an epic poem. His journey was cut short by the illness of his brother Tom. Keats returned home and nursed his brother through the final stages of tuberculosis. He threw himself into writing the epic “Hyperion,” he wrote to a friend, to ease himself of Tom’s “countenance, his voice and feebleness.’

An epic is a long narrative poem about a worthy hero, written in elevated language; this was the principal form used by great poets before Keats. The subject of “Hyperion” is the fall of the primeval Greek gods, who are dethroned by the Olympians, a newer order of gods led by Apollo. Keats used this myth to represent history as the story of how grief and misery teach humanity compassion. The poem ends with the transformation of Apollo into the god of poetry, but Keats left the poem unfinished. His abandonment of the poem suggests that Keats was ready to return to a more personal theme: the growth of a poet’s mind. Keats later described the poem as showing 'false beauty proceeding from art’ rather than 'the true voice of feeling.’ Tom’s death in December 1818 may have freed Keats from the need to finish “Hyperion.”

Two other notable developments took place in Keats’s life in the latter part of 1818. First, “Endymion,” published in April, received negative reviews by the leading literary magazines. Second, Keats fell in love with spirited, 18-year-old Fanny Brawne. Keats’s passion for Fanny Brawne is perhaps evoked in 'The Eve of St. Agnes,’ written in 1819 and published in 1820. In this narrative poem, a young man follows an elaborate plan to woo his love and wins her heart.

Keats’s great creative outpouring came in April and May of 1819, when he composed a group of five odes. The loose formal requirements of the ode—a regular metrical pattern and a shift in perspective from stanza to stanza—allowed Keats to follow his mind’s associations. Literary critics rank these works among the greatest short poems in the English language. Each ode begins with the speaker focusing on something—a nightingale, an urn, the goddess Psyche, the mood of melancholy, the season of autumn—and arrives at his greater insight into what he values.

In “Ode to a Nightingale,” the nightingale’s song symbolizes the beauty of nature and art. Keats was fascinated by the difference between life and art: Human beings die, but the art they make lives on. The speaker in the poem tries repeatedly to use his imagination to go with the bird’s song, but each time he fails to completely forget himself. In the sixth stanza he suddenly remembers what death means, and the thought of it frightens him back to earth and his own humanity.

In 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,’ the bride and bridegroom painted on the Grecian urn do not die. Their love can never fade, but neither can they kiss and embrace. At the end of the poem, the speaker sees the world of art as cold rather than inviting.

The last two odes, 'Ode on Melancholy’ and 'To Autumn,” show a turn in Keats’s ideas about life and art. He celebrates “breathing human passion” as more beautiful than either art or nature.

John Keats never lived to write the poetry of 'the agonies, the strife of human hearts’ to which he aspired. Some scholars suggest that his revision of “Hyperion,” close to the end of his life, measures what he learned about poetry. In the revision, 'The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream,’ Keats boldly makes the earlier poem into the story of his own quest as poet. In a dream, the poem’s speaker must pass through death to enter a temple that receives only those who cannot forget the miseries of the world. Presiding over the shrine is Moneta, a prophetess whose face embodies many of the opposites that had long haunted Keats’s imagination—death and immortality, stasis and change, humankind’s goodness and darkness. The knowledge Moneta gives him defines John Keats’s new mission and burden as a poet.

After September 1819, Keats produced little poetry. His money troubles, always pressing, became severe. Keats and Fanny Brawne became engaged, but with little prospect of marriage. In February 1820, Keats had a severe hemorrhage and coughed up blood, beginning a year that he called his “posthumous existence.” He did manage to prepare a third volume of poems for the press, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems.

In September 1820, Keats sailed to Italy, accompanied by a close friend. The last months of his life there were haunted by the prospect of death and the memory of Fanny Brawne.

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