|Keats, john (1795-1821)|
poet, one of the most gifted and appealing of the 19th century and an
influential figure of the romantic movement (see Romanticism).
Keats was born in London, October 31, 1795, the son of a livery-stable owner. He was educated at the Clarke School, Enfield, and at the age of 15 was apprenticed to a surgeon. Subsequently, from 1814 to 1816, Keats studied medicine in London hospitals; in 1816 he became a licensed druggist but never practiced his profession, deciding instead to be a poet.
Keats had already written a translation of Aeneid and some verse by Virgil; his first published poems (1816) were the sonnets "Oh, Solitude if I with Thee Must Dwell" and "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer." Both poems appeared in the Examiner, a literary periodical edited by the essayist and poet Leigh Hunt, one of the champions of the romantic movement in English literature. Hunt introduced Keats to a circle of literary people, including the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley; the group's influence enabled Keats to see his first volume published, Poems by John Keats (1817). The principal poems in the volume were the sonnet on Chapman's Homer, the sonnet "To One Who Has Been Long in City Pent," "I Stood Tip-Toe upon a Little Hill," and "Sleep and Poetry," which defended the principles of romanticism as promulgated by Hunt and attacked the practice of romanticism as represented by the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron.
Keats's second volume, Endymion, was published in 1818. Based upon the myth of Endymion and the moon goddess, it was attacked by two of the most influential critical magazines of the time, the Quarterly Review and Blackwood's Magazine. Calling the romantic verse of Hunt's literary circle "the Cockney school of poetry," Blackwood's declared Endymion to be nonsense and recommended that Keats give up poetry.
In 1820 Keats became ill with tuberculosis. The illness may have been aggravated by the emotional strain of his attachment to Fanny Brawne, a young woman with whom he had fallen passionately in love. Nevertheless, the period from 1818 to 1820 was one of great creativity. In July 1820, the third and best of his volumes of poetry, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems, was published. The three title poems, dealing with mythical and legendary themes of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance times, are rich in imagery and phrasing. The volume also contains the unfinished poem "Hyperion," containing some of Keats's finest work, the lyric masterpiece "To Autumn" and three odes considered among the finest in the English language, "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode on Melancholy," and "Ode to a Nightingale."
In the fall of 1820, under his doctor's orders to seek a warm climate for the winter, Keats went to Rome. He died there February 23, 1821, and was buried in the Protestant cemetery. Some of his best-known poems were posthumously published, including "Eve of St. Mark" (1848) and "La belle dame sans merci" (The Beautiful Woman Without Mercy; first version pub. 1888). Keats's letters, praised by many critics as among the finest literary letters written in English, were published in their most complete form in 1931; a later edition appeared in 1960.
Although Keats's career was short and his output small, critics agree that he has a lasting place in the history of English and world literature. Characterized by exact and closely knit construction, sensual descriptions, and by force of imagination, his poetry gives transcendental value to the physical beauty of the world.