In this section of the website we delve into the life of John Keats and try to understand why and how this great poet ROCKS!
Keats has been hailed as the archetype of the Romantic poet as he lived and died in true Romantic style, trying to experience everything, suffering for his art and dying young.
Keats life was filled with tragedy from a young age and plagued his short life; all this experience and emotion can be seen in his poetry. I hope for this biography to be helpful to all who view it and that it helps give Keats readers some contextual and trivial facts that they can then go on to apply to his fantasmagorical (Jo’s word) poet.
John Keats was born in October 31st 1795 (it was considered most probable to be the 31st as Keats never admitted his date of birth; he hated celebrating it each year) in London. He was the son of Thomas Keats, a livery worker, and Frances Jennings Keats, the eldest of four children. The story of how Keats’ parents got together is an interesting one for it is believed that Frances Jennings eloped with Thomas Keats. She was the daughter of Thomas Keats’ employer and they ran away; luckily her parents had a forgivable nature and accepted the marriage and let John Keats keep his job as a livery worker.
Family life was quite normal; the Keats had three more sons George, Thomas and Edward (who died in infancy) and one daughter called Frances. In 1803 Keats went away to a school in Enfield called John Clarke’s. In 1804 his father was killed in a work related accident; he fell from a horse. Two months after her husband’s death, Frances Keats remarried a London bank clerk called William Rawlings, although this action she quickly regretted and left taking nothing with her because by law everything now belonged to her new husband; even her children. Luckily for the Keats children their grandmother (Frances mother) took custody of the children but was unable to save any of the family’s property as it now belonged to Rawlings, Rawlings sold the property quickly and disappeared soon after. At this stage in his life John had only experienced the tip of the iceberg that was to become is tragic life. John began to act out and was continuously involved in fistfights which he rarely lost even though he was rather small for his age.
Keats never grew any taller than a couple of inches above 5ft tall. This distressed Keats sometimes as it annoyed him that his younger brother George, who towered over him, would be mistaken for the older sibling.
In 1809 Frances Keats suddenly reappeared. She was ill and suffering from depression, and this was believed to be because of the many years she had spent travelling around and relying on the kindness of strangers (it was believed that Frances became a prostitute of sorts in order to support herself after she left Rawlings). John was pleased to see his mother again and began to nurse her devotedly. However it soon became clear that she was suffering from consumption (tuberculosis, which was considered to be the most ‘Romantic’ disease). She died in 1810; interestingly a year after her brother had died of the same disease. John was crushed by the death of his mother and his aggressive behaviour changed into a passion to study. A year later one of Keats’ legal guardians took him aside and asked him what would he like to do for a profession. This was a question that Keats had already considered and told his guardian the conclusion he had come to, was that he wanted to become a surgeon. He was then made apprentice to a surgeon/ apothecary called Thomas Hammond. It was in 1813 when Keats first began to read lyric poetry, mainly works by Sir Edmund Spenser. It also marked the period in his life when he began to rebel against Hammond. In 1814 his grandmother died and the family was split up as it was considered improper in society for younger sisters to live unaccompanied with older brothers. Frances was sent to live with Kids’ another finical guardian of the Keats family. The two other brothers were sent to work. Keats at this stage in his life almost isolated himself; he kept himself to himself and would write rather sorrowful poetry.
Keats when he became a published poet collected every scrap of paper containing his earlier poems and burnt them as he considered them to be awful.
Even with his interest in poetry Keats continued working hard on his studies in becoming a surgeon/ apothecary where he worked so hard that he began to jump ahead of the curriculum. In 1814 he wrote his first poem; ‘Lines in Limitation of Spenser’. In the same year Keats continued his surgical studies in Guy’s Hospital as a student and 1816 he became a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries. At this point his love of poetry became his main ambition and his surgical career was left behind. Also in this year he meets the editor of a liberal paper ‘The Examiner who was Leigh Hunt who became a great friend of Keats. Keats’ first published poem was called ‘Ode to Solitude’ which was published in The Examiner’. It is said that Keats wanted his poetry published for financial reasons. The poem was received as being acceptable and a good attempt, but it wasn’t till later in the year when his poem ‘On First Looking on Chapman’s Homer,’ that his potential and talent as a poet was known and it gave him the reputation as the poet to watch.
His first book of poetry appeared 3rd March 1817, although the book didn’t actually sell very well. John was depressed by this but kept writing. Percy Shelley (his friend) then challenged Keats to an epic poetry competition over the summer. For the competition Keats wrote Endymion, although Keats didn’t finish the poem within the time limit so technically Shelley won the competition. Keats was now the sought after poet in London and his life became a whirl of parties and dances, even though Keats didn’t like crowds very much.
In June of 1818 Keats became paranoid that he only had another three years to live; he knew he would die from tuberculosis. He spent most of this summer touring Scotland and its lakes. Also by now he had already written his most famous poems and he felt that he still hadn’t reached his peak and left a big enough mark in the literary world. His brother George now announces that he is immigrating to Illinois with his new wife. His other brother Thomas at the same time begins to show signs of suffering from consumption and Keats was needed to take care of him. John moved with his brother to Hampstead. And to add more pressure and emotion into Keats’ life he had just fallen in love with a young woman called Frances Brawne (aka Fanny- and if you can say this name without giggling like a little child or can keep a straight face then I’m very impressed). This depressed and overwhelmed him as most situations did in his life, because he realized that he was too poor to marry Fanny. He also didn’t really believe in the institution of marriage as he thought it would stunt his creativity and that he would become domesticated, which meant there wasn’t really much of a future in any romance with Fanny. Keats tried to loose himself in his latest poem Hyperion.
When Keats became ill he was unable to have any physical contact with Fanny, so they would send letters to each other and would see each other through glass screens.
Tom died in December 1818. John had nursed him throughout the illness. John should have received £500 from Tom’s estate but Abbey, another guardian, decreed that Keats was unable to get the money until his sister Francis had turned 21. It turned out that Abbey had in fact taken nearly £1000 from Keats’ grandmother’s estate, although this did not come out until about a year after Keats’ death. To make matters worse his brother George, who by now had moved to America, had squandered his money on gambling and was in desperate need of financial aid from John to pay off his gambling debts. To try and get some money for himself and his brother, he persuaded his publisher to issue another volume of his poetry, but this wasn’t exactly a success. Even with no money himself, he gave George any money that was left over from the family’s estate. Keats was now dependent on his friends, people like Leigh Hunt (who had got married and settled down) and Charles Brown. In early 1820 Keats was showing signs that he had developed consumption, coughing up blood. It was around this time that Charles began arrangements for sending Keats to Italy without Keats’ knowledge or consent. The reason Charles wanted to send his friend to Italy, was because of the warm climate which at the time was considered a cure for consumption. John did not want to go as he could not bear the thought of being parted from Fanny, but felt incapable of arguing with his friend. Keats left for Italy in September 1820 accompanied by his friend Joseph Severn (an artist). The journey to Rome was unbearable and no doubt affected Keats and made the illness worse. They were also, on arriving in Italy, quarantined for 12 days; they were unable to dock and were forced to stay on the ship and continue living in the damp, cramped environment of the cabin. Once in Rome the two men lodged in a small apartment just above the Spanish steps. John was forbidden from writing poetry and was only allowed to read the dullest of books as they thought too much excitement would aggravate the illness. Keats became depressed again and refused to open any letters from Fanny as it only reminded him of how much he missed her and how he was unable to be with her. In December of that year Keats attempted to commit suicide by taking laudanum (a poison) but Severn was able to stop him. Later, Keats (in a delirious state from the consumption and starvation) would rant at Severn for trying to stop him and would even begin to accuse his friends of trying to poison him back in London.
During one of his rants at Severn Keats was offered some food which he did not get often- a plate of spaghetti. Because Keats was annoyed and wound up, he picked up the plate in a defiant act and threw it out the window where it landed on the Spanish steps.
On the 23rd of February 1821, Keats died. He was only 25 years old.
Fanny on hearing the news for a few weeks, appeared fine, but then suddenly fell ill. Later, after recovering from her illness she began to wear widow’s weeds. Keats requested that on his tombstone all that would be written was “Here Lies one whose name was writ in water”. However Charles Brown felt that this was too short and had this carved into the tombstone:
“This Grave contains all that was Mortal of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET Who on his Death Bed, in the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired these Words to be engraved on his Tomb Stone ‘Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water”
He was buried on the 26th February in the Protestant Cemetery. An autopsy was performed on him just before he was buried, showing that his lungs were completely destroyed and it was commented that it was a surprise that he had lasted this long.