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Sunday, 18 October 2015

John Keats


John Keats was born at the Swan and Hoop inn at Moorgate, London on October 31, 1795.  His father, Thomas Keats, worked as a hostler at the stables attached to the Swan and Hoop Inn, an establishment he later managed, and where the growing family lived for some years. The Globe pub now occupies the site, a few yards from the modern-day Moorgate station.

John had two brothers, Tom and George and a sister, Fanny. John was the oldest of the four and remained close to all of them.

As a boy Keats was not promising material. He was lazy, hot tempered and seemingly only interested in pranks.

The first seven years of John's life were happy. The beginnings of his troubles occurred in 1803, when his father died from a fractured skull after falling from his horse.

His mother, Frances Jennings, remarried soon afterwards, but she quickly left the new husband and moved herself and her children to live with Keats' grandmother.

John attended the liberal John Clarke’s School, Enfield, Middlesex,  whilst living with his grandmother. The school first instilled in him a love of literature.

When he was 14 his mother died of tuberculosis, leaving John and his siblings in the custody of their grandmother.

The grandmother appointed two guardians to take care of her new charges, and these guardians removed Keats from his old school to become a surgeon's apprentice.


The teenage John Keats started an apprenticeship with Thomas Hammond, a doctor and family friend in Edmonton, Middlesex in 1810.

Keats cancelled his fifth year as apprentice doctor and became a student at Guys Hospital. He qualified as a doctor with credit  the following year.

Keats devotedly nursed his younger brother Tom who was suffering from tuberculosis until he died on December 1, 1818.

Keats gives up medicine and became a full time poet to his guardian's dismay. in 1818. As a trainee doctor it was his job to hold down terrified patients whilst they had their limbs cut off. The sensitive apprentice recoiled from this and also refused to dissect bodies supplied by grave robbers.


Keats was introduced to the literature of Edmund Spenser by the headmaster's son at Clarkes. Spenser's works, particularly The Faerie Queene, was to prove a turning point in Keats' development as a poet; it was to inspire Keats to write his first poem, Imitation of Spenser in 1814, when he was 19.

Portrait of John Keats by William Hilton. National Portrait Gallery, London

By 1818, Keats felt called to poetry rather than medicine; a legacy from his grandmother influenced his decision.

Famed for his atmosphere of longing, Keats' poetry was a combination of Greek Spirit and English romanticism. He stated in letters to his friends that he wished to be a "chameleon poet" and to resist the "egotistical sublime" of Wordsworth's writing.

Keats habitually scribbled verses on bits of paper then hid them. After his death, a friend searched his house from top to bottom to retrieve them.

When down in the dumps and not really in the mood for writing, Keats found getting changed into something smart often changed his mood.

Keats grew the nail of his little finger into the shape of a pen nib.

The radical Leigh Hunt’s liberal journal The Examiner was a kind of Bible for Keats. On May 5, 1816, Hunt agreed to publish Keats' sonnet "O Solitude" in his magazine. It was the first appearance in print of Keats's poetry.

First published in 1818, Endymion is a poem by John Keats based on the Greek myth of Endymion, the shepherd beloved by the moon goddess Selene. Endymion was harshly reviewed by some critics due to Keats' friendship with the radical Leigh Hunt.

Hyperionis is an abandoned epic poem by Keats, which is considered by some to be his greatest work. It is based on the Titanomachia, and tells of the despair of the Titans after their fall to the Olympians. Keats wrote the poem from late 1818 until the spring of 1819,  when he gave it up as having "too many Miltonic inversions."

Ode to A Nightingale was written by Keats in May 1819. It was inspired by the song of a nightingale that had built its nest near his home. The poem was found by Keats' friend, Charles Armitage Brown, hidden away in his house scribbled on a bit of paper.

The final volume Keats lived to see, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems, was published in July 1820. The collection contains To Autumn, which was composed by Keats after a walk near Winchester one autumnal evening. In a 1995 BBC poll, listeners voted To Autumn as the sixth most popular poem of all time

Lamia marked the end of Keats poetic career, as he needed to earn money and could no longer devote himself to the lifestyle of a poet.. It received greater acclaim than had his previous collections and would come to be recognized as one of the most important poetic works ever published.

Bright Star was Keats' last poem. He scribbled the love sonnet on the blank pages of his copy of Shakespeare.

His poems were not generally well received by critics during Keats' lifetime and he was attacked by many as a "cockney poet." Byron rudely said of him, "There is no bearing the drivelling idiotism of the mankin."

Keats' reputation grew after his death, and by the end of the nineteenth century, he had become one of the most beloved of all English poets.


Keats was only 5 ft tall, which he was self conscious about. He had an unusually small head but was handsome with reddish hair.

Keats was a kind, easygoing, generous, humorous person. He was nicknamed “Junkets” because of his clipped cockney accent with which he pronounced his name.

In 1819 Keats fell hopelessly in love with his widowed neighbor's oldest daughter, Fanny Browne,(1800-65).  The feelings were not totally  reciprocated but she mourned Keats for several years after his death and wore an engagement ring from 1819 to many years afterwards. She married in 1833.
The later (posthumous) publication of their correspondence was to scandalise Victorian society.


Keats home when he was living with his grandmother was on  Lived Lamb Street, Edmonton.

John Keats moved in 1818 to the newly built Wentworth Place, owned by his friend Charles Armitage Brown.  A quiet white regency building when he moved in, Keats took the front parlour of Brown’s half of Wentworth Place, where he lived for the next seventeen months. The other half was taken by Mrs Browne and her children, including her oldest child Fanny.

Wentworth Place, now the Keats House museum (left), Ten Keats Grove (right)

Keats wrote Ode to a Nightingale in the garden at Wentworth Place besides a plum tree on a May evening.

His final home where he died was 26 Piazza de Spagna, Rome, a pale yellow building ran as a boarding house by a rather fearsome landlady, Anna Angeletti.


 In his early teenage years Keats acquired a passion for reading. He seldom traveled without his "Great Works of Shakespeare."

Keats loved music, In 1816 he wrote to a friend "but many days have past since last my heart was warm'd luxuriously by divine Mozart. By Arne delighted. Or by the song of Erin pierced and Sadden'd."

Keats loved cats and was very empathetic with animals. He once boasted about his capacity to enter the thought processes of a sparrow hopping on a window sill. "If a sparrow comes before my window, I take part in its existence & pick about the gravel."

In 1818, while on a walking tour of Scotland, Keats managed 600 miles in a month, always rising before dawn in order to complete 26 miles before noon.

This walking tour included climbing Ben Nevis, the ascent of which he compared to "mounting ten St Paul's without the convenience of a staircase." Keats originally planned on walking all the way to John O' Groats but caught a throat infection on the Isle of Mull which forced him to turn back.


Keats' medical training meant he recognized straight away his tuberculosis condition. He knew it couldn't be cured so it would have to be endured. He said "I know the color of that blood! It is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived by that color. That drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die."

Keats' walking tour of Scotland in 1818 increased his tubercular tendency as did his tormented love for Fanny Browne  and the hurtfully bad reviews Endymion had obtained.

He also suffered from syphilis for which he took mercury.

John Keats, arrived in Rome in November 1820 with his devoted friend, the portrait artist Joseph Severn, hoping the warmer climate would help his ailing health. Death was on his mind; he wrote in one letter, "Is there another life? Shall I awake and find all this a dream? There must be, we cannot be created for this sort of suffering?"

Keats suffered a violent relapse a month later and the poet tried to commit suicide. Severn devoted all his time to him reading aloud and playing soothing music.


On the poet's deathbed, Joseph Severn played Haydn's sonatas on a hired pianoforte to the ailing poet. As the frail poet lay dying you could hear the phlegm boil in his throat.

John Keats died on February 23, 1821 clasping Joseph Severn’s hand saying "I shall die easy. Don't be frightened. Thank God it has come."

Shortly after his death, surgeons carried out an autopsy on Keats and found his lungs were completely destroyed. They were amazed he had lived for so long.

Keats was buried at the Protestant Cemetery outside Rome, at Porta San Paulo, with Fanny's love letters clasped inside his coffin. His last request was to be placed under a tombstone bearing no name or date, only the words, "Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water."

Keats's grave in Rome. By Piero Montesacro  CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia Commons

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