John Keats was born on October 31, 1795, on the northern outskirts of London. His father was Thomas Keats, manager of the Swan and Hoop, a livery stable, and his mother was Frances Jennings, the daughter of the proprietor of the stables. In 1803, Keats entered John Clarke's school in Enfield, about ten miles from London. Clarke was a liberal and his influence may have contributed to Keats' political development. The school, surprisingly, had a wider curriculum than such prestigious public schools as Eton. There were about seventy-five boys in attendance. Its rural location may have fostered Keats' love of nature. John was popular with the other boys and won a reputation as an able fighter, in spite of his small size, but was not outstanding as a scholar.
On April 15, 1804, John's father was thrown from a horse and died from a skull fracture. His mother then married a bank clerk whom she soon left. Her second husband sold the stables and the four Keats children were left without a home.
In March 1805, John's grandfather died, leaving the children without a male protector. The mother seems to have dropped out of their lives, and so their grandmother, Mrs. Jennings, took them into her house. Their mother reappeared in 1808, but died of tuberculosis in 1810. After his mother's death, Keats developed a love of reading, including the thrillers popular in his time. In his last two or three terms at Enfield he won several prizes and even began a prose translation of Virgil's Aeneid. At this time he made a friend of Cowden Clarke, eight years his senior, who had been his tutor in his first years at Enfield. Clarke was instrumental in fostering a love of music and poetry in Keats.
Possibly because he had watched his mother die, Keats decided to become a doctor and, in 1811, when he reached the age of sixteen, he was apprenticed to a Dr. Hammond. Not until he was eighteen did he become deeply interested in poetry. It was apparently Cowden Clarke's lending Keats a copy of Spenser's Faerie Queene that furnished the stimulus. His first poem was an imitation of Spenser. Keats has often been compared to Spenser in his richness of description.
In 1815, Keats ended his apprenticeship with Dr. Hammond and matriculated at Guy's Hospital for one term (six months). In the beginning, Keats was an industrious student, but in the spring of 1816, he seems to have begun to lose his interest in medicine in favor of poetry. However, he passed his examinations in July 1816, and was qualified to practice as an apothecary and a surgeon.
At this time Keats renewed his friendship with Clarke, met another young poet, John Hamilton Reynolds, and was introduced to the essayist, journalist, and poet Leigh Hunt, who was impressed by the poetry Keats had written so far. His friendship with Hunt was to have an important effect on his life. Hunt deepened his interest in poetry and made him a liberal in politics. His association with Hunt, however, who was a well-known liberal, brought upon him the hostility of the influential Tory critics.
Early in 1817, Keats gave up medicine for poetry. His career at Guy's Hospital had been a successful one, but his fascination with poetry was stronger, and he had proved, at least to his own satisfaction, that he could write poetry. His modest inheritance would support him, he thought, until he had made his way in poetry. His first volume, published by Shelley's publisher, Oilier, appeared March 3, 1817. It was a mediocre achievement, but it contained "Chapman's Homer." An acute critic should have been able to see, at least on the basis of this one poem, that the author showed promise, but unfortunately no acute and influential critic appeared as Keats' champion. The volume went almost unnoticed. The many new friends he had made since coming to London — Keats had a gift for friendship — were hopeful, but there was little they could do.
Keats now decided to try his hand at a long poem. The result was Endymion, an involved romance in the Elizabethan style, in which a mortal, the shepherd Endymion, was wedded to the goddess Diana and won immortal bliss. Keats worked on it from April to November 1817, and it appeared in April 1818. Before the year was over, Endymion was harshly reviewed in Blackwood's Magazine and the Quarterly Review. These reviews effectively stopped the sales of the volume. Endymion, it must be said, while containing many good lines and passages, is not a good poem, but worse poems now forgotten have won fame and financial rewards for their authors. If Endymion had been written by a respected Tory poet, it might have been hailed as a fine poem by Blackwood's and the Quarterly. Keats' politics happened to be the wrong ones in 1818.
An important change in Keats' life was a walking tour that he took through the Lake Country, up into Scotland, and a short trip to Ireland, with one of his friends, Charles Brown, in the summer of 1818. The trip lasted from June to August and reached its terminus in Cromarty, Scotland. The walking tour broadened Keats' acquaintance with his environment and with varieties of people. The hardships which Keats and Brown had to endure, often spending the night on the mud floor of a shepherd's hut, may have weakened Keats' constitution and shortened his life. In Inverness, he developed a sore throat and decided to return to London by boat. The trip itself produced very little poetry.
In September, Keats began a new long poem, Hyperion, which he never finished. The blank verse of Hyperion revealed that Keats had become a first-class poet. His firm control of language in Hyperion is truly astonishing. Endymion and Hyperion could have been the work of two different poets.
During the last months of 1818, Keats nursed his brother Tom, who had been stricken with tuberculosis. Tom died on December 1 at the age of nineteen. The three months which Keats spent nursing his brother exposed the already weakened poet to tuberculosis, and, by the spring of 1819, he showed many of the symptoms of the disease — depression, hoarseness, insomnia, and an ulcerated sore throat.
In April and May of 1819, Keats experienced a burst of energy and wrote "Ode to Psyche," "Ode on Melancholy," "Ode on a Grecian Urn "and "Ode on Indolence." In January he wrote his most perfect narrative poem, The Eve of St. Agnes.
Keats' future was now a problem. He was running out of money — and was in love with a lively and lovely girl, Fanny Brawne. He thought of becoming a ship's surgeon. His friend Brown, who had written a successful play, suggested that they write a tragedy together that might be a financial success. As Keats needed solitude for a lengthy work, on June 27 he left for the Isle of Wight, where he had begun Endymion. Brown joined him there and supplied the plot while Keats supplied the words. They spent the summer of 1819 working on Otho the Great. During this summer, Keats also wrote his lengthy narrative poem Lamia, which he hoped would prove popular. Unfortunately, neither of the legitimate theaters, Drury Lane and Covent Garden, would take a chance on Otho, which was a decidedly mediocre work, but not worse than some other plays staged by these two theaters.
After this summer Keats accomplished very little. He worked at Hyperion now and then, began a new play (King Stephen), began a satire, and wrote his superb "To Autumn." He had very little money left and he was filled with anxieties, but nevertheless he and Fanny Brawne became secretly engaged. In February 1820, Keats had a hemorrhage in his lungs; he began to cough blood and soon became an invalid.
Keats' third and last volume of poetry came out July 1, 1820, when he was staying with the Hunts and recovering from another hemorrhage. Gradually the volume began to receive favorable reviews, including one in the influential Edinburgh Review. Nevertheless the volume sold slowly. Keats did not begin to receive attention as a poet until after the romantic period was over.
On the advice of two doctors, Keats decided to go to Italy, a trip that was often a last resort when one was stricken with tuberculosis. John Taylor, who had published Keats' last volume put up the money for the Italian trip. The expected sales of the Lamia volume were the security for the loan.
Keats sailed from London on September 17, 1820, and arrived in Naples almost a month later. From there, he travelled to Rome, where he rented an apartment overlooking the famous "Spanish Steps." There, attended by his painter friend Joseph Severn, he entered the last stages of tuberculosis and died on February 23, 1821. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome near the stately Pyramid of Caius Cestius. On his tombstone appears, at his own request, the words "Here lies one whose name was writ in water." The thousands of visitors who read these words every year are eloquent proof of how greatly he underestimated his poetic achievement.