Bert Hornback looks at the work of this highly influential and much-loved Romantic poet. ...
"The only means of strengthening one's intellect is to make up one's mind about nothing, to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts. "
John Keats was born on 31 October 1795 in Moorgate, London, the son of a stableman. He lived happily, until 1804 when his father died of a fractured skull after falling from his horse. A year later, his grandfather died. His mother remarried shortly after, but soon left her new husband and went to live with Keats’ grandmother, taking her four children with her. It was in this period that Keats’ love of literature began. In 1810, his mother died of tuberculosis. It was a disease that would haunt him and his family, and John and his siblings were left in the custody of their grandmother, who then appointed two guardians to take care of the children. These guardians removed Keats from his old school to become a surgeon’s apprentice in an apothecary shop in Edmonton, North London.
After a fight with his master in 1814, Keats left his apprenticeship and became a student at Guy’s Hospital in London. During that year he devoted much of his time to the study of literature. Whilst visiting Winchester in 1819, he wrote Isabella, St Agnes’ Eve and Lamia, as well as parts of Hyperion and Otho The Great.
Following the death of his grandmother, Keats was entrusted with the care of his brother Tom, who was now suffering from tuberculosis. Upon finishing Endymion, Keats travelled to Scotland and Ireland to find work, but had to return prematurely after beginning to show early signs of tuberculosis. On returning, he found that Tom’s condition had deteriorated and he died soon after in 1818. Keats then moved to Hampstead, where he lived with his friend Charles Armitage Brown, with whom he had been travelling in Scotland and Ireland. It was whilst living in Hampstead that Keats met Fanny Brawne, who was staying next door with her mother. He quickly fell in love with her, although it was not an entirely happy affair, as his love for her seemed to bring him more displeasure than comfort. Fanny’s letters to Keats were destroyed after his death, as he had requested, but the correspondence that remained caused scandal amongst Victorian society.
Their relationship was cut short when, in 1820, Keats began showing more serious signs of tuberculosis - the disease that had killed his mother and brother. On his doctor’s advice, Keats moved to the warmer climate of Italy with his friend Joseph Severn, but his condition rapidly worsened and he died on 23 February 1821. The house in which he lived in Italy has since been made into a museum dedicated to his life and work. The Complete Poems of John Keats is published by Wordsworth Editions.
Keats’ last request was to be buried under a tombstone reading, ‘Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ in Water’, with no mention of his name. His friends Severn and Brown, however, also added, ‘This grave contains all that was mortal of a young English Poet, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone’, along with the image of a lyre with broken strings.
TITLES BY JOHN KEATS