The son of a livery stable keeper, Keats attended school at Enfield, where he became the friend of Charles Cowden Clarke, the headmaster's son, who encouraged his early learning. Apprenticed to a surgeon (1811), Keats came to know Leigh Hunt and his literary circle, and in 1816 he gave up surgery to write poetry. His first volume of poems appeared in 1817. It included
I stood tip-toe upon a little hill,
Sleep and Poetry, and the famous sonnet
On First Looking into Chapman's Homer.
Endymion, a long poem, was published in 1818. Although faulty in structure, it is nevertheless full of rich imagery and color. Keats returned from a walking tour in the Highlands to find himself attacked in Blackwood's Magazine —an article berated him for belonging to Leigh Hunt's
Cockney school of poetry—and in the Quarterly Review. The critical assaults of 1818 mark a turning point in Keats's life; he was forced to examine his work more carefully, and as a result the influence of Hunt was diminished. However, these attacks did not contribute to Keats's decline in health and his early death, as Shelley maintained in his elegy
Keats's passionate love for Fanny Brawne seems to have begun in 1818. Fanny's letters to Keats's sister show that her critics' contention that she was a cruel flirt was not true. Only Keats's failing health prevented their marriage. He had contracted tuberculosis, probably from nursing his brother Tom, who died in 1818. With his friend, the artist Joseph Severn , Keats sailed for Italy shortly after the publication of Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820), which contains most of his important work and is probably the greatest single volume of poetry published in England in the 19th cent. He died in Rome in Feb., 1821, at the age of 25.
In spite of his tragically brief career, Keats is one of the most important English poets. He is also among the most personally appealing. Noble, generous, and sympathetic, he was capable not only of passionate love but also of warm, steadfast friendship. Keats is ranked, with Shelley and Byron , as one of the three great Romantic poets. Such poems as
Ode to a Nightingale,
Ode on a Grecian Urn,
To Autumn, and
Ode on Melancholy are unequaled for dignity, melody, and richness of sensuous imagery. All of his poetry is filled with a mysterious and elevating sense of beauty and joy.
Keats's posthumously published pieces include
La Belle Dame sans Merci, in its way as great an evocation of romantic medievalism as his
The Eve of St. Agnes. Among his sonnets, familiar ones are
When I have fears that I may cease to be and
Bright star! would I were as steadfast as thou art.
Lines on the Mermaid Tavern,
Bards of Passion and of Mirth are delightful short poems.
Some of Keats's finest work is in the unfinished epic
Hyperion. In recent years critical attention has focused on Keats's philosophy, which involves not abstract thought but rather absolute receptivity to experience. This attitude is indicated in his celebrated term
negative capability —
to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thought.
Keats's letters (ed. by H. E. Rollins, 1958) vividly reveal his character, opinions, and feelings. See his poetical works, ed. and annotated by M. Allott (1970) and ed. by J. Stillinger (1978); his autobiography, ed. by E. V. Weller (1933); biographies by A. Ward (1963), W. J. Bate (1963, repr. 1979), R. Gittings (1968), A. Motion (1998), and N. Roe (2012); account of his last days by J. E. Walsh (2000); D. Gigante, The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George (2011); studies by W. J. Bate (1945), M. Dickstein (1971), D. van Ghent (1983), S. Plumly (2008), and D. Beachy-Quick (2013).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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