English Literature
John Keats

John Keats

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John Keats: A Brief Account of His Life

What do you dream of in your mid-twenties? For most, it marks the beginning of life. However, John Keats accomplished so much in his short time on Earth. He was a skilled surgeon and a gifted poet who left a lasting impact on English literature. Let's dive deeper into his life, filled with personal tragedies.

Early Years

John Keats is renowned as one of the greatest Romantic poets, alongside famous names like William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron. He was born on October 31, 1795, to Thomas and Frances Jennings Keats. He was the eldest of five siblings, with three brothers and a sister. Sadly, his brother Edward passed away shortly after his birth. John, George, and Fanny Keats were the only ones who survived into adulthood.

John's father was the head livery stable-keeper at The Swan and Hoop Inn. When he married his employer's daughter, Frances, he took over as manager and later inherited the business. While there is no solid evidence, it is believed that John Keats was born in his grandfather's stable at The Swan and Hoop, now marked by a special blue plaque commemorating his birth.

Starting from the age of eight, John Keats attended a school in Enfield. He had a comfortable and secure upbringing until his father passed away from a head injury, leaving John and his siblings in the care of their grandmother, Alice Jennings. Sadly, their mother remarried soon after, and when John turned fifteen, she died of tuberculosis. Alice Jennings was their legal guardian, but due to her advanced age, she shared guardianship with Richard Abbey and John Sandell.

A Passion for Poetry

Amidst all the chaos in his personal life, John Keats flourished in school, finding solace and structure in his studies. He became close friends with Charles Cowden Clark, the headteacher's son, and was well-loved by his teachers. He even won an essay contest and translated Latin and Greek texts with ease.

In 1811, after leaving school, Keats became an apprentice to a local surgeon, Thomas Hammond. However, his love for literature continued to thrive, thanks to the Clarke family, who encouraged and nurtured his talent. They often engaged him in literary discussions and even lent him books from their library, including Edmund Spenser's 'The Faerie Queene' (1519). His former headteacher also introduced him to left-wing politics, providing him with copies of 'The Examiner,' a weekly magazine that promoted radical ideas and criticized the Prince Regent.

In 1814, John Keats' grandmother passed away, and his guardian, Richard Abbey, was not generous in distributing the siblings' inheritance. Frustrated with his situation, Keats qualified as an apothecary that summer and began working as a dresser, assisting with surgeries and setting bones.

Connections through Poetry

In October of 1816, Keats met Leigh Hunt, a poet and co-founder of 'The Examiner.' Hunt read Keats' poetry and offered feedback, and the two became close friends. Keats would often work as a dresser during the day and spend his evenings in Hunt's home, surrounded by other writers and artists like Percy Bysshe Shelley and Benjamin Robert Haydon. They even engaged in timed sonnet-writing competitions, resulting in works like Keats' 'On the Grasshopper and Cricket' (1816).

Working as an apothecary and pursuing his passion for writing proved to be exhausting for Keats. Just after his 21st birthday, he decided to leave his job at Guy's Hospital and focus solely on poetry.

Around this time, John Keats' brother, George, introduced him to George Felton Mathew, another poet. Though their friendship was brief, it was significant, and Keats dedicated the poem 'To George Felton Mathew' (1817) to him.

Unfortunately, Keats' first published collection of poetry in 1817 did not sell well and received negative reviews. The same fate befell his next work, 'Endymion' (1818), which was heavily criticized by figures like John Gibson Lockhart, who made personal attacks on Keats' background and mocked his writing style.

Sickness and Tragic End

In the winter of 1818, John Keats cared for his brother Tom, who was suffering from tuberculosis. On the 1st of December 1818, despite his best efforts to fight illness, John Keats tragically passed away.

The Life and Works of John Keats: A Tragic Love Story

John Keats, a renowned poet of the Romantic era, is best known for his beautiful and emotional poems. However, his life was marked by tragedy and loss, with his untimely death due to tuberculosis at only 25 years old.

Keats' tragic fate was likely due to his devotion to his brother Tom, who also succumbed to tuberculosis. It is believed that Keats contracted the disease while caring for him. After his brother's death, Keats was invited to live with his friend Charles Brown at Wentworth Place, where he met Fanny Brawne.

Fanny and Keats fell deeply in love, and their passionate yet tragic love story is reflected in the letters they wrote to each other. Despite their engagement, they never got married, and Fanny remained by Keats' side until the end. In 1819, often referred to as his 'Great Year,' Keats wrote some of his most celebrated poems, but he did not receive the literary recognition he deserved during his lifetime.

Although Keats' health had been deteriorating, it took a turn for the worse in 1820 when he began experiencing severe symptoms of tuberculosis, including lung hemorrhages. His doctor recommended a change of climate, and Keats traveled to Rome with his friend Joseph Severn. It was believed that the warmer weather would improve his condition.

In Rome, Keats underwent various treatments, including leaching and a starvation diet, which only weakened him further. After just a few months, the young poet succumbed to tuberculosis, joining his mother and brother who had also lost their lives to the disease.

The exact date of Keats' death is uncertain, with some sources saying it was on the 23rd of February at 11 pm, as supported by letters from that day. However, his gravestone bears the date of the 24th, which may be due to the Italian custom of attributing evening deaths to the following day.

Tuberculosis, also known as consumption, is a highly contagious bacterial infection that is spread through coughing and sneezing. It was a common and potentially life-threatening disease during the 19th century.

A Historical Context: John Keats' Life in 19th Century Britain

John Keats lived during a tumultuous time in British society, where the established order was constantly being challenged. The French Revolution, in particular, was a source of fear for the British monarchy, leading to trials for treason and executions.

Keats, in his first published poetry collection, openly supported Leigh Hunt, who had been jailed for slander. This decision marked a low point in Keats' poetic career as it was met with disapproval from many literary critics.

The Personal Influence on John Keats' Work

Keats' love for Fanny Brawne and his declining health likely influenced his famous poem 'La Belle Dame sans Merci' (1819). The Victorian belief that tuberculosis victims had a 'death-like' appearance may have also inspired the theme of this poem. Similarly, Keats himself passed away from tuberculosis, which was often referred to as 'consumption' at the time.

During his courtship with Fanny, Keats expressed jealousy towards the men she danced with and feared that her feelings for him were not as strong as his for her, much like the knight's experience with the fairy in his poem.

The Romantic Movement and John Keats

John Keats was part of the famous Romantic poets of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a period that celebrated human emotion, expression, individualism, and a connection with nature. In his poem 'On Autumn,' Keats captures the beauty of the season with its bountiful harvest and vibrant foliage in the English countryside, perfectly reflecting the characteristics of Romanticism.

Other renowned poets of the Romantic era include William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron, who shared similar beliefs and writing styles with Keats.

The Significant Friendships of John Keats

Keats formed several important friendships that greatly influenced and encouraged his poetic development. Among them were Percy Bysshe Shelley, Leigh Hunt, and George Felton Mathew. Interestingly, when Shelley's lifeless body was found, a copy of Keats' poetry was discovered in his pocket, helping to identify him.

A Timeline of John Keats' Life

  • 31st October 1795 - John Keats is born in the Moorgate area of London.
  • 1811 - Keats attends Enfield Academy.
  • 15th April 1804 - Keats' father passes away when he is nine years old.
  • 1804 - His mother remarries and leaves the family.
  • February 1810 - Keats' mother dies of tuberculosis when he is fifteen.

John Keats' apprenticeship with surgeon Thomas Hammond begins in 1811, and in December 1814, his grandmother passes away.

John Keats' Life and Poetry Journey

On October 1st, 1815, John Keats began his medical studies at Guy's Hospital. After officially qualifying as an apothecary on July 25th, 1816, he worked as a junior doctor, known as a dresser. However, when he turned 21, Keats left the medical field to pursue his passion for writing. In 1817, his first volume of poems called 'Poems' was published, followed by 'Endymion' in 1818. Unfortunately, the same year, Keats' brother Thomas passed away from tuberculosis. The year 1819, often referred to as Keats' "Great Year", marked the publishing of some of his finest works. However, on September 20th, 1820, on doctor's orders, Keats traveled to Rome, where he tragically died from tuberculosis in February 1821.

A Collection of Keats' Notable Poems

In his brief life, Keats wrote a total of fifty-four poems, with several of his notable works published during his "Great Year" of 1819. These include 'Ode to a Nightingale', 'Ode on Indolence', 'Ode on Melancholy', 'Ode on a Grecian Urn', and 'Ode to Psyche'.

Ode: An Introduction

An ode is a form of lyrical poem that typically praises a person, animal, object, or event. It can also explore universal themes such as love or loss, conveying intense emotions regardless of the subject matter.

An Overview of 'Ode to a Nightingale' (1819)

In this ode, Keats focuses on the nightingale and its mesmerizing song. The poem consists of eight stanzas, with the first seven being ten lines long, written in iambic pentameter, giving them a sense of balance and structure. However, the final stanza, also ten lines long, differs by being in iambic trimeter, mirroring the shift in theme as the speaker contemplates the nightingale's departure, his return to reality, and his questioning of what is real.

Throughout the poem, Keats presents a contrast between his idealized view of the nightingale's life in the forest and the reality of man's life in the city, using opposing synonyms to explore themes of joy and misery.

An Overview of 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' (1819)

The title of this poem translates to 'the beautiful lady without mercy'. It is a ballad consisting of twelve quatrains, inspired by traditional British folk tales of young men and women lured into the fairy realm.

In this ballad, a young knight falls in love with a beautiful but treacherous fairy woman. However, his love remains unrequited, and after waking up in her grotto, he finds himself alone, weak, and deceived like those before him. A ballad is a type of narrative poem with a symmetrical structure, using quatrains to tell a story.

The Profound Themes in John Keats' Poetry

Keats' poems explore various themes, often juxtaposing opposing concepts such as joy and melancholy, life and death, or mortality and immortality. In 'Ode to a Nightingale' (1819), the poet contrasts the nightingale's joy with humanity's misery. Similarly, in 'La Belle Dame sans Merci' (1819), a knight is lured to his demise by a deceitful fairy, revealing the themes of love and betrayal and life and death.

Takeaways from John Keats' Life

  • Keats (1795-1821) was a Romantic poet.
  • Similar to many renowned artists, poets, and writers, Keats' talent was not fully recognized during his lifetime.
  • Most of his celebrated poetry was written in 1819.
  • His young life was marked by tragic losses of loved ones.
  • Keats passed away at the early age of twenty-five.

John Keats in Brief

What is Keats' most famous poem? Keats' most famous poem is widely considered to be 'Ode to a Nightingale' (1819).

Who was John Keats in love with? John Keats was in love with Fanny Brawne.

Where did John Keats die? John Keats passed away in Rome, Italy.

Where was John Keats born? John Keats was born in Moorgate, London.

What did John Keats write about? John Keats wrote about interconnected yet opposing themes, such as pain and pleasure, life and death, separation and connection.

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