Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.
A Tragic Story
The story of John Keats is not a particularly happy story. Among the tough stories in the art world, there are artists who toil in obscurity for years before finding success, and even though they might seem famous and well-known to us, some of them didn't achieve it even during their lifetimes. There are those who receive acclaim early, then struggle to match those early career highs. If you've read the book that J.K. Rowling wrote after Harry Potter, you might know what I mean there. John Keats probably would have welcomed either of those paths. But that's not his story.
The upside is that great art often comes from great misfortune. Even though Keats didn't live to see his poetry become as successful as it did, he did persist long enough to produce some of the greatest poems that the English language has really ever known. So let's talk a little bit about John Keats.
Poet or Doctor?
He was born in London on Halloween in 1795. Today that would be rough - it would be like being born on Christmas. Everyone would have wanted to have their own parties and not come to yours. And actually, like a certain other fellow who was born on Christmas Day, Keats said he was born in a horse stable. His father was a stableman, so that could actually be true.
John was the oldest child in his family. He had a younger sister and two younger brothers. His parents couldn't afford to send him to a fancy school, so he went to the Clarke School in Enfield, which was a very liberal and progressive institution.
John's father died after falling off a horse when John was just eight. Six years later, his mother died from tuberculosis. It's a rough start for young John. John and his sister's grandmother appointed two guardians for the kids: Richard Abbey and John Sandell. Abbey ended up doing most of the guardian work. Abbey was a successful tea broker (that's a phrase you don't hear much these days), so he offered a little financial stability.
Keats left Enfield and worked as an apprentice with a surgeon and an apothecary named Thomas Hammond. He had a knack for surgery, and he earned a license as an apothecary, which is a little bit like a pharmacist who prepares and sells medicines. The license also entitled him to practice as a physician and a surgeon, because you'd let your local pharmacist operate on you, right?
But really, John was at a crossroads. He had this promising start in a career in medicine, but he'd also been writing and becoming more interested in becoming a poet. So he had a choice: poet or doctor? You can probably hear parents everywhere going, 'Doctor! Choose doctor!' But since this is an English literature video, you can probably guess what he decided. Why pick a lucrative, stable profession with a lot of prestige when you could be a starving poet? Makes sense to me.
Speaking of money problems, around this time, Keats should have earned two bequests that would have been worth the equivalent of about half a million dollars today. These were held in trust until his 21st birthday, but it's believed that he didn't know they existed. For a struggling student who came from a modest background, and one who would later go on to battle debt, that money could have been huge.
Keats' first real breakthrough came in 1816. He'd met Leigh Hunt, a writer and well-connected publisher of The Examiner, a popular liberal magazine at the time. Hunt published one of Keats' sonnets, called 'O Solitude,' in The Examiner. For a guy who was still struggling with his decision to pursue poetry, he saw this publication as a validation, confirming that he'd gone on the right path.
'O Solitude' is a typical Romantic poem celebrating nature. It begins:
O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,-
And, well, it goes on, essentially saying that he'd rather be alone in nature than alone in the city - a very common idea for the Romantics. Hunt would also publish the sonnet 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer,' which we'll explore in another lesson.
Later in 1816, Keats' first volume of poems, descriptively titled Poems, was published with a dedication to Hunt. The book unfortunately bombed. After the failure of that book of poems, some of Keats' friends had advised him to maybe hold off a little bit before trying to publish again. In hindsight, that really may have been good advice.
He kept at it, though. He wrote to one of his friends: 'I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of the imagination. What imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth.' You'll actually hear that idea explored again when we discuss 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,' one of his more famous poems.
The Family Disease
As I mentioned, Keats' mother died of tuberculosis. In 1817, Keats went to live with his brothers Tom and George. Tom now had tuberculosis, so George and John were caring for him.
It was at this time Keats finished an epic 4,000-line poem that took up four books: Endymion: A Poetic Romance. Displaying his Romantic ideals, the poem begins: 'A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.' You may have heard that before. The critics didn't see this poem as a thing of beauty, though. One called it an 'imperturbable driveling idiocy,' which is really harsh. I wonder what that critic would've said about those Transformers movies. Keats was deeply hurt by this criticism, as you might imagine, and unfortunately, things didn't get better for him.
In late 1818, his brother Tom died from tuberculosis. Some believe that John contracted the disease, too, around this time. He had been sick frequently. In fact, one of the reasons he went to care for Tom was because he thought the damp London apartment he lived in was making him ill.
Incidentally, John's brother George and his wife also both died of tuberculosis. Keats would later refer to this as the 'family disease.' Other than his father, who died from the horse accident, only his sister Fanny would survive to old age; she would die in 1889.
But, again, I'm getting ahead of myself. After Tom died, Keats moved to Wentworth Place, which was owned by his friend Charles Armitage Brown (awesome British name). While there, he fell in love with Fanny Brawne. Keats wrote a love sonnet for her called 'Bright Star,' which is also the name of a recent movie about Keats. Between Fanny and his successful writing, this would be an actual good year for Keats - it was about time for the poor guy.
It was at Wentworth that he would write what would become probably his most notable of all of his poems. This includes his famous odes, which include 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,' 'Ode on Melancholy,' and 'Ode to a Nightingale'. These poems would be a part of his remarkable collection Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems, which was published in 1820. Unlike his previous books, this one actually got pretty decent reviews. Today it's regarded as one of the most significant books of English poetry. However, Keats would go to his grave believing that he'd made no mark on the literary world.
Death in Rome
In early 1820, Keats was very ill from tuberculosis (like everyone else in his family), though he hadn't actually officially been diagnosed at that point. He'd had two lung hemorrhages that involved significant blood loss. His doctor suggested moving to the warmer climate of Italy, so he set sail in September. (It would be pretty cool to just get a diagnosis to move to Italy - I'd take that.) Anyway, the journey did not go well. First, there were storms; then there was a calm sea, which slowed their progress. When they finally did reach Italy, they had to be quarantined for ten days because of a suspected cholera outbreak. The whole trip lasted about a month and doesn't sound like any fun at all.
He wrote to his friend Charles Armitage Brown: 'I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence' ('posthumous' meaning after he died). Like, his real life is over, and now he's living a life after death, but not in a cool way.
While he was in Rome, Keats lived in an apartment on the Spanish Steps. His doctor put Keats on a starvation diet, which sounds miserable. He received an anchovy and one piece of bread each day - so it wasn't even good food that he was allowed to eat. The doctor also bled Keats, which was a common process then. But since Keats was also vomiting blood and hemorrhaging, the diet plus the blood loss left him weak and in agony.
He could've eased his pain with opium, but there was a belief that Keats was suicidal, so nobody would give it to him. His condition worsened, and his diet was reduced to pretty much just fish. Keats thought he was starving to death and pleaded for food. He also pleaded for opium to ease the pain. He said 'How long is this posthumous life of mine to last?' Not the sign of a happy person.
Not long, as it turned out. He died on February 23rd, 1821, barely three months after arriving in Rome. At his request, his grave is marked with an unnamed tombstone and the quote 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water.' He was just 25 years old. It's really sad that he died so young but also impressive that he wrote so many wonderful works at such a young age.
In summary, he lived a brief but very significant life before succumbing to tuberculosis like so many did at his time, including virtually his entire family. Though John Keats really did struggle during his lifetime, he'd go on to be acclaimed as one of the Romantic era's greatest poets. Some of his most notable poems include 'O Solitude' and 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer,' as well as his odes, such as 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' and 'Ode on Melancholy.' We have videos that go further into Keats' poems, so I recommend you check them out and then go read them for yourself!
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Explain Keats' early life and career before becoming a poet
- Identify his most famous poems
- Understand how he, and most of his family, died
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