Notes on John Keats

John Keats was born in London on October 31, 1795, to a prosperous livery-stable manager. John was the oldest of five children (one died in infancy), who remained deeply devoted to each other. Only a few months after their father died of a fractured skull in 1804, Keats' mother remarried. Almost as quickly, she left her second husband and the prosperous business she had inherited from Keats' father. She moved with the children to live with her mother at Edmonton, near London, however, she died of tuberculosis in 1810, leaving the children in the care of their grandmother.

At school, Keats and his brothers were popular. Keats read widely and avidly. His first poem, “Lines in Imitation of Spenser,” was written in 1814. In that year, he moved to London and resumed his surgical studies in 1815 as a student at Guy's hospital. Before leaving his medical career to devote himself exclusively to his poetry, Keats also worked as a dresser and junior house surgeon. While in London, he met Leigh Hunt, the editor of The Examiner, who introduced him to other young Romantic poets, including Shelley. Keats' poem, “O Solitude,” appeared in The Examiner.

Keats' first book, Poems, was published in 1817. “Endymion,” his first long poem, appeared when he was 21. Keats' greatest works were written in the late 1810s: “Lamia,” “The Eve of St. Agnes,” and the great odes: “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode To Autumn,” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” For a short time, he wrote for The Champion as a theatrical critic.

Keats spent three months in 1818 caring for his brother Tom, who was dying of tuberculosis. Tom died in December.

In 1820, the second volume of Keats' poems was published to considerable critical acclaim. Keats had, however, already diagnosed his own tuberculosis, and his poems reflect his deep sorrow at being unable to marry Fanny Brawne, the woman he loved.

Percy Shelley invited Keats to join him at Pisa, in Italy, but Keats went to Rome instead, believing the climate would be good for his health; he died in Rome on February 23, 1821 at the age of 25.

Keats had already dictated the epitaph he wanted carved on his headstone: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness.

—John Keats
Endymion