|In a letter to
a friend John Keats wrote: "I am certain of nothing but the holiness
of the heart's affections and the truth of imagination...What the imagination
seizes as beauty must be truth, whether it existed before or not. The
imagination may be compared to Adam's dream--he awoke and found it true."
John Keats was born October 29, 1795 in London, the first child of Thomas Keats and Frances Jennings Keats, whose father owned a livery stable. John's father took care of the horses and cleaned the stalls. Like many boys of moderately well-to-do parents, Keats attended school at Enfield but he was much more sensitive than his schoolmates; his teachers called him a "creature of passion."
Although he was finely built, pale and thin and not more than five feet tall, Keats was in no way effeminate. At school he was well known as a fighter and was remembered there for his "terrier courage." Cowden Clarke, son of the headmaster at Enfield and Keats's friend, wrote of his ungovernable passion saying, "His brother George, being considerably taller and stronger, used frequently to hold him down by main force." People were often amazed by the intensity of Keat's emotions, and it was said that he could feel joy and sorrow with his hands.
When John was ten his father was killed by a fall from a horse, and when he was fifteen his mother died of tuberculosis. John, his brothers and sister were sent to live with a guardian who apprenticed Keats to a surgeon at the age of sixteen. John, however, did not want to be a surgeon, but a poet. Yet, he continued his apprenticeship and received his certificate as a "dresser" of wounds.
In the meantime, Keat's friend Cowden Clarke had given him a copy of Spenser's The Faerie Queen and Keats was enchanted. Offering the excuse that he "dreaded doing mischief" in his surgical work, Keats began to devote himself solely to his poetry and never practiced medicine.
By the time he was twenty-two he was working on his first full length poem and he had already found a publisher. Keats was then living on a small income from his father's property and residing in Hampstead with his brother Tom. He enjoyed the society of dreamers and literary people like himself, and one of his closest companions was the poet and essayist, Leigh Hunt.
But tragedy again walked into John Keat's life unannounced. His younger brother Tom was found to have the deadly "consumption" that had killed their mother. The doctors bled and starved him for months and John nursed him tenderly but the young man died at the age of twenty.
In an attempt to drown his despair, Keats plunged headlong into the world of society seeking the company of young attractive women. In this circle of "lovely London Ladies" he met Fanny Brawne, with whom he fell madly and jealously in love. He wanted to marry her but because he was a man of limited means who had no regular occupation except the writing of verse, she refused him.
In addition, his poem "Endymion" had been published and the critics mocked what they termed his "Cockney poetry." They said he had "left a decent calling for this melancholy trade" of writing. And they advised Keats to either return to his surgery or to his father's stables.
Keats was deeply hurt by these attacks and even considered abandoning his writing. Many of his friends believed that the brutality of the critics hastened Keat's untimely death. Lord Byron wrote:
As unhappy events crowded in upon him, Keats began to withdraw from contemporary life and retreat into dreams of antiquity. In the world of the past he found glimmers of the beauty he sought. He haunted the British Museum, especially the rooms containing the Greek vases, marbles, and portions of the ruined Parthenon. And it was here that the beauty of the sensual world and the truth of the imagination came together for the poet in his "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Observing the sculptured scenes on the urn he wrote:
are sweet, but those unheard
Keats believed that the only pathway to truth was beauty. He experimented with the music of his words, the magic of his color, the psychological impact of his imagery. He created effects that had never been achieved before, and when his poem "The Eve of St. Agnes" was published a critic wrote that if this poem were compared to those of Shakespeare's written at the same age, Keats's "would be found to contain more beauties, more inspiration, less conceit and bad taste...much more promise of excellence than are to be found in Shakespeare's work."
It was in this, the unhappiest period of Keat's life that he wrote the great odes and other poems by which he is remembered. All his works contain a wealth of sensory detail. His "Ode to Autumn" has been called an "old world tapestry, a picture painted with words." And his "Ode to Melancholy" achieves its solemnity and poignancy by the skillfully weighted movement of the lines:
No, no! go
not to Lethe, neither twist
By 1819 John Keats knew that he had the deadly tuberculosis. Always susceptible to colds and sore throats, he had tried vacationing on the English seashore but by 1820 the disease was growing progressively worse. On a February day in his twenty-fifth year he caught a chill while riding in a stagecoach. When he returned home with a fever and prepared to lie down he coughed up blood. Gazing at the stain with his medical student's eye he said, "I know the color of that blood. That drop of blood is my death warrant."
His doctors told Keats that he must stop writing poetry--must stop reading it too. In July of 1820 his last and best volume of poetry was published and was well-received. But he never completed what might have been his greatest work, "Hyperion," an epic of the overthrow of the elder gods. The poem opens with the Titan Saturn sitting "quiet as a stone" in a silent forest, deep in despair:
Deep in the
shady sadness of a vale
H. Buxton Forman wrote of the first few lines of "Hyperion": "reflected around the fallen god of the Titan dynasty, and permeating the landscape, is resumed in the most perfect manner the incident of the motionless fallen leaf, a line almost as intense and full of the essence of poetry as any line in our language."
Since he could write no more, Keats felt that all he had left was his love for Fanny Brawne; he sent for her and she came and nursed him through the winter of his illness. When spring came, Keats still had hope that the warmer climate of Italy might provide some relief of his condition, so he prepared for the journey. He wrote his last sonnet, "Bright Star, Would I Were Steadfast" while he was sailing down the Channel.
John Keats reached Rome in November and within a month he had a final relapse. He died on February 23, 1821, saying to the artist who had accompanied and cared for him on the journey to Italy, "Thank God for the quiet. It will be the first I have ever known."