Politics Magazine

John Keats

Posted on the 22 October 2011 by Erictheblue

John Keats was born on October 31, 1795, in London, the oldest of five children born to the chief ostler at a horse-lending firm and his wife, who was the daughter of the livery's owner.  Four children, three boys and a girl, survived infancy.  The parents had been 20 and 19 at their marriage, which occurred about a year before John was born.  The father died after falling from a horse when Keats was 8, and the mother died of tuberculosis when he was 14.  The livery business had prospered, and the Keats children were provided for in the estate of their maternal grandparents, but their guardian, a tea merchant to whom the adjective "unimaginative" is applied by diverse writers, held virtually all of it while Keats lived.  The children, when they were older, were told that they were not to receive their inheritance till the youngest, the girl Fanny, attained her majority, and also that the estate was the subject of a lawsuit that made distribution impossible.  The will was poorly drafted, but neither claim was true, and it seems likely that the tea merchant invested the funds for his own profit.  Keats was not the type to pursue him on the question.  Chronically short of funds, partly because he loaned what he had to other impoverished artists, his letters asking for loans were so hesitant and indirect that the recipients sometimes did not realize they were being solicited.

Thus the first sentence in the editor's headnote to the section on Keats in The Norton Anthology of English Literature: "No major poet had a less propitious origin."  His personality first comes into view in the reminiscence of his schoolteacher and friend, Charles Cowden Clarke:

He was not merely the the "favourite of all," like a pet prize-fighter, for his terrier courage; but his high-mindedness, his utter unconsciousness of a mean motive, his placability, his generosity, wrought so general a feeling in his behalf, that I never heard a word of disapproval from anyone, superior or equal, who had known him.

When Keats was 15, his guardian took him out of school and apprenticed him to an apothecary and surgeon at Edmonton, just to the north of London.  By this time, however, he  had discovered books and poetry.  He read widely and set upon an ambitious course of self-education in the art of poetry.  In 1815, he  continued his medical studies at a London hospital, but it was the next year that his first famous poem, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," was written.  He had four more years to write, and five to live.

There is nothing in literary history to compare with the rapidity of Keats's development.  His first great project was Endymion, a long poem that he  regarded as a kind of "exercise in invention."  I find it almost unreadable; M.H. Abrams, the editor of the section on the Romantics in The Norton Anthology, writes in a footnote that "[t]he poem's constitution is so cloudy, however, that its purport is disputed." It was published in 1818.  The next year, 1819, is frequently called Keats's annus mirabilis, the "year of wonders" in which he composed several of the finest lyric poems in the English language--the "Ode to Psyche," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode to a Nightingale," and "Ode on Melancholy" were all written within about a three week period in April and May, between the composition of the ballad "La Belle Dame sans Merci" and the ode "To Autumn."  To the summer months belong the great longer poem, Lamia, which retells a story from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy.  He also was carrying on with an even more ambitious effort, The Fall of Hyperion, which however he left unfinished: he completed the first canto (468 lines) and 61 lines of Canto II. In a letter, he revealed his dissatisfaction with the work: it has too much of "the false beauty proceeding from art," not enough "true voice of feeling."

Meanwhile, private misfortune dogged him.  Money was a constant problem.  The Keats orphans were close, but one boy, George, emigrated to America; another, Tom, died of tuberculosis in 1818, when he was 18, after being nursed by John for several months; and the girl, Fanny, was practically quarantined at a school at Walthamstow, perhaps because the guardian did not want her and John putting their heads together on financial matters.  While Tom was dying, Keats fell in love with Fanny Brawne, but his poverty and devotion to poetry, then his illness, kept them from marrying. 

What Keats called his "posthumous existence" may be dated to February 3, 1820, when he coughed up blood, thereby signalling the onset of the disease that had killed both his mother and brother.  He was 24.  The story of his last year is lacerating.  The "treatment" included a starvation diet, the letting of blood (in equal measure to what he coughed up), rest, and, before his last winter could begin, a journey to mild Italy, where he finally died, at Rome, on February 23, 1821.  He seems to have been conscious mainly of unfinished work, waste, and pain.  He asked that his epitaph be, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."

A word about his letters.  They proceed in headlong rushes, spelling and grammar be damned, as his hand struggled to keep pace with his racing brain.  In a way they are the opposite of the calm, stately progression of thought and observation one beholds in his poetry.  They were cherished by their first recipients, partly for their own qualities and partly because Keats himself was cherished by his friends.  In time individual specimens have come to be indentified by ideas Keats introduced and the phrases he used to describe them--the letters on "negative capability," "the chamber of maiden thought," "the vale of soul-making," and so on.  Individual passages make one love Keats.  Distraught by the falling out of friends, he writes, in a letter to Benjamin Bailey:

Things have happen'd lately of great Perplexity--You must have heard of them--Reynolds and Haydon retorting and recriminating--and parting for ever--the same thing has happened between Haydon and Hunt--It is unfortunate--Men should bear with each other--there lives not the Man who may not be cut up, aye hashed to pieces on his weakest side. . . .

His last letter, written to Charles Brown from Rome on November 30, 1820, begins:

'Tis the most difficult thing in the world to [sic] me to write a letter. . . . I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.  God knows how it would have been--but it appears to me--however, I will not speak of that subject.

And concludes:

Write to George as soon as you receive this, and tell him how I am, as far as you can guess; and also a note to my sister--who walks about my imagination like a ghost--she is so like Tom.  I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter.  I always made an awkward bow.

God bless you!
John Keats


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