- Kelvin Everest
John Keats (1795–1821)
Keats, John (1795–1821), poet, was born in London, the eldest of the five children of Thomas Keats (c.1773–1804), inn manager, and his wife, Frances, later Frances Rawlings (1775–1810), daughter of John and Alice Jennings. Keats was baptized at St Botolph without Bishopsgate on 18 December 1795. He and his family seem to have regarded 29 October as his birthday, although the baptismal entry gives 31 October. An important factor in the development of Keats's reputation, during his life and in the decades following his death, was the belief that he was born in a coaching inn, the Swan and Hoop at 24 The Pavement, Moorgate, and that his father, Thomas, was an 'ostler' in the inn. This supposed humble origin, reinforced in the public mind by Leigh Hunt's ill-informed account in Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries (1828), played its part in the notoriously savage politically inspired attacks made on Keats by tory reviewers during his lifetime, and it deeply coloured the nineteenth-century biographical tradition. But there is no evidence about Keats's place of birth, and his family background, for all its obscurities, was far from impoverished. Little is known of Keats's father, described as a man of common sense and respectability, whom Keats resembled in a short, stocky build, and an attractively alert bearing. The family name appears to originate in Devon or Cornwall, and there is evidence that Thomas Keats may have come from Reading. His marriage on 9 October 1794 at St George's, Hanover Square, was apparently a rushed affair; the couple were young and there were no family witnesses. Frances Jennings, the poet's mother, was recalled as excitable and attractive, and there is much to suggest also a reckless impetuosity. Her father was a man of property who purchased the leasehold of the Swan and Hoop in 1774, adding the next-door property in 1785. Keats's brother George was born on 28 February 1797. The family moved to Craven Street, off the City Road, at Christmas 1798. Thomas Keats was born on 28 November 1799, and a fourth son, Edward, on 28 April 1801. George, Tom, and Edward were baptized at St Leonard, Shoreditch, on 24 September 1801, but Edward died before the end of the following year and was buried in Bunhill Fields on 9 December 1802. George and Tom played a significant part in Keats's short, intense life—George in the role of hard-headed realist, while Tom enjoyed a special empathy with the poet.
Later in December 1802 the family moved again, to the Swan and Hoop, where Mr Jennings had installed his son-in-law as manager. Keats's sister Fanny was born on 3 June 1803 and baptized at St Botolph's.
In August 1803 Keats went to Clarke's School in Enfield. The headmaster was John Clarke, whose son Charles Cowden Clarke was an usher at the school. But Keats had barely begun his school life when his family was overtaken by catastrophe. On 16 April 1804 his father was killed in a fall from his horse. Keats's newly widowed mother almost immediately married William Rawlings, on 27 June at St George's, Hanover Square. The startling haste of this remarriage has fuelled speculation that Rawlings was an adventurer interested in Frances Keats's inheritance of some £2000. The couple took up residence in the Swan and Hoop, with Rawlings as manager.
Family relations now deteriorated badly, with consequences which cast a shadow over all Keats's subsequent experience. His grandfather John Jennings died on 8 March, leaving a substantial estate which made generous provision for the various members of his family. As well as Keats himself, these included Jennings's widow Alice; Keats's mother, brothers, and sister, and his uncle the naval officer Midgley Jennings and his family; and John Jennings's sister Mary Sweetinburgh. But the terms of the will proved ambivalent and were challenged in chancery by Keats's mother, thus complicating and delaying any actual payment, to her brother, herself, or Keats. The action ultimately failed completely, following judgment by the master of the rolls on 29 July 1806. Frances parted from Rawlings about this time, and her whereabouts in the following three years are a mystery.
Keats's maternal grandmother, Alice Jennings, had after her husband's death lived in a rented house in Ponder's End north of London. Soon after her daughter's challenge to the will, the Keats children left their mother and stepfather at the Swan and Hoop and went to live with their grandmother at a new address in Church Street, Edmonton, near to Clarke's School. This arrangement apparently consolidated a serious split in the family, whereby Keats found himself caught up in bitter alienating enmity between his mother, his grandmother, and also his uncle Midgley, whose supposed military heroics Keats idolized as a boy. The situation perhaps goes some way to explain the extraordinary fact of the subsequent total absence of any reference by Keats to either of his parents. When Midgley died of a 'decline' on 21 November 1808, at thirty-one ominously young, Frances revived her original bill of complaint, but her failure to pursue it supports the possibility that she was reconciled with the family by the summer of 1809. Midgley's stock was divided equally between his widow and Alice Jennings. This meant that under the terms of his grandfather's will Keats could apply to chancery at any time after his twenty-first birthday for a quarter share of the estate, about £800.
The period of his mother's reconciliation with the family coincided with a change of attitude by Keats at school. Charles Cowden Clarke became a firm friend of Keats, and his Recollections of Writers includes a vivid account of the young poet. Clarke remembered him as the 'favourite of all' for his 'high-mindedness, his utter unconsciousness of a mean motive, his placability, his generosity' (Cowden Clarke and Cowden Clarke, 123). He had from an early age a striking physical presence that was remarked by observers throughout his life. At school he was conspicuous for extremes of passion, with a determination and physical courage belying his small stature. Another close friend of Keats at school was Edward Holmes, the future biographer of Mozart, who remembered Keats in childhood as attached not to books but to 'all active exercises', with a special relish for fighting (Rollins, 2.163–5). However, after January 1809 Keats surprised everyone with a resolve to 'carry off all the first prizes in literature' (Milnes, 13), a determination in which he succeeded. Keats's education at Clarke's was probably better than at the typical public school of the day. He covered scientific and practical subjects, Latin, and French, and although he never learned Greek he imbibed from such works as Lemprière's Classical Dictionary an 'intimacy with the Greek mythology' (Cowden Clarke and Cowden Clarke, 124). The school's liberal principles were especially significant. Keats's first acquaintance with Leigh Hunt's Examiner dates from this time, and it was at Clarke's that Keats's politically radical sympathies, and his youthful enthusiasm for Hunt, began to develop. Keats's schoolboy friends, and particularly Cowden Clarke, strongly influenced his early reading and literary tastes, notably for Spenser. Keats and Clarke seem however to have drifted out of contact after 1817.
Keats's new commitment to his studies in 1809 no doubt owed much to renewed intimacy with his mother, which also brought new responsibilities as she was clearly unwell. Keats had already demonstrated a strong sense of family responsibility in his watchful solicitude for his little sister Fanny, and his younger brothers, which would continue throughout his life. But all sense of domestic security was destroyed by the death of his mother in March 1810, like Midgley from a 'decline'. Keats, who had always been markedly protective of his mother, gave himself up to 'a long agony of grief', hiding under an alcove beneath a master's desk at school (Milnes, 12). Keats's grandmother Alice Jennings now had a substantial estate to dispose of, having seen all other claimants die. On 30 July 1810 she executed a deed making the property over to John Nowland Sandell, a merchant, and Richard Abbey, a friend from her native village of Colne in Lancashire, to administer for her grandchildren. After Sandell's death in 1816 Abbey became sole guardian.
Apprenticeship and medical training
Keats left Clarke's School in the summer of 1810, and at fourteen was apprenticed to the surgeon and apothecary Thomas Hammond, neighbour and doctor of the Jennings family. Keats moved in above his surgery at 7 Church Street, Edmonton. There seems no basis for the surmise of various biographers that Keats was forced into medical training, but the apprenticeship was expensive and began immediately to eat into the inheritance held in trust by Abbey. He made excellent progress, while his friendship with Cowden Clarke blossomed and his literary interests broadened and developed quickly. He kept up his school contacts and continued to receive informal tuition, completing a prose translation of the Aeneid. Some time probably in 1813 Keats quarrelled with Hammond and moved out, perhaps to live with his brothers in St Pancras. George had been removed from school early to work in Abbey's counting-house as a clerk, where he would shortly be joined by Tom. Keats's great-aunt Mary Sweetinburgh died in November 1813, and his grandmother Alice in December 1814. Keats told Richard Woodhouse that his early sonnet 'As from the darkening gloom a silver dove', as nearly Christian in sentiment as anything he wrote, was composed on her death. Fanny went to live with Abbey, who made it difficult for the brothers to visit, and discouraged correspondence. She remained with the Abbeys until her twenty-first birthday. Keats now had two sets of property in trust: £800 from John Jennings's will, and his share of the property held by Sandell and Abbey, which amounted to a quarter share in some £8000. Keats never applied for the £800, and probably knew nothing of it. Although Abbey has often been blamed, he probably knew no more of it than Keats. William Walton, solicitor for Keats's mother and grandmother, certainly did know of it and should have informed Keats. George Keats was also ignorant of this money. On the death of Tom the surviving brothers' share was further augmented. This money could have made a very great difference to Keats, particularly as he struggled for funds in the last two years of his life.
According to Charles Brown, Keats did not think of writing verse until he had turned eighteen. His earliest known work, an 'Imitation of Spenser' eventually published in 1817, dates probably from early 1814. This, like most of the poetry surviving from his student days, is markedly derivative. Obvious models for the early work include Byron, Hunt, and popular writers of the day such as Chatterton and Moore. But even the 'Imitation of Spenser' has a quality of self-reflection which foreshadows Keats's genius in working through literary models to an idiom entirely his own. His verse over the next eighteen months demonstrates a persistent preoccupation with the idea of his own literary vocation and destined fame. There is also a clear affinity with liberal political ideals and heroes. The sonnet 'Written on the Day that Mr Leigh Hunt Left Prison' dates from February 1815, some eighteen months before Keats's first meeting with Hunt but explicitly acknowledging his influence. By the middle of 1815 Keats had been introduced through his brother George to George Felton Mathew, an aspiring young poet and member of a poetical set consisting mainly of young ladies, including Mathew's own cousins. Keats wrote some thinly mannered verses to members of this group, typified by the lines 'To some Ladies' in the tripping quatrains of Tom Moore. This set was soon outgrown, and Mathew was to prove ungenerous. But he stimulated Keats to new reading, in Fairfax's Tasso for example, and helped to focus Keats's youthful sense of literary ambition.
On 1 October 1815 Keats entered Guy's Hospital as a student, and followed a career implying some powerful patronage, as well as a genuine determination to qualify as a doctor. The distinguished surgeon Astley Cooper placed Keats under his own dresser, George Cooper, with whom he took lodgings close to the hospital at 28 St Thomas's Street in Southwark, with other medical students. The costs of this expensive new stage in his medical education further depleted the capital in Abbey's care, particularly after Keats was accepted as a dresser on 29 October, two days before his twentieth birthday. This was quick promotion and heralded a promising career, although Keats's medical notebook from the period survives and suggests an unmethodical approach. Throughout the later months of 1815 Keats continued to write poems, exploring sonnet forms especially, but also giving expression to evidently quickening mental powers in work which shows the new influence of Wordsworth, such as the 'Epistle to George Felton Mathew' of November 1815, or the sonnet 'O solitude!', also composed about this time. This was to become Keats's first published poem when it appeared in The Examiner on 5 May 1816.
Keats made friends easily. He was popular among his fellow students, and enjoyed a constantly widening circle of acquaintance. Among new friendships at this time those with William Haslam and Joseph Severn (1793–1879), introduced through George Keats in the spring of 1816, were of particular importance. Haslam, who was about Keats's age and became a solicitor, was deeply attached to Keats and greatly admired his abilities. He remained a dependable friend and ally, often helping with financial problems. Severn, two years Keats's senior, was apprenticed as an engraver when they first became acquainted, but had already begun to work as a painter. Their friendship grew steadily, until in Keats's final months Severn's devoted care earned him a special place in English literary history. Keats continued his medical studies, clearly to good effect. On 25 July 1816 he passed his exams to become a licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries. This was a serious test of his medical knowledge, and made him eligible to practise as an apothecary, physician, and surgeon. Following this success Keats took a holiday from his studies and visited Margate with his brother Tom. They left in August, Keats continuing to write and completing three verse epistles in Margate, which further develop the themes of poetic vocation and, with a sharpening focus, the projection of his own poetic achievement. They returned to London in September, and by 9 October Keats had taken new lodgings at 8 Dean Street, Southwark, with Tom and George, who had left Abbey's after quarrelling with a junior partner. Keats now faced a further period of study for his membership of the Royal College of Surgeons.
Poetic vocation: Poems (1817)
Immediately on his return to London Keats's life took a decisive turn as he was caught up in the excitement of powerful new literary friendships. By the middle of October he had been introduced by Cowden Clarke to his hero Leigh Hunt, after Clarke had shown Hunt some of his work. He expressed warm admiration, as did others such as Horace Smith, and a period of close intimacy with the Hunt circle began, matched by a newly dominant stylistic influence from Hunt in Keats's writing. Through Hunt Keats met the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, already long launched on his picture 'Christ's Entry into Jerusalem' and in the midst of public controversy over the authenticity of the Elgin marbles. Keats was attracted to Haydon's artistic commitment and appetite for experience and argument, and Haydon, like many others at this time, was captivated by Keats's genial gusto and contagious sense of humour, and impressed by his passionate sense of poetic vocation. Another new friend, encountered through Haydon on 20 October, was John Hamilton Reynolds, a young writer with a promise which appeared to match Keats's own, and an easy-going quickness of wit which suited Keats's penchant for punning talk and artistic debate. The new intensity in Keats's literary life produced a burst of creativity. One evening in October Clarke introduced Keats to Chapman's translation of Homer, and after returning late to his lodgings Keats wrote the sonnet 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer', which he contrived to have delivered to Clarke by 10 o'clock next morning. The poem is an astonishing achievement, with a confident formal assurance and metaphoric complexity which make it one of the finest English sonnets. As Hunt generously acknowledged, it 'completely announced the new poet taking possession' (Hunt, Lord Byron, 249). Through November and December Keats's writing developed rapidly. He took on more directly the myth of his own personal and artistic growth, particularly in two long and ambitious poems, 'Sleep and Poetry' and 'I stood tip-toe upon a little hill'. These are experimental works, strongly influenced by Hunt and structurally unresolved, but most thoughtfully engaged with questions of literary history and Keats's place in it. Keats also began, with Hunt and others, to write poetry in timed competitions on agreed themes in prescribed forms, repeatedly demonstrating an exceptional facility in verse. George Felton Mathew had recently published 'To a Poetical Friend', on Keats, in the European Magazine, and on 1 December 1816 Hunt published the first of his 'Young poets' articles in The Examiner, quoting the sonnet on Chapman's Homer in full, and representing Keats along with Shelley and Reynolds as the new generation in English poetry. Keats and Shelley met for the first time in mid-December. It was at this time that Haydon took his famous life mask of Keats.
Early in December Keats was listed as a certified apothecary in the London Medical Repository, but the sense of poetic vocation now challenged his commitment to his studies, and he decided to give up medicine. Abbey was furious. According to his brother George's later account Keats had by his twenty-first birthday in October 1816 sold two thirds of his inheritance in trust with Abbey to meet the costs of his medical training, and was probably left with a legacy of little more than £500, giving an income of about £55 per year. Over the next eighteen months Keats must have spent more than his income from interest on the trust fund, and he also made a series of ill-advisedly generous loans, for example to Haydon. Relations with Abbey worsened progressively over this period. In mid-November Keats and his brothers had moved to new lodgings at 76 Cheapside. Among Keats's many new literary friends was the bookseller and publisher Charles Ollier, introduced by Clarke, who was already publishing Shelley and declared himself anxious to publish this new rising young star. Keats began to think of making up a volume of his poems. He also continued to develop ideas for an ambitious long poem on the myth of Endymion, which had been touched on in 'I stood tip-toe'.
Through Christmas 1816 and into the new year further important contacts were established and strengthened. Keats dined regularly with Hunt, Horace Smith, Haydon, and Reynolds. In February Hunt showed his work to the Shelleys, William Godwin, Basil Montagu, and William Hazlitt. Keats was soon afterwards visiting and dining with the Shelleys. Keats and Hazlitt may already have become acquainted by now, probably meeting first through Haydon. Hazlitt was an established figure in literary London, and a regular contributor to The Examiner. His conversation, lectures, and published criticism were to prove a powerful influence. Early in 1817 Keats's thinking about art deepened in dialogue with Hazlitt and Haydon concerning the achievement of Greek sculpture in the Elgin marbles, and the relation of reality to aesthetic ideals.
Keats continued to write poetry, still concentrating on the sonnet, the preferred form of his poetic apprenticeship. In February two sonnets appeared in The Examiner, where he now began to publish regularly. Many others were produced in the autumn and winter of 1816 and in the first months of 1817—mostly occasional in character, written to and about friends, often extemporized or produced feverishly overnight after an evening of excited talk. According to Clarke, one evening late in February, when the last batch of proofs of his first volume of poetry was brought for correction, Keats rapidly extemporized a dedicatory sonnet to Hunt, at 'a side-table, and in the buzz of a mixed conversation' (Cowden Clarke and Cowden Clarke, 138). Poems was published on 3 March 1817 by Charles and James Ollier, the first of the three books that Keats published in his lifetime. It contained nearly all the poems Keats is known to have written up to that date. Reynolds reviewed it favourably in The Champion for 9 March, but no one outside Keats's immediate circle showed any interest. As Clarke bluntly remarked, the book 'might have emerged in Timbuctoo' (ibid., 140). Little more than a month later a disappointed Charles Ollier wrote indignantly to George Keats of his regret at having published the volume, which one dissatisfied purchaser had characterized as 'no better than a take-in' (The Athenaeum, 7 June 1873, 725). Ollier's irritation was no doubt heightened by Keats's surprising decision, almost immediately after the appearance of his first book, to change publishers. He probably met John Taylor about March 1817 through Reynolds, whose The Naiads had been published in 1816 by the well-established firm run by Taylor and his partner James Hessey in Fleet Street. Taylor was particularly interested in Keats's projected long poem on Endymion. It was doubtless through Taylor that Keats also first met Richard Woodhouse, a lawyer who acted as an informal adviser to Taylor and Hessey in matters legal and literary. Woodhouse quickly came to the settled view that Keats was a poet of genius who would one day be ranked with the greatest English writers. He set about accordingly to record for posterity, during the period of his friendship with Keats, and after his death, as much material as he could find relating to Keats's poetry. This material mostly survives and has become a principal source of knowledge about Keats.
Probably at about this time, in March 1817, as Woodhouse recalled, one day when 'Keats and Leigh Hunt were taking their wine together … the whim seized them … to crown themselves with laurel after the fashion of the elder bards.' This light-hearted affectation was then discovered by visiting young ladies, on whose arrival Keats 'vowed that he would not take off his crown for any human being: and … wore it … as long as the visit lasted' (Poems, Transcripts, Letters &c: Facsimiles of Richard Woodhouse's Scrapbook Materials, ed. J. Stillinger, 1985, 4). The episode, which produced a series of weak sonnets, hints at what Keats came to regard as a mannered, trivializing, and frankly embarrassing quality in Hunt's influence.
Once Keats had definitely given up his medical career there was nothing to keep him near Guy's Hospital south of the river. Towards the end of March he moved north with his brothers to lodgings on the first floor of a house at 1 Well Walk in Hampstead, near to Hunt and his friends. The house belonged to Benjamin Bentley, the local postman. Keats was soon introduced by Reynolds to one of his Hampstead neighbours, Charles Wentworth Dilke. Dilke, six years older than Keats, was a tidy-minded civil servant in the navy pay office, with educated literary tastes which included a great enthusiasm for Shakespeare. He had published an edition of Old English Plays, and from the beginnings of this friendship Keats himself began to read Shakespeare and his contemporaries with a new concentration. Keats also seems to have met James Rice and Benjamin Bailey about this time, again through Reynolds. Bailey had matriculated at Oxford in 1816 and was reading for holy orders. Rice was a young man in poor health, but the wit and fortitude with which he bore his illness earned Keats's admiration. The intimacy with Hunt and his friends continued, but other literary contacts were beginning to influence Keats. Shelley, just three years Keats's senior, had already published a good deal. His reputation was not high, but the Alastor volume had appeared a year earlier, with a title poem of a quality and ambition that placed Keats's own poetic achievements in a fresh light. Keats now determined to test his abilities. He wrote to George that Endymion would be 'a trial of my Powers of Imagination and … invention … I must make 4000 Lines of one bare circumstance and fill them with Poetry' (Letters of John Keats, 1.169–70). The task was perhaps conceived in direct rivalry with Shelley, whose Laon and Cythna was written over an almost identical period of time in the middle six months of 1817. Keats decided to leave London to attempt his project in solitude, and left for the Isle of Wight, perhaps at Dilke's suggestion, on 14 April, spending the night at Southampton before crossing to Newport. He visited Shanklin, then took lodgings at Carisbrooke. The sonnet 'On the Sea' was probably written on 17 April, but this was Keats's last sonnet for many months. Work on Endymion began immediately. Keats left the Isle of Wight to visit Tom in Margate towards the end of April. The 'Hymn to Pan' was written at this time, amid worries about money which led to a loan of £20 from Taylor and Hessey.
In mid-May Keats sought a change of scene in Canterbury, remarking in a letter to his publishers that 'the remembrance of Chaucer will set me forward like a Billiard-Ball' (Letters of John Keats, 1.146). This strikes the authentic tone of Keats's correspondence. Few letters survive from Keats's first twenty years, but thereafter, and particularly from spring 1817, there is abundant record of Keats's brilliance as a letter writer. These letters articulate a personality of extraordinary critical intelligence, generous sympathies, and richly engaging tactful good humour, and are justly regarded as an achievement ranking almost with the poetry itself. Haydon noted Keats's 'exquisite taste for humour' (Diary, ed. Pope, 2.316), a quality which shines through his correspondence.
At the end of May Keats visited the village of Bo Peep near Hastings, where he met Isabella Jones. Keats's relations with women were never entirely comfortable. Woodhouse remarked that he had the 'idea that the diminutiveness of his size makes him contemptible, and that no woman can like a man of a small stature' (Poems (1817): a Facsimile of Richard Woodhouse's Annotated Copy, ed. J. Stillinger, 1985, 153), but he seems also to have found it difficult to take women seriously in intellectual terms, and to square the ordinary friendliness of social relations with his sexual drive. He admitted to Bailey that 'I have not a right feeling towards women' (Letters of John Keats, 1.341). The extent of his actual experience of sex is a matter for conjecture, although there seems to have been some kind of sexual liaison with Isabella Jones at this time, and the opening of book 2 of Endymion perhaps shows its influence. Some short lyrics from this period, such as 'Unfelt, Unheard, Unseen', also suggest recent sexual experience.
Keats returned to Well Walk on 10 June, and promptly borrowed a further £30 from Taylor and Hessey. Work on Endymion continued throughout the summer months. He read extracts to Clark and Severn in August. A draft of the first two books was complete by the end of the month. Late in the summer Keats met Charles Brown, a former schoolfellow of Dilke's. Brown had a comfortable competence inherited from his brother, and had already composed a libretto for the comic opera Narensky which had run for ten nights at Drury Lane in 1814. With Dilke he had built a double house in John Street, Hampstead, called Wentworth Place (later Lawn Bank, now Keats House). This was a significant new friendship, and over the next two years Brown became perhaps Keats's most intimate confidant and supporter. On 3 September, while his brothers were visiting Paris, Keats travelled to Oxford to stay with Bailey at Magdalen Hall, where he read Milton and Wordsworth, regularly took a boat on the Isis, and composed Endymion book 3 at a steady fifty lines a day. The third book was finished before the end of the month, and after visiting Stratford upon Avon with Bailey on 2 October Keats returned to Well Walk and began work on the fourth and final book of his poem. He also resumed his metropolitan social life, with frequent calls on Hunt, Haydon, Reynolds, Brown, Rice, and the Shelleys, among others. In the second half of October he was confined at Hampstead with an infection developed at Oxford. He treated himself with mercury, conceivably for syphilis, but probably for gonorrhoea. More seriously, his brother Tom was very unwell by the end of the month. And Keats's public reputation took an ominous turn with the publication in October of the first of the Blackwood's articles on the 'Cockney school', in which 'Z' launched a virulent attack on Hunt. Keats was not mentioned in the article, but his name appeared in capitals in the epigraph. A review by George Felton Mathew of the 1817 Poems had appeared in the European Magazine in May, followed in June by a series of much more positive notices by Hunt in The Examiner. Verse by Keats had also been appearing regularly over the summer, in The Champion, the Monthly Repository, and The Examiner. The association with Hunt, who had famously been imprisoned for a libel on the prince regent, now began to draw genuinely hostile fire from the tory reviewers. In the aggressive literary politics of the day, the 'cockney' epithet denoted a metropolitan upstart and vulgar pretension. It was aimed especially at Hunt, whose mannered style sorted awkwardly with a professed enthusiasm for Wordsworth. Keats was an obvious target as a well-known admirer and friend of Hunt, but the jibe also connected unfortunately with his supposed low social origins.
By the end of October Keats was planning to finish Endymion within three weeks, and after making further good progress he travelled on 22 November to Burford Bridge in Surrey, where at the Fox and Hounds inn he finished the poem on 28 November after a final burst of sustained writing at eighty lines a day. It was from this inn that Keats wrote a letter to Bailey exploring 'the authenticity of the Imagination'; 'The Imagination may be compared to Adam's dream—he awoke and found it truth' (Letters of John Keats, 1.185). This was the earliest of a series of critical reflections, articulated informally in the letters and in the midst of other preoccupations, which was to earn for Keats a special influence and prestige in twentieth-century literary criticism.
Late 1817 to early 1818: 'Isabella'
Keats returned from Burford Bridge to Hampstead about 5 December, and entered on an increasingly busy social life, with new friendships and frequent visits to galleries, lectures, and the theatre. On 14 December he saw his brothers off on the coach to Teignmouth in Devon, where Tom was going for the sake of his health. Over the next few days Keats saw the actor Edmund Kean, whom he greatly admired and was said to resemble, in several roles including Richard III. He began to produce a series of miscellaneous shorter poems, and fell into regular and friendly intercourse with James and Horace Smith, Lamb, Hazlitt, William Godwin, and Thomas Noon Talfourd. He attended the Royal Academy exhibition on 20 December. The next day his review of Kean's acting appeared in The Champion. This heady mix of experience produced one of his greatest letters, when after a visit to the pantomime probably on 26 December with Brown and Dilke a discussion on the way home led to Keats's exposition in a letter to his brothers of 'negative capability', the quality that 'went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously' (Letters of John Keats, 1.193).
It was probably at the same time, late in December, that Keats was stung by Wordsworth's response to his recitation of the 'Hymn to Pan' from Endymion, when according to Haydon 'Wordsworth drily said “a Very pretty piece of Paganism”' (Rollins, 2.144). In Haydon's account Keats never forgave Wordsworth for this slight, although the circumstances and date of the incident are unclear. Another celebrated event involving both Keats and Wordsworth certainly took place on 28 December, when Haydon gave his 'immortal dinner' for Keats, Wordsworth, Lamb, and Wordsworth's cousin Thomas Monkhouse. After several hours of inspired talk the company moved to take tea, where they were joined by some invited friends. The evening reached a memorable comic climax in an exchange between Wordsworth and the deputy comptroller of the stamp office, who spoke to the great poet in such ludicrously inappropriate terms that Lamb was moved to a pitch of drollery at their expense which reduced Keats and the company to helpless laughter.
This busy social life continued into January and February. Keats attended 'a sort of a Club every Saturday evening' and was invited by Haydon to dine 'every Sunday at three' (Letters of John Keats, 1.202, 204). He regularly attended Hazlitt's lectures. There were introductions to Henry Crabb Robinson, and, through the Shelleys, to Thomas Love Peacock, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, and Claire Clairmont. Freed from the discipline of his long poem, Keats now entered a freshly productive period. He had been seeing Wordsworth a good deal, and was reading the Elizabethans, under the influence of Hazlitt's lectures on the English poets. He now experimented confidently, and also returned to writing sonnets, in an assured and practised manner; 'On Seeing a Lock of Milton's Hair', 'On Sitting Down to Read King Lear', and 'When I have fears' were all written at this time. On 4 February his sonnet 'To the Nile' was composed in a timed competition with Hunt and Shelley. Later in the month, on 27 February, he wrote to John Taylor of his 'Axioms' in poetry, that it should 'surprise by a fine excess', and that if poetry 'comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all' (ibid., 1.238). Keats was correcting Endymion and preparing it for the press throughout this period. Book 1 was delivered to the publishers on 20 January, and book 2 on 6 February. He finished the fair copy of book 3 before the end of the month, and began on book 4 while reading proofs for the first three books. He had also begun 'Isabella, or, The Pot of Basil', a narrative poem in ottava rima which was conceived in a project with Reynolds to produce verse tales from Boccaccio. Keats's own subject was probably suggested by Hazlitt. The poem represented a significant new departure, reaching for a sustained and studied complexity of texture he had not previously attempted.
But, as happened often in Keats's short life, this determined commitment to his maturing literary career was interrupted by personal problems. Tom had been spitting blood, but in spite of this George returned to London from Devon at the end of February, leaving Tom alone. George, whose behaviour now began to chime less perfectly with Keats's own best interests, had decided to marry and emigrate to America. Keats had little option at this short notice but to leave the preparation of Endymion to his publishers, asking Cowden Clarke to check proofs, and join Tom in Teignmouth. He left London by coach in a violent storm on 4 March, reaching Exeter on 6 March and arriving in Teignmouth the next day. He stayed at 20 Strand (now Northumberland Place). The Keats brothers had been spending time in flirtatious friendship with the three daughters of a Mrs Jeffrey, 'the Girls over at the Bonnet shop' (Letters of John Keats, 1.246) at 35 Strand, and Keats fell in with this routine. It rained continuously for six days after his arrival. Keats was insulted at the theatre in Teignmouth on about 10 March, in obscure circumstances. Tom had a haemorrhage on 13 March. Money was short, and George sent £20 in the middle of March. In spite of these worries Keats managed to finish copying Endymion book 4 by 14 March, and on 19 March he wrote and dated a first preface to Endymion, sending it with the remaining copy to his publishers on 21 March. He learned on 9 April that his preface had been rejected by Reynolds and his publishers, who feared that its apologetically defensive tone might expose him to public ridicule and attack. The next day he wrote and sent a new preface. This was still defensive, but struck a valedictory note in bidding farewell to his own period of poetic apprenticeship.
Keats's poetic career had reached a new level with the completion of 'Isabella' about the end of April. The poem has a tighter sense of narrative control, a more distinctive and independent stylistic identity, and a defter interweaving of symbol and story, than anything Keats had hitherto written. On 1 May, with Endymion and 'Isabella' completed, Keats wrote an 'Ode to May' in fourteen irregular lines, hinting at achievements which still lay a year ahead. Over the next two days he wrote one of his most important letters, to Reynolds, expounding his notion of life as a 'large Mansion of Many Apartments' (Letters of John Keats, 1.280), which sketched a model of personal and poetic maturity which gives powerful expression to Keats's gathering sense of human suffering and its relation to great art.
An advance copy of Endymion arrived on 24 April. Within a month the poem was published in London by Taylor and Hessey, dedicated 'to the memory of Thomas Chatterton'. At first it prompted little reaction beyond Keats's immediate circle, and even here responses were guarded. It seemed oddly constructed, and was not always easy to follow in its adaptation of classical narrative. More worrying, for instance to Taylor, was the poem's sometimes fervid sensuality and its Hunt-like mannerisms of style. The volume sold poorly and was ultimately remaindered. It is nevertheless a major achievement in the rich suggestivity of its symbolism, and in the extravagantly abundant detail of its poetic effects. Its reputation has grown since the mid-nineteenth century.
Life in Teignmouth had its attractions, including female admirers, a trip to Dawlish fair, and apparently a visit from Keats's friend Rice. But everything was overshadowed by Tom's failing health. In spite of continued blood-spitting, Tom was determined to return to London. The brothers set off on 4 or 5 May, apparently accompanied by Sarah Jeffrey, one of the Teignmouth girls, as far as Honiton. At Bridport Tom suffered a serious haemorrhage, and the remainder of the journey proved slow and difficult. They were back in Well Walk by 11 May.
Summer 1818: the walking tour
Throughout May Keats was 'very much engaged with his friends' (Letters of John Keats, 1.286) in London. The idea of a walking tour in Scotland with Brown had been under discussion for some time, and this now began to take shape. It was to provide materials for the further attempt at a long classical poem, which had been hinted in the published preface to Endymion. This was Hyperion, for which Keats had undertaken serious reading, at Bailey's prompting, in Milton, Wordsworth, and Cary's Dante. But once again concentration on literary projects proved difficult for Keats to sustain in the face of pressing distractions. George married Georgiana Wylie on 28 May. Keats signed the register as a witness, troubled and depressed by George's imminent departure, the continuing difficulty of contact with his sister Fanny, still living under Richard Abbey's disapproving guardianship, and Tom's serious illness. Keats was himself unwell in early June, and his doctor instructed him not to go out for several days. There were financial worries. Keats needed cash to cover the expenses of his walking tour. George had debts to clear and costs to meet before his voyage to America. Tom had hoped to travel to Italy for his health, but was clearly too weak for the journey, so money had to be found to pay Mrs Bentley at Well Walk to look after him in Keats's absence. All this put pressure on Abbey's trust fund, and on the mutual understanding of the three brothers. The financial arrangements surrounding George's departure for America became a matter of serious controversy after Keats's death. George himself stated later that when he left for America he left his brother with nearly £300. This was later hotly disputed by Brown, who took George to mean that he had given money to Keats, whereas George probably meant that Keats had at that time some £300 of his own left in trust with Abbey. George had cashed his trust on coming of age in February 1818, and by his own account left £500 of the £1600 cashed to clear debts and leave some means to his brothers. Keats lived on this money during and beyond Tom's illness. Although George's conduct, and his subsequent accounts of it, leave room for doubt as to his motives, it seems likely that Keats ended up owing George money, and that George, who had money problems of his own, did what he felt he could to assist his brother.
A different distraction loomed in the form of the reviews of Endymion. Keats and his friends were apprehensive that the tory Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine might continue its assault on Hunt by turning attention to Keats's published work. There were positive responses to Endymion from friends, and a favourable notice probably by John Scott in The Champion. But for the tories Hunt's influence marked Keats out as fair game, and a critical storm was now gathering.
Keats left London for Liverpool with George and Georgiana Keats and Charles Brown on 22 June. They arrived in Liverpool on the late afternoon of 23 June, and Keats and Brown set off on their tour early the next morning, taking the coach to Lancaster and leaving George and Georgiana asleep in the inn. They sailed for America a few days later. Keats and Brown walked from Lancaster through the south lakes. Keats was disappointed to find Wordsworth out when they reached Rydal on 27 June, and disillusioned too when he learned that Wordsworth was on electioneering business for the tory Lord Lowther. He was also struck by the prominence of Wordsworth's house and its familiarity to tourists. He nevertheless left a note for the poet, propped up on what he took to be a portrait of Dorothy, and after proceeding along Rydal Water to Grasmere was comforted by the humbler aspect of Dove Cottage.
The walkers continued northwards, climbing Skiddaw on 29 June, then going on to Carlisle, and from there by coach through Gretna Green to Dumfries. Keats wrote his sonnet 'On Visiting the Tomb of Burns' on this part of the journey. From Dumfries they walked westwards, from 2 to 6 July, first to Glenluce and then on foot and by mail coach through Stranraer to Portpatrick. From there they took a boat to Donaghadee in Ireland, and walked to Belfast and back. Keats's letters to Tom and others recording all of this journey are wonderfully animated and graphic, including an extraordinary account of a squalid old woman, encountered on the way back from Belfast, carried in a filthy sedan chair:
like an ape half starved … in its passage from Madagascar to the cape … looking out with a round-eyed skinny lidded, inanity—with a sort of horizontal idiotic movement of her head … What a thing would be a history of her Life and sensations.Letters of John Keats, 1.321–2
They returned to Portpatrick on 8 July, walked via Stranraer to Ballantrae, and on to Girvan by 10 July, Keats producing here his sonnet 'To Ailsa Rock', and also completing the lines beginning 'Ah, ken ye what I met the day', in the manner of Burns but also anticipating 'La belle dame sans merci'. On 11 July they walked to Ayr, Keats quickly producing a sonnet while being shown round Burns's cottage, then on to Glasgow by 17 July, and through Inveraray and up into the highlands by 19 July, Keats writing verse all the time. They had walked to Oban by 21 July, and next day caught the ferry to the Isle of Mull, where they took on a punishing 37-mile walk right across the island rather than meet the expense of sailing round it. On 24 July they visited Iona and Staffa by boat, viewing seascapes and landscapes which made an obvious impact on Keats's writing. They rested in Oban, but Keats had developed a heavy cold in the crossing of Mull, and by the time the weary travellers moved on to Fort William on 1 August, climbing Ben Nevis on the following day, Keats was exhausted and suffering from an ulcerated throat brought on by bad tonsillitis. In Inverness a doctor declared Keats feverish and advised an immediate return to London. He took a coach to Cromarty and sailed on the smack George on 8 August.
Death of Tom Keats: Hyperion
Keats was back in Well Walk on 18 August. His doctor insisted that he be confined to the house. The sore throat was still bad, he was suffering from toothache, and Keats was also dosing himself with mercury, probably fearing that his ulcerated throat might have a venereal origin. Tom was now gravely ill. Brown's half of Wentworth Place was being rented by a young widow named Frances Brawne and her three children. Keats probably met the family about this time, but he was doubtless too worried by Tom's health to take notice of the eldest girl, Fanny, who was just eighteen. He made a copy of 'Isabella', and saw such friends as he could. Tom's condition offered little hope, and Keats's spirits received a further heavy blow with the appearance on 1 September of J. G. Lockhart's devastatingly offensive attack on Poems and Endymion in the August issue of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, which concluded 'so back to the shop, Mr John' and ruthlessly pursued the jeering 'cockney' epithet and all its associations (3, August 1818, 524). This was followed on 27 September by J. W. Croker's attack on Endymion in the delayed April issue of the Quarterly Review, and at the same time Keats's Poems was savaged anonymously in the delayed June issue of the British Critic, which notoriously indexed Endymion as 'a monstrously droll poem' (new ser., 9, June 1818, 649–54). These attacks were plainly political in motivation, and aimed chiefly at Hunt. But they succeeded in sustaining a vitriolic and cruelly personal savagery at Keats's expense which has become legendary in literary history. His supposed low social origins were derided. His medical training became a running joke. His poetic ambitions, and even his lack of height, were ridiculed.
Friends offered assistance. Taylor and Bailey had tried to head off Lockhart's attack. An anonymous defence appeared in the Morning Chronicle, and Reynolds published a supportive notice in the West of England Journal which Hunt reprinted in The Examiner. Keats himself, unwell as he was, and beset by personal difficulties and the imminent tragedy of his brother's death, made courageous efforts to maintain his composure in the face of this public onslaught. To an extent he succeeded. He was shaken and upset, but his literary ambition and self-belief survived the crisis. He wrote to the George Keatses in mid-October, with a calm certainty, 'I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death' (Letters of John Keats, 1.394). He was soon planning a new volume of poems with Taylor and Hessey, to include Hyperion as its corner-stone.
In the last week of September Keats was again confined to the house with a sore throat. Tom was weakening daily. Keats nursed him intensively, but also managed some socializing as October wore on, and continued to write verse. Haslam in particular proved an invaluable friend at this time. By mid-October he was working on Hyperion. On 24 October he met Isabella Jones again, and visited her apartment. Money worries continued to dog him. In the midst of all this he continued to write letters with an immense zest for life and intellectual subtlety. The letter to Woodhouse of 27 October concerning the poetical character and Wordsworth's 'egotistical sublime' is a tour de force. As Keats's emotional experience darkened, and his talent began its quick ripening into greatness, disenchantment with Hunt became suddenly obvious. With the growing consciousness of his own powers, Hunt's poetic stature was by comparison diminished, and his influence now seemed an embarrassment.
Tom died on 1 December, and was buried in St Stephen, Coleman Street, a week later. Keats, shattered by the trials of the past six months, gratefully accepted Brown's generous invitation to live in Wentworth Place. Regular social life could now begin to resume. On 5 December he attended the prize-fight between Jack Randall and Ned Turner at Crawley Hunt in Sussex. The friendships with Brown and Haslam grew still more intense, and Keats began to move in a wider circle once more. He also managed to see more of his sister Fanny. To most of his friends Keats appeared to possess comfortable independent means. They did not know he was living on money left behind by George, and that he was constantly importuning Abbey for advances. Nevertheless late in December Keats was offering to lend Haydon money. As Christmas approached he could not shake off his sore throat.
Keats was also seeing more of Fanny Brawne [see Brawne, Frances (1800-1865)]. He dined with the family on Christmas day, and the couple came to an 'understanding', disapproved of by her mother because of her youth and Keats's uncertain prospects. Many among Keats's friends also disapproved of the relationship. Fanny struck them as superficial, vain, and flirtatious; and, although Keats clearly found her attractive and fascinating, he himself recognized a wilful affectation in her social manner. His doubts about the sincerity of her attachment often shaded into jealousy, and as his health began to fail these uncertainties led to sometimes unbalancing extremes of emotion. But Fanny was without question the great passion of Keats's life. The authenticity of her own feelings for Keats was long obscured after his death by the absence of documentary evidence, and the prejudices of nineteenth-century biography, which associated her influence with Keats's illness and decline.
Immediately after Christmas Keats had to postpone a trip to Chichester because of his sore throat, and was again confined for several days. He was somewhat better in January, which found him writing, and visiting. In spite of further financial worries, Haydon got his loan. Keats had to get £20 from Abbey before he could pay for his visit to Chichester in mid-January. Once there, in the midst of card parties and a visit to the Snooks (Dilke's sister Laetitia and her husband John) at Bedhampton, Keats managed to write most of The Eve of St Agnes. This is one of his greatest poems. Its sensuality and rich medievalism, and the tonal subtlety of its brilliantly coloured Spenserians, stand comparison with the finest narrative poems in the language. The poem confirmed Keats's extraordinary development towards artistic maturity in the months following his return from Scotland. But his sore throat had come back. At the beginning of February he returned to Hampstead and joined Brown, who had moved back into Wentworth Place.
Spring 1819: the great odes
By 2 February The Eve of St Agnes was finished. Keats went out little in the wintry weather. In the middle of the month he attempted a companion piece to The Eve of St Agnes, 'The Eve of St Mark', but gave it up unfinished. It was about now, in one of the remarkable long journal-letters that Keats wrote to George and his wife in 1818 and 1819, that he observed how 'A Man's life of any worth is a continual allegory', going on to assert that 'Shakespeare led a life of Allegory; his works are the comments on it' (Letters of John Keats, 2.67). His financial worries persisted and deepened. He borrowed from friends, and there were frequent meetings with Abbey between February and April. By March he was going out more, with visits to the theatre and the British Museum. The period from February to May produced many of his finest and most important letters, including the journal-letter to the George Keatses which speaks of the world as a 'Vale of Soul-making': 'Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul?' (ibid., 2.102). He wrote sonnets, tried to continue with Hyperion, read Hazlitt and the Elizabethans, and indulged an indolence which occasionally kept him in bed until 10 in the morning. He spent time coaching his sister Fanny for her confirmation. The relationship with Fanny Brawne moved closer to the centre of his life when on 3 April the Dilkes moved out of their half of Wentworth Place, and the Brawnes moved in. Fanny now lived next door to Keats.
The pace and intensity of Keats's writing increased. The famous walk on Hampstead Heath with Coleridge took place on 11 April. In mid-April he finally abandoned Hyperion. Its Miltonic conception was oppressive, and had repeated a pattern in which Keats's poetic career moved forward by imitating the voices of others. But this time the emergence of a new style in the unfinished third book marked a new confidence and artistic daring. The poem broaches abiding themes of human experience by a completely distinctive blend of condensed abstraction with sensuality and strong feeling. There is too an intellectual ambition in Hyperion, engaged with questions of growth and maturity, in literary, psychological, and historical terms, which placed Keats on the very threshold of consummated genius.
After the abandonment of Hyperion, troubled by financial and personal worries, and by the dark undertones of his failing health, Keats managed a supreme effort of creative energy. There was a flurry of writing in verse, Spenserians, Shakespearian and Petrarchan sonnets, couplets, quatrains, and doggerel. Then, some time in the last week of April, Keats's preoccupations with love, death, and poetry fused to produce the strange enigmatic power of 'La belle dame sans merci'. Before the end of the month, he had written the 'Ode to Psyche'. This difficult poem adapted sonnet rhymes to produce a complicated irregular form. Its themes embrace the great paradoxes of art and life, permanence and mutability, beauty and death. Over a few days Keats further explored the possibilities of the sonnet, expressing his frustration with its limits in 'If by dull rhymes our English must be chained'. At the beginning of May the themes of the 'Ode to Psyche', and the formal experimentation of the preceding weeks, were brought to a beautifully poised focus in the first of the great odes: the 'Ode to a Nightingale'. In Brown's later account, a nightingale had nested near Wentworth Place, and Keats
felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps … contained his poetical feeling on the song of our nightingale.Rollins, 2.65
The 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' and the 'Ode on Melancholy' were written probably in immediate succession to the nightingale ode, each in a stanza differently adapted from English sonnet forms, and each offering its own inflection of the individual human encounter with great archetypes of experience. The less successful 'Ode on Indolence' was also written about this time. Towards the end of May Keats was again unwell and obliged to stay at home. Money worries returned yet again. In April he had remarked to George that he 'was not worth a sixpence' (Letters of John Keats, 2.93). By the end of the month he was thinking of moving to Teignmouth, or of becoming a ship's surgeon.
Summer and autumn 1819: Lamia and the 'Ode to Autumn'
On 8 June Rice called and invited Keats to accompany him to the Isle of Wight. By mid-June Keats was speaking of himself as engaged, and broke. He saw little of the Dilkes from now on, as they openly disapproved of the relationship with Fanny. On 16 June he learned that Mrs Midgley Jennings was filing a bill in chancery against the Keats family, and asked Haydon and others for the return of loans. Haydon's refusal annoyed him. Keats and Rice left on the Portsmouth coach on 27 June in a violent storm. They crossed to the Isle of Wight and settled in Shanklin. He sent love letters to Fanny Brawne, and wrote verse constantly through late June and into the first week of July. Keats was in an irritable state of health, but had completed the first part of Lamia by mid-July. Brown joined them in Shanklin, and Keats worked with him on a drama, Otho. He also began to revise and rework Hyperion as The Fall of Hyperion. With Brown's arrival the party fell into a routine of late nights and cards, placing further strain on Keats's health. Rice left towards the end of August, and Keats was left alone for a while in Shanklin while Brown travelled about the island. Keats was now deeply immersed in several major poems simultaneously, and writing with the confident fluency of an artist at the height of his powers. On Brown's return, they decided to visit Winchester, primarily to gather materials for Keats's poetic projects. On 12 August, with Lamia half-finished, they left Shanklin, narrowly missing an accident in the crossing from Cowes.
The first four acts of Otho were completed by 14 August. Keats now broke off his friendship with Bailey, who after courting Reynolds's sister had married someone else. He wrote to him for the last time on 14 August, expressing his ambition to 'make as great a revolution in modern dramatic writing as Kean has done in acting' (Letters of John Keats, 2.139). In fact the psychological tensions and insights of Lamia and the complex self-interrogation of The Fall of Hyperion suggest an almost novelistic quality in Keats's still emerging powers. Otho was finished by 23 August. Keats was desperately short of money. He borrowed from Hessey, and Haslam. Late in August and early in September at Winchester Keats completed Lamia, continued with The Fall of Hyperion, and revised The Eve of St Agnes. Brown left for Chichester about 7 September. Keats was distracted from his writing by a letter from George and hurriedly returned to London by the night coach on 10 September. His visit was brief but busy, with trips to the theatre and meetings with Woodhouse, Hessey, and Abbey. He managed to see his sister on 13 September and on the same day witnessed ‘Orator’ Henry Hunt's triumphal entry into London. He returned to Winchester two days later. The 'Ode to Autumn' was written in Winchester on about 19 September. This was his last major poem. By 21 September he had given up his revision of Hyperion because of its excessive Miltonic inversions; 'English ought to be kept up' (Letters of John Keats, 2.167).
Keats was considering a career in journalism. Brown rejoined him in Winchester at the beginning of October from Chichester, where he had illegally married his housekeeper. Keats and Brown returned together to London after a week. Keats saw Fanny Brawne on 10 October for the first time since June. He took lodgings at 25 College Street, Westminster, in order to live cheaply, but also to avoid living next door to Fanny. An obsession with her was beginning to take hold, and the College Street plan collapsed. After only a few days he again visited the Brawnes, spent two days with the Dilkes, left his lodgings and returned to Wentworth Place with Brown by about 21 October. Severn called on him a few days later and found him 'well neither in mind nor in body' (Sharp, 41). It was possibly at this time that he wrote the sonnet 'Bright star! Would I were steadfast as thou art', probably inspired by Fanny Brawne. This was long considered his last poem, because he wrote it out in Severn's copy of Shakespeare on the voyage to Italy in September 1820.
November found Keats struggling to borrow money. Haslam once again provided assistance. He got money from Abbey for the first time in ten months. On 5 November Keats missed a lecture in which he was quoted by Hazlitt. He visited friends in London, and dined out regularly. On the 17th he announced in a letter to Taylor his determination 'not to publish any thing I have now ready written'; he hoped to try for a few poems 'at home amongst Men and women', which would 'nerve me up to the writing of a few fine Plays' (Letters of John Keats, 2.234). He was reading Holinshed's Chronicles, and working on a new play King Stephen, perhaps with Kean in mind. This work continued into December, when he also began a Byronic poem entitled 'The Cap and Bells', and apparently attempted one last revision of Hyperion. Just before Christmas he learned that Otho had been accepted by Drury Lane for the following season. On 22 December he wrote that he had been, and continued, 'rather unwell' (ibid., 2.238). On Christmas day, the anniversary of his first 'understanding' with Fanny, their engagement was formalized. His attempt to 'wean' himself from her in the autumn had failed. From this time Keats's passion for Fanny ran increasingly out of control as his health and hopes fell into terminal collapse.
Keats's brother George arrived from America on 9 January. He believed himself to have been swindled by the American naturalist John James Audubon, and with a young family found himself in serious financial straits. Keats dined with him on his arrival, and embarked on a round of social and business visits which brought the brothers into contact with many old friends. George drew his remaining legacy from Abbey, together with most of the money remaining to Keats in the Abbey fund, as this too was owing to him as a result of the financial arrangements made before his departure for America in June 1818. This left Keats in an extremely difficult financial position. George set off once more for Liverpool on 28 January, after seeing his brother for the last time. On 3 February, a bitterly cold day, Keats returned home to Hampstead late from town, travelling outside on the stagecoach to save money. He was feverish, and Brown realized immediately that he was seriously ill. As Keats retired to bed he coughed slightly, and Brown heard him say:
‘That is blood from my mouth.’ … he was examining a single drop of blood upon the sheet. ‘Bring me the candle, Brown; and let me see this blood.’ After regarding it steadfastly, he … said,—‘I know the colour of that blood;—it is arterial blood;—I cannot be deceived in that colour;—that drop of blood is my death-warrant;—I must die.’Rollins, 2.73–4
He suffered a massive haemorrhage later that night.
Keats was confined for the rest of the month. In the middle of February he offered in anguish to break his engagement to Fanny. Barry Cornwall kindly sent books. He tried to proceed with 'The Cap and Bells'. Fanny sent a ring at the end of February, and assured him that she still wished to marry him. By early March he was suffering violent heart palpitations, but his doctor was optimistic about his condition by 8 March, and he was declared out of danger on 10 March. He started to work again, revising Lamia for his planned new collection. He dined with Taylor on 14 March. But a week later he had suffered several further attacks of heart palpitation. He did manage to get out late in March and early in April, and attended a private view of Haydon's 'Christ's Entry into Jerusalem' on 25 March. In April he was even planning a visit to Scotland with Brown. Taylor and Hessey received the manuscript of Keats's new volume of poems on 27 April. By the beginning of May he had given up the idea of accompanying Brown to Scotland. Brown had let Wentworth Place for the summer, so Keats took lodgings at 2 Wesleyan Place, Kentish Town, near to Hunt. Brown settled some debts for Keats and lent him money. Keats moved in to his new lodgings on 6 May, and then travelled with Brown on the smack to Gravesend, where they parted for the last time.
In the first half of June Keats was correcting proofs, and was still making social visits. He had a serious attack of blood-spitting on 22 June and was obliged to move into Hunt's house in Mortimer Terrace. He continued to spit blood for several days. It was now obvious to everyone, and above all to Keats himself, with his medical training, that he was gravely ill, with the same ‘consumption’, or tuberculosis, that had killed his mother, uncle, and brother. During this period, in the last week of June, Taylor and Hessey published Keats's Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and other Poems, including all of the major odes, and Hyperion. Keats defiantly identified himself on the title-page as 'the author of Endymion'. This collection is now recognized as among the most important works of English poetry ever published. Over the following weeks the book was widely noticed, generally in favourable terms. Jeffrey reviewed it enthusiastically together with Endymion in the Edinburgh, and began to redress the shameful injustices of Keats's earlier critical reception.
Keats's time was now short. Shelley's friend Maria Gisborne saw him at Hunt's early in July 'under sentence of death' (Maria Gisborne & Edward Williams: their Journals and Letters, ed. F. Jones, 1951, 40). His doctors had ordered him to Italy. After mid-July he was too ill to write. His jealous passion for Fanny Brawne became a torture of frustrated desire and thwarted hopes. He fell out angrily with Hunt over some supposed slight, and moved out on 12 August to live with the Brawnes in Wentworth Place for the month leading up to his departure for Italy. On this same day he received a generous invitation from Shelley to stay with him in Italy. Keats courteously declined. It was not clear who would accompany him to Italy, or where he would live, and he waited in vain for news on this matter from Brown. Abbey refused Keats money towards the end of August. By 30 August, after another haemorrhage, he lay in a dangerous state. On 11 September he dictated to Fanny Brawne his last letter to his sister, as he was unable to see her to say goodbye. Haslam was ready to go with Keats to Italy, but circumstances made this impossible, and he took on himself instead to arrange for Severn to go. Keats saw Fanny Brawne for the last time on 13 September 1821. He could not bring himself thereafter to write to her, or read her letters. Keats raised cash by assigning his copyrights to Taylor and Hessey, assisted by Haslam and Woodhouse. This was the closest he came to making a will. He boarded the Mary Crowther in London docks on 17 September with Severn and sailed to Gravesend, accompanied by the faithful Haslam.
Keats and Severn parted with Haslam and sailed from Gravesend on the night of 18 September. They were repeatedly delayed, first by storms, then by calms. On 28 September they landed at Portsmouth and visited the Snooks at Bedhampton. After further false starts the voyage finally began about 2 October. It proved a dreadful ordeal. Keats repeatedly coughed until he spat blood. He sank into a deep depression. Severn was astonished at his survival. They reached Naples on 21 October but were held in quarantine for ten days, Keats's condition constantly deteriorating. In spite of this he forced himself to the appearance of gaiety, summoning up puns for Severn and somehow finding the strength to write to Mrs Brawne. 31 October was Keats's twenty-fifth birthday. Passport formalities were not completed until well into November, and he did not reach Rome until 15 November. They took lodgings on the piazza di Spagna, living on money cashed from his publishers' draft. Keats's last known letter, written to Brown on 30 November, speaks of his 'habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence'. It ends 'I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow' (Letters of John Keats, 2.359). The final relapse came on 10 December. After much suffering, borne sometimes with great courage and fortitude, and sometimes with a terrible railing against his fate, Keats died at 11 p.m. on 23 February 1821. He was buried three days later in the protestant cemetery in Rome. Severn, who cared for him faithfully to the last, carried out his request that his gravestone be inscribed 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water'.
News of Keats's death reached London a month later. Dilke took charge of the arrangements with Keats's family, and with Fanny Brawne. His trust in George led to a quarrel with Brown and Haslam, who deplored what they took George's conduct to have been towards Keats. Brown travelled to Italy in 1822, meeting Byron and others and settling there some years later. There were further serious fallings-out between Brown, Taylor, and Reynolds. These quarrels prevented an early biography by anyone who had been close to Keats. His financial affairs continued to present the family with problems which were not resolved until after his sister came of age in 1824. In 1826 Fanny Keats married a man named Llanos who had reputedly talked to Keats three days before his death. They left England for Spain in 1833 and never returned. George's finances recovered and prospered in America and he eventually paid all Keats's debts. He died suddenly in 1841. Fanny Brawne married Louis Lindo in 1833. She was vilified by Keats's circle for her apparent heartlessness, and this judgement was reinforced when the relationship with Keats became publicly known after the love letters were published in 1878. It was not until the publication in 1936 of her correspondence with Fanny Keats that the injustice of this view became clear.
Keats's death was widely attributed at the time to illness brought on as a direct result of the critical attacks on his work in 1818. Byron alluded to this with cruel flippancy in Don Juan:
'Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particleShould let itself be snuffed out by an article.
canto 2, stanza 60Shelley's magnificent elegy for Keats, Adonais (1821), gave further currency to this misconception. The first published biographical account was in Leigh Hunt's Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries in 1828. Hunt was warm and sincere in his admiration for Keats, and just in his estimate of the poetry, but misleadingly lent credence to the view that Keats was embarrassed by humble social origins. After a period in which it seemed that Keats might sink into obscurity, his fame was finally secured by Richard Monckton Milnes's Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats in 1848. This drew extensively on the papers and reminiscences of Keats's friends, notably Woodhouse, Brown, Dilke, and Cowden Clarke. Its influence, among the Pre-Raphaelites and others, established Keats as a major poet. His early death, and the obscurity in which he died, nourished a tendency to idealize Keats once his fame was established. The absence of reliable contemporary likenesses supported this tendency. Like his fame, the familiar portraits of Keats are mainly posthumous, many of them deriving from Severn. Those who knew Keats agree that no likeness adequately catches his combination of a dauntless expression with animated features and a large, expressive mouth. Keats was quick to betray emotion. His height, 5 feet and three-quarters of an inch, was short but not unusually so for the age, and his attractive figure was compact and energetic until overtaken by illness. Descriptions of his hair vary, but it appears to have been a rich, curly reddish-brown. Witnesses disagree also about the colour of his eyes, but are at one in recalling the intensity of their gaze. Those who knew him comment repeatedly on his strikingly intense and handsome physical presence, which would cause passers-by to turn and look at him in the street.
Keats's reputation continued to rise throughout the Victorian period. Matthew Arnold in 1880 placed his achievement on a plane with Shakespeare. The tragic circumstances of Keats's early death, and the intense brevity of his poetic career, proved favourite subjects for twentieth-century biographers. His life has been researched and rewritten probably more than that of any other English poet. For many, Keats has epitomized a popular conception of the Romantic poet, yearning for escape from the pain and banality of everyday life into a sensuous dream world of the imagination. This underestimates Keats's intellectual toughness, literary professionalism, and humorous good nature. The generosity of his spirit, the influence of the letters, and the significance of his achievement for readers of poetry, have confirmed his stature as one of the greatest English poets.
- The letters of John Keats, 1814–1821, ed. H. E. Rollins, 2 vols. (1958)
- H. E. Rollins, ed., The Keats circle: letters and papers and more letters and poems of the Keats circle, 2 vols. (1965)
- R. Gittings, John Keats (1968)
- G. M. Matthews, ed., Keats: the critical heritage (1971)
- W. J. Bate, John Keats (1963)
- A. Motion, Keats (1997)
- R. M. Milnes, Life, letters, and literary remains of John Keats, 2 vols. (1848)
- C. Cowden Clarke and M. Cowden Clarke, Recollections of writers (1878)
- W. Sharp, ed., Life and letters of Joseph Severn (1892)
- L. Hunt, Lord Byron and some of his contemporaries (1828)
- L. Hunt, Autobiography, 3 vols. (1850)
- A. Ward, John Keats: the making of a poet (1963)
- C. Ricks, Keats and embarrassment (1974)
- S. Colvin, John Keats: his life and poetry, his friends, critics, and after-fame (1920)
- J. Barnard, John Keats (1987)
- N. Roe, John Keats and the culture of dissent (1997)
- E. Cook, ed., John Keats (1990)
- The diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon, ed. W. B. Pope, 5 vols. (1960–63)
- The complete works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe, 21 vols. (1930–34)
- T. Chilcott, A publisher and his circle: the life and work of John Taylor, Keats's publisher (1972)
- D. Hewlett, Adonais: a life of John Keats, 2nd edn (1949)
- G. H. Ford, Keats and the Victorians (1945)
- A. Lowell, John Keats, 2 vols. (1925)
- J. Wallace, ed., Lives of the great Romantics: Keats (1997)
- W. H. Marquess, Lives of the poet: the first century of Keats biography (1985)
- BL, poems and papers, Egerton MS 2780
- CAC Cam., papers
- Free Library of Philadelphia, papers
- Harvard U., Houghton L., letters, literary MSS, and papers
- Hunt. L., papers
- Keats House, Hampstead, London, letters; notebook kept as a medical student
- Morgan L., letters and literary MSS
- NL Scot., letters and verses
- NYPL, papers
- Princeton University Library, papers
- Ransom HRC, papers
- Yale U., Beinecke L., papers
- BL, letters to his sister Fanny, Add. MS 34019
- BL, corresp. with Benjamin Robert Haydon, MS Facs 337
- BL, journal letter to Thomas Keats, Add. MS 45510
- U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to C. Cowden Clarke
- V&A NAL, letters to his publishers with MS of ‘Sonnet on the grasshopper and the cricket’
- B. R. Haydon, pen-and-ink sketches, 1816 (for Christ's entry into Jerusalem), NPG; repro. in Pope, ed., Diaries of … Haydon, vol. 2
- B. R. Haydon, plaster cast of life-mask, 1816 (after matrix by Haydon), NPG; copy, Keats House, London
- J. Severn, charcoal, 1816, V&A [see illus.]
- C. A. Brown, silhouette, 1818, Keats House, London
- C. A. Brown, pencil drawing, 1819, NPG
- J. Severn, miniature, 1819, NPG
- B. R. Haydon, oils, detail, 1820 (for Christ's entry into Jerusalem), Athenaeum of Ohio / Mount St Mary's Seminary of the West, Cincinnati, Ohio
- G. Girometti, plaster medallion, 1821, Keats House, London
- J. Severn, oils, 1821, NPG
- J. Severn, pencil sketch, 1821, Keats–Shelley Memorial House, Rome; copy, Keats House, London
- W. Hilton, oils, 1822 (after miniature by J. Severn), NPG; on loan to Keats House, London
- P. MacDowell, plaster bust, 1828, Keats House, London
- C. W. Wass, stipple, pubd 1841 (after W. Hilton), BM, NPG
- J. Severn, oils, 1850, Keats House, London
- A. Whitney, marble bust, 1873, Keats House, London
- C. Smith, 1880 (after death-mask by Gherardi, 1821), Keats House, London
- plaster cast of death mask, priv. coll.; formerly on loan to NPG
Wealth at Death
effectively penniless; £800 in chancery, unknown to him: Gittings, John Keats; Motion, Keats; Bate, John Keats; R. Gittings, The Keats Inheritance (1964)