John Keats was born in Moorgate, London, on 31st October, 1795. He was the eldest of four children, and believed, for a time, that he was born in the inn where his father had worked as a stablehand. John Keats’ parents had always had humble beginnings, and so rather than Eton or Harrow, two of the most prominent London schools, in his youth he was sent to John Clarke’s school in Enfield, where his parents lived; a small, casual, almost family-style school with a far more liberal educational pursuit than either Eton or Harrow. At John Clarke’s, Keats developed an interest in classics and history, which would not only remain his most ardent love throughout his short life, but also crop up in several of his poems, most noticeably the odes. His idea of melancholy, for example, can correspond quite accurately with the Greek idea of tragedy, and man as a tool of the fate.
Tragedy dogged Keats’ life. In 1804, his father died of a skull fracture, sustained when, upon riding back from a visit to see Keats and George, he fell from his horse. In 1810, when Keats was 14, his mother lost her life to tuberculosis – the same disease that would later rob Thomas from life as well. Keats and his surviving siblings were sent to guardians Richard Abey and John Sandell.
In 1814, Keats came into money. His grandfather, and his mother, had both left him substantial inheritances, that would revert to him once he had reached the age of 21. However, Keats was never told of the money, as there exists no record that he had withdrawn the savings upon his 21st birthday. Theories have historically blamed his guardians, but it seems as though both his mother and his grandfather had kept it very secret, and that a very many people did not know that Keats would come into money – a pity, as it would have changed his outlook, and helped Keats out. Because he did not know, Keats spent most of his life struggling with debt, applying to loans from his elder brother, and living barely above the poverty line.
In October 1815, having finished his apprenticeship, Keats applied to become a medical student at Guy’s Hospital. In a rapid change of events, he was accepted as a dresser at the hospital, a position which enabled him to assist surgeons through their operations; it would have been a long-term, lucrative career, and at this point, Keats had no intention of changing to anything else. He lodged near the hospital, in Southwark.
However, Keats could not settle to his career. His training took up excessive amounts of time, leaving him with very little time to spend on his work. He had tasted composition briefly in 1814, at just 19 years old, when he had written ‘An Imitation of Spenser’, and 1815, the literary and artistic world was alive with figures such as Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron, doing great things with their work. Fed up with his career as a medical student, overwhelmed with the responsibility of having his family be financially responsible on him, Keats fell into depression. He struggled through, and in 1816 was awarded his license to practice medicine – right around the time that he decided to try to become a poet.
Keats had his first coup when Leigh Hunt published his poem ‘O Solitude’ in The Examiner, a popular magazine of the time. He attempted to balance his career as a surgeon with his career as a poet, and churned out a volume of poetry that, unfortunately, was a complete failure. Critics despised it, and Keats had to switch publishers, who were more enthusiastic about his work.
Undaunted, he left medicine to pursue poetry, in the process losing a substantial amount of money that he had spent on training, and becoming more or less destitute. He moved in with his brothers in Hampstead, and took over nursing his brother Tom, who as suffering from tuberculosis, and thus exposed himself to infection. After Tom’s death, he moved to Wentworth Place in 1818.
This was the year where Keats would write his most astounding body of work. He composed five of his great odes, LA Belle Dame sans Merci, Hyperion, Lamia and The Eve of St. Agnes. However, when Keats approached his publishers with a new book of poems, they hated the volume. One was eventually published in 1820, shortly before Keats would die of tuberculosis.
In 1820, Keats began to display signs of tuberculosis, and at the suggestions of his doctors, he agreed to move to Italy, for the warmer climate. The journey was a disaster; storms chased the ship, and when the storms broke, there was a dead calm that left the ship moored in the middle of the ocean. When they arrived in Naples, they were held at quarantine, suspected of housing cholera, and so when Keats finally arrived in Rome, the winter was starting to settle in.
He lived in a villa on the Spanish Steps in Rome, with his friend Joseph Severn, who nursed him all through 1821, and the worst of the disease. Keats would spend nights coughing up blood and covered in sweat, and Severn wrote that Keats was so beset by misery, he would cry once he woke, and saw that he was alive. He finally died in Rome on 23rd February 1821, where he was buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome.
Famously, his gravestone has no name, only the words: “This Grave / contains all that was Mortal / of a / Young English Poet / Who / on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart / at the Malicious Power of his Enemies / Desired / these Words to be / engraven on his Tomb Stone: / Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821“.
Although Keats’ ability and talent were not in question among his contemporaries – they admired his sensual, flowing writing style – it was only during the Victorian era that Keats was given the recognition he deserved. His sensual writing style was right up the indulgent Victorians’ alley, and admiration of his work grew in leaps and bounds.
Today, there are several museums dedicated to Keats. His houses have all been turned into museums and monuments to his life, and several biographies have been written detailing every fragment of his life. Although Keats was only 25 when he died, and although he was derided and mocked throughout his life, it is clear today that he was not, as he wanted to believe, ‘one whose name was writ in water’.