One of the great English lyric poets and, along with his literary comrades Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, one of the three great poets of the English Romantic era, Keats’ popular image is a victim of his self-written tombstone epitaph: "Here lies one whose name was writ on water." This, along with his death from tuberculosis at 25, and the argument of Shelley’s elegy to him, Adonais, that Keats’ premature death was brought on by his visceral suffering at the harsh words of his critics (principally Robert Southey, in Shelley’s opinion), leaves one with the impression of a sprite too mild for this Earth.
The truth of the matter is that Keats was a pugnacious young man, opinionated and intense about his literary cause, but tolerant of critics who had a fair beef; his epitaph was merely a reflection of his fear that his life’s work would disappear into obscurity at the hands of bone-headed hack critics, rather than that his life itself was too faint a force, or faintly lived.
The son of a stablehand -- born on this day in 1795 in London -- as a youngster Keats was known as a high-minded, protective bull terrier, a boy who would fight anyone at the drop of a hat to defend a good cause despite his diminutive stature (he grew only to 5 feet). In between fisticuffs, however, Keats developed a love of literature, translating most if Virgil’s Aeneid for his own amusement while still a teenager. By the time Keats was 15, however, his father had died from injuries after falling from a horse and his mother had followed due to illness; and as the eldest of the 5 Keats children, his schoolyard spirit translated into a fiercely protective loyalty to his siblings. Despite a growing attachment to writing, Keats began to apprentice for a stable and financially secure career as a surgeon in the small town of Edmonton.
Small-town life made Keats restless, which drove him into the company of his former headmaster, John Clarke, and his son Cowden, intellectuals around whom talented people gathered, including radical publisher Leigh Hunt. It was among this crowd that Keats first discovered the 16th century poetry of Edmund Spenser, with its fanciful and sensuous dreamscapes. It was a transformative moment, leading Keats to experiment with writing his own poetry, initially in the Spenserian style. These early efforts were clumsy, but soon thereafter Keats would give up his career as a surgeon and see his poetry published in Hunt’s Examiner ("To Solitude" and "On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer," both 1816), with themes reflecting an interest in the role of artists in healing the suffering world and fighting for intellectual freedom, and in the celebration of the genius of other artists.
Next he published a lengthy verse allegory, signaling a return to nature in order to access the heart in all its intensity, Endymion (1818) which critics ferociously dismissed as "mawkish" and "slipshod"; Keats was hurt, but ultimately agreed with their assessment. His attachment to a Wordsworthian nature-born aesthetic blossomed into Keats' notion of "negative capability," a kind of transcendent engagement of reality by immersion in the uncertainties and mysteries which inhere in beauty, without reference to facts or reason.
While nursing his dying brother Tom, who was suffering from tuberculosis, and courting the love of his life, Fanny Brawne, Keats wrote the first 2 books of a planned epic on the Greek myth of creation, Hyperion (1819), and went on to write his finest shorter poems: "The Eve of St. Agnes" (based on a story from Boccaccio about the belief that if a maiden followed certain rituals on St. Agnes' Eve she would see her future husband in her dreams), "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," "Ode on Melancholy," "Ode on a Grecian Urn" (inspired by seeing a Wedgewood copy of a Roman imitation of a Greek vase at the British Museum), "Ode to a Nightingale," and "To Autumn" -- the latter 4 representing some of the greatest achievements of the Romantic movement. "To Autumn" was his last poem, representing the capstone of a mere 4 years of productivity as a poet.
Brother Tom died in 1818, and by 1820, tuberculosis had taken hold in Keats himself, and for a time he was nursed by Fanny Brawne, to whom he was now engaged. At the warning of his doctor that another English winter would kill him, he accepted the invitation of Shelley to visit him in Rome, traveling there with his friend, the painter Joseph Severn. Feverish and convulsive, believing that his unconsummated love for Brawne was slowly killing him, he died on February 23, 1821 in Rome, with Severn attending him, thereby fulfilling the stereotype of the Romantics. When Shelley drowned barely a year later, he carried a copy of Keats' poems in his pocket.
"I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination -- What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth." -- J. Keats, 1817.