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Biography of John Keats, Poet by Edmund Jupp

J O H N      K E A T S
Born in London, 1795 - Died in Rome, 1821

Keats had a tragically short life; yet even though he died so young the beauty that shines through his work is remarkable by any standards.

He was born on the 31st October 1795, in Finsbury. His father was the principal servant at the Swan and Hoop stables, who married the daughter of his master. His mother appears to have been a tall, bright young woman fond of the pleasures of this life. There were four children, John being the oldest, born prematurely at seven months.

By the age of twelve, John Keats had lost both of his parents. There was some money left for the four children, and they got about 2,000 pounds each. John was sent to a school at Enfield. He earned a reputation for some fighting ability, but gained all the prizes for English literature. He showed a keen interest in Greek mythology, and this can be seen in some of his later work.

At the age of fourteen his guardian apprenticed him to a surgeon, a Mr. Thomas Hammond, in Edmonton, near Enfield, for two hundred guineas and expenses. He didn't much care for this, for it did not interest him as poetry did. Still, he had little choice in the matter.

He came to London to enter St. Thomas' Hospital as a student, and had the good fortune to meet Leigh Hunt. There was a small coterie of young writers, and with their encouragement, he began to concentrate on his literary aspirations. These began to engross him and he soon gave up his medical work.

At the age of twenty-two he issued his first little volume. It appears to have pleased none but his friends. Yet it contained many gems, fondly quoted nowadays, (e.g. "Born of the very sigh that silence heaves").

Written within a period of but a few years, the earlier work naturally showed some immaturity, and indeed attracted somewhat harsh criticism from those who were his inferiors; but his work then developed into exquisite jewels of the English language that confounded his critics.

His longest work, Endymion, was prefaced by an apology for what he perceived were its inadequacies. It was published in 1818, when he was at Teignmouth, Devon. He had then only a few years to live. The simple opening lines have passed into the English language as a precious sequence of words, often quoted:

A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; .....".

In these days of ballpoint pens and word processors, it is difficult to appreciate the labour involved in composing and putting down on paper such a long piece. The lighting, too, was meagre by modem standards, and makes Keats' work all the more formidable.

The lovely contradictory phrase "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter," appears in his Ode to a Grecian Urn. "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" opens his Ode to Autumn, written whilst on a brief visit to Winchester.

These and many others are part of the happy legacy of this young man. Few poets could have produced so many oft quoted phrases. Everywhere, those who speak English have a rich treasury of words and expressions that can be recalled with great pleasure.

In his early years his outlook with regard to women was disdainful, almost hostile; but then he became attracted to a Miss Cox, a cousin of his friend J.H. Reynolds. This did not lead to anything. Nevertheless, his outlook was still one of some scorn with regard to love of women. He wrote that he found such to be "a cloying treacle to the wings of independence".

However, as with most young men, this attitude was to change completely. He fell deeply in love with a lady called Fanny Brawne, (later to marry and become Mrs. Lindon) and some thirty-seven letters he wrote her have survived. He was consumed with love for her, and at the same time beginning to suffer the strain of the consumption that was to kill him.

It has been suggested that his passion for Fanny aggravated his illness, the double strain of his romantic desires and his disease leading to an earlier death than might otherwise have occurred.

However that might be, Keats was aware of his condition, and the threat to his life. Consumption was not an uncommon illness in those days, and when it developed there was little hope. It was a scourge among all classes of society, and the doctors were impotent. For most sufferers a diagnosis of tuberculosis was a notice of death.

It is reported that in February 1820, noting the blood he had coughed up, after a cold trip on the coach, he called for a candle that he might distinguish the colour.

Examining the stain, he said that it was arterial blood, and stated calmly that it was his death warrant. He knew, as did people generally, that consumption was a killer, and there was no cure. Sufferers were advised to travel to areas where the air was purer, and this could alleviate the distress a little; but there were no drugs to combat the disease. Switzerland had many clinics, and was the favourite place where doctors used to send their patients.

Shelley invited him to Pisa, but Keats declined. He set out on a voyage to warmer climes, and suffered a very rough passage in the Bay of Biscay. His great friend Severn tended him devotedly during his last days, travelling with him, nursing him, and watching over him with great affection till death claimed him on February 23rd, 1821.

Some ten days earlier the poet had asked that on his grave should be placed the words "Here lies one whose name was writ in water". He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery at Rome. Only twenty-six years old when he died, yet Keats left us odes, sonnets, stanzas, and longer works that have become immortal.

English literature is a rich field for warm enjoyment, and John Keats has an honoured place in it.

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