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John Keats (1795-1821)

 

English lyric poet, the archetype of the Romantic writer. While still in good health, Keats emphasized the importance of having knowledge of the surrounding world, instead of focusing on hermetic speculations. Keats felt that the deepest meaning of life lay in the apprehension of material beauty, although his mature poems reveal his fascination with death and decay. Most of his best work appeared in one year.

Darkling I listen; and for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death

(in 'To a Nightingale')

John Keats was born at Moorfields, London, the son of a successful livery-stable manager. He was the oldest of four children, who remained deeply devoted to each other. Thomas, his father, was the chief hostler at the Swan and Hoop. After their father died in 1804 in a riding accident, Keats's mother, Frances Jennings Keats, remarried but the marriage was soon broken. She moved with the children, John and his sister Fanny and brothers George and Tom, to live with her mother at Edmonton, near London. She died of tuberculosis in 1810.

Keats was educated at the progressive Clarke's School in Enfield, where he began a translation of the Aeneid. The headmaster's son, Charles Cowden Clarke, his friend, later wrote with his wife Mary Cowden Clarke Recollections of Writers (1878). Barely five feet tall, Keats was not know at school for his enthusiasm for books, but his fighting. "My mind has been the most discontented and restless one that ever was put into a body too small for it," he wrote. In 1811 Keats was apprenticed to a surgeon-apothecary. While studying for the licence, he completed his translation of Aeneid. Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene impressed him deeply and his first poem, written in 1814, was 'Lines in Imitation of Spenser.' In that year he moved to London, where he resumed his surgical studies as a student at Guy's hospital. He became in 1816 a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries and was allowed to practice surgery. Before devoting himself entirely to poetry, Keats worked as a dresser and junior house surgeon. In London he had met Leigh Hunt, the editor of the leading liberal magazine of the day, The Examiner. He introduced Keats to other young Romantics, including Shelley, and published in the magazine Keats's sonnet, 'O Solitude'.

Keats's first book, Poems, was published in 1817. Sales were poor. He spent the spring with his brother Tom and friends at Shankin. It was about this time Keats started to use his letters as the vehicle of his thoughts of poetry. Later T.S. Eliot considered these pieces in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933) "certainly the most notable and most important ever written by any English poet," but also said about Keats's famous Hyperion: "it contains great lines, but I do not know whether it is a great poem." The first of his famous letters Keats wrote to Benjamin Bailey on November 22, 1817. "You perhaps at one time thought there was such thing as Worldly Happiness to be arrived at, at certain periods of time marked out – you have necessity from your disposition been thus led away – I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness".

Endymion, Keats's first long poem appeared when he was 21. It told in 4000 lines of the love of the moon goddess Cynthia for the young shepherd Endymion. Although Keats was dissatisfied with this work, he believed that further revision would not change it because "the foundations are too sandy." However, Keats was not only criticizing himself but the subject itself and the character of Endymion. The poem was attacked by John Wilson Croker and John Gibson Lochard, who wrote in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine: '... it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with "old Tartary the fierce;" no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or feeling of classical poetry or classical history, could have stooped to profane and vulgarize every association in the manner which has been adopted by this "son of promise."'

In spite of lukewarm critical reviews, Keats was not discouraged, but said to Richard Woodhouse: "I am ambitious of doing the world some good: if I should be spared that may be the work of mature years – in the interval I will assay to reach to as high a summit in Poetry as the nerve bestowed upon me will suffer." Keats's greatest works were composed in the late 1810s, among them Lamia, The Eve of St. Agnes, the great odes and two versions of Hyperion. telling the story of Saturn and the other Titans. Ultimately it was about decline and progression. The rise of Apollo signals the beginning of a new creative era. 

Keats worked briefly as a theatrical critic for The Champion, spent summer of 1818 touring the Lakes, Scotland and Northern Ireland. During his journey, which he made with his friend Charles Brown, a businessman, he vowed: "I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever." After returning to London he spent the next three months attending his brother Tom, who was seriously ill with tuberculosis.

After Tom's death in December, Keats moved to Hampstead to live with Charles Brown. Soon he fell in love with Fanny Brown, the daughter of a widowed neighbor, and they were betrothed. However, he did not stop visiting prostitutes after falling in love with Fanny.

In the winter of 1818-19 Keats worked mainly on Hyperion and The Eve of St Agnes. The fragmentary Eve of St Mark was composed during a visit to his friend Charles Wentworth Dilke's parents and relatives in Sussex. In 1819 Keats finished Lamia, and wrote another version of Hyperion, called The Fall of Hyperion. His famous poem 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' was inspired by a Wedgwood copy of a Roman copy of a Greek vase. Josiah Wedgwood's copy was purchased by Sir William Hamilton, who sold it to the duchess of Portland. She denoted the vase to the British Museum in 1784.

'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' – that is all
Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.

(in 'Ode on a Grecian Urn')

The second volume of Keats poems came out in 1820. It gained a huge critical success. However, Keats was suffering at that time from tuberculosis. His poems were marked with sadness partly because he was too poor to marry Fanny Brawne. Keats broke off his engagement and began what he called a "posthumous existence." In a letter from 1819 he had written, "I love you more in that I believe you have liked me for my own sake and nothing else. I have met with women whom I relay think would like to be married to a Poem and given away by a Novel."

Keats used laudanum, an opium tincture, as a painkiller and for sleeping. When his condition gradually worsened, he sailed for Italy in September with the painter Joseph Severn, to escape England's cold winter. Declining Shelley's invitation to join him at Pisa, Keats went to Rome, where he took up residence in rooms overlooking the Piazza di Spagna. 

Keats died in Rome at the age of 25, on February 23, 1821. Casts were made of his face, hands, and feet. During the autopsy, doctors discovered that the lungs were completely destroyed. Keats was buried in the Protestant Cemetery. He did not invent his own epitaph, but remembered words from the play Philaster, or Love Lies-Ableeding, written by Beaumont and Fletcher in 1611. "All your better deeds / Shall be in water writ," one of the characters says. Keats told his friend Joseph Severn that he wanted on his grave just the line, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water." Fanny wore mourning clothes for years after Keats's death and never took off the ring he had given her. In 1833, she married Louis Lindo, a Sephardic Jew; they had two children.

Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art –
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night

(in 'The Last Sonnet')

Keats's reputation continued to grow after his death. Forgetting their differences, Shelley immortalized him in Adonais (1821) as "A herd-abandon'd deer struck by the hunter's dart" – a sensitive, neglected poet killed by his reviewers. Keats's letters were published in 1848 and 1878. Between 1851 and 1886 came out twenty-seven separate editions of his poems. Keats's works influenced, among others, The Pre-Raphaelites, Oscar Wilde and Alfred Tennyson. Some later poets have attacked Keats and the Romantics: for T.S. Eliot Byron was "a disorderly mind, and an uninteresting one" and Keats and Shelley were "not nearly such great poets as they are supposed to be". Andrew Motion argues in his biography on Keats (1998) that the author was obsessed with sex and had venereal disease and these aspects of the poets life were hidden by early biographers, who underlined Keats's poverty, poor health, and misunderstanding criticism.

For further reading: Forever Young: A Life of John Keats by Blanche Colton Williams (1943); John Keats by R. Gittings (1968); John Keats by Walter Jackson Bate (1979); Keats: Narrative Poems, ed. J.S. Hill (1983); Approaches to Teaching Keats's Poetry, ed. Walter H. Evert and Hack W. Rhodes (1991); Junkets on a sad Planet by Tom Clark (1993); John Keats by Robert Woof (1997); The Dialogic Keats by Michael J. Sider (1998); Keats by Andrew Motion (1998); Keats's Odes and Contemporary Criticism by James O'Rourke (1998); The Persistence of Poetry, ed. Robert M. Ryan and Ronald A. Sharp (1999); Darkling I Listen: The Last Days and Death of John Keats by John Evangelist Walsh (1999); The Cambridge Companion to Keats by Susan J. Wolfson (2001).  Museums: Keat's house in London, Wentworth Place, Keats Grove, Hampstead. Keats wrote there his greatest Odes and fell in love with Fanny Brawne.  Note: the science-fiction writer Dan Simmons used Keats's poems Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion as the titles of his books. The first volume was structured after Chaucer's The Cantebury Tales. The two sections of Hyperion Cantos take the Keats's idea about the displacement of the old gods and the victory of new pantheon.  Suom.:  Jaakko Tuomikosken valikoimaan Runoelmia (1917) sisältyy mm. Hyperion ja osia Endymionista, suomennoksia on myös teoksissa Englannin kirjallisuuden kultainen kirja (1933) ja Tuhat laulujen vuotta, toimittanut Aale Tynni (1974). Kaisa Siveniuksen kääntämä Yönkirkas tähti: 99 viimeistä kirjettä  ilmestyi 2010.

Selected bibliography:

  • Imitation of Spenser, 1811
  • On First Looking into Chapman's Homer, 1816
  • Poems, 1817
  • Endymion: A Poetic Romance, 1818
  • Hyperion, 1819 (unfinished)
  • Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems, 1820
  • Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats, 1848 (2 vols.)
  • The Poetical Works of John Keats, 1854 (with a memoir by Richard Monckton Milnes)
  • Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne, 1878 (with introduction and notes by Harry Buxton Forman)
  • The Poetical Works and Other Writings of John Keats, 1883 (4 vols., ed. with notes and appendices by Harry Buxton Forman)
  • Letters of John Keats to His Family and Friends, 1891 (edited by Sidney Colvin)
  • The Poetical Works of John Keats, 1895 (3d ed., 3 vols., ed. H. Buxton Forman)
  • The Poetical Works of J. Keats, 1900 (with an introductory sketch by John Hogben)
  • Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne: Written in the Years MDCCCXIX and MDCCCXX, 1901
  • Poems by John Keats, 1903 (wth an introduction by Laurence Binyon and notes by John Masefield)
  • Isabella, or, The Pot of Basil: A Story From Boccaccio, 1908 (illustrations by Jessie M. King)
  • The Poems of John Keats, 1921 (ed. with an introduction and notes by E. De Sélincourt)
  • The Complete Poems by John Keats, 1927 (edited with an introd. by George R. Elliott)
  • The Letters of John Keats, 1949 (ed. with notes by H. W. Häusermann)
  • The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, 1951 (edited, with an introd., by Harold Edgar Briggs)
  • Selected Letters, 1951 (edited with an introd. by Lionel Trilling)
  • The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, 1958 (2 vols., ed. Hyder Edward Rollins)
  • Selected Poems and Letters, 1959 (edited with an introd. and notes by Douglas Bush)
  • Poems and Selected Letters, 1962 (edited and with an introd. by Carlos Baker)  
  • Selected Poems and Letters, 1966 (edited with an introd. and commentary by Robert Gittings)
  • John Keats: Complete Poems , 1982 (ed. Jack Stillinger)
  • The Essential Keats, 1987 (selected and with an introduction by Philip Levine)
  • The Love Poems of John Keats, 1990 (selected and with an introduction by David Stanford Burr)
  • The Love Letters of John Keats, 1993 (edited by O.E. Madden)   
  • The Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats, 2001 (introduction by Edward Hirsch)
  • Selected Letters of John Keats, 2002 (edited by Grant F. Scott)
  • Selected Poems, 2006 (edited by Deborah West)
  • John Keats, 2007 (edited by Susan J. Wolfson)

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