John Keats

John Keats, 1795–1821, English poet, b. London. He is considered one of the greatest of English poets.

The son of a livery stable keeper, Keats attended school at Enfield, where he became the friend of Charles Cowden Clarke, the headmaster's son, who encouraged his early learning. Apprenticed to a surgeon (1811), Keats came to know Leigh Hunt and his literary circle, and in 1816 he gave up surgery to write poetry. His first volume of poems appeared in 1817. It included "I stood tip-toe upon a little hill," "Sleep and Poetry," and the famous sonnet "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer."

Endymion, a long poem, was published in 1818. Although faulty in structure, it is nevertheless full of rich imagery and color. Keats returned from a walking tour in the Highlands to find himself attacked in Blackwood's Magazine—an article berated him for belonging to Leigh Hunt's "Cockney school" of poetry—and in the Quarterly Review. The critical assaults of 1818 mark a turning point in Keats's life; he was forced to examine his work more carefully, and as a result the influence of Hunt was diminished. However, these attacks did not contribute to Keats's decline in health and his early death, as Shelley maintained in his elegy "Adonais."

Keats's passionate love for Fanny Brawne seems to have begun in 1818. Fanny's letters to Keats's sister show that her critics' contention that she was a cruel flirt was not true. Only Keats's failing health prevented their marriage. He had contracted tuberculosis, probably from nursing his brother Tom, who died in 1818. With his friend, the artist Joseph Severn, Keats sailed for Italy shortly after the publication of Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820), which contains most of his important work and is probably the greatest single volume of poetry published in England in the 19th cent. He died in Rome in Feb., 1821, at the age of 25.

In spite of his tragically brief career, Keats is one of the most important English poets. He is also among the most personally appealing. Noble, generous, and sympathetic, he was capable not only of passionate love but also of warm, steadfast friendship. Keats is ranked, with Shelley and Byron, as one of the three great Romantic poets. Such poems as "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "To Autumn," and "Ode on Melancholy" are unequaled for dignity, melody, and richness of sensuous imagery. All of his poetry is filled with a mysterious and elevating sense of beauty and joy.

Keats's posthumously published pieces include "La Belle Dame sans Merci," in its way as great an evocation of romantic medievalism as his "The Eve of St. Agnes." Among his sonnets, familiar ones are "When I have fears that I may cease to be" and "Bright star! would I were as steadfast as thou art." "Lines on the Mermaid Tavern," "Fancy," and "Bards of Passion and of Mirth" are delightful short poems.

Some of Keats's finest work is in the unfinished epic "Hyperion." In recent years critical attention has focused on Keats's philosophy, which involves not abstract thought but rather absolute receptivity to experience. This attitude is indicated in his celebrated term "negative capability" — "to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thought."

Bibliography

Keats's letters (ed. by H. E. Rollins, 1958) vividly reveal his character, opinions, and feelings. See his poetical works, ed. and annotated by M. Allott (1970) and ed. by J. Stillinger (1978); his autobiography, ed. by E. V. Weller (1933); biographies by A. Ward (1963), W. J. Bate (1963, repr. 1979), R. Gittings (1968), A. Motion (1998), and N. Roe (2012); account of his last days by J. E. Walsh (2000); D. Gigante, The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George (2011); studies by W. J. Bate (1945), M. Dickstein (1971), D. van Ghent (1983), S. Plumly (2008), and D. Beachy-Quick (2013).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

John Keats: The Critical Heritage
G. M. Matthews.
Routledge, 1995
John Keats: Selected Poetry
Elizabeth Cook; John Keats.
Oxford University Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: "Hyperion: A Fragment" begins on p. 121, "Ode to a Nightingale" begins on p. 174, and "Ode on a Grecian Urn" begins on p. 177
Keats's Endymion: A Critical Edition
Stephen T. Steinhoff; John Keats.
Whitston, 1987
Librarian’s tip: Includes criticism and text
Life of John Keats
Charles Armitage Brown; Dorothy Hyde Bodurtha; Willard Bissell Pope.
Oxford University Press, 1937
Keats's Odes and Contemporary Criticism
James O' Rourke.
University Press of Florida, 1998
Word like a Bell: John Keats, Music and the Romantic Poet
John A. Minahan.
Kent State University Press, 1992
Romantic Medicine and John Keats
Hermione De Almeida.
Oxford University Press, 1991
Romantic Poets and the Culture of Posterity
Andrew Bennett.
Cambridge University Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "Keats's Prescience"
Keats's Boyish Imagination
Richard Marggraf Turley.
Routledge, 2004
John Keats and the Culture of Dissent
Nicholas Roe.
Clarendon Press, 1998
Keats, Hunt, and the Aesthetics of Pleasure
Ayumi Mizukoshi.
Palgrave, 2001
Imagination Transformed: The Evolution of the Female Character in Keats's Poetry
Karla Alwes.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1993
Keats: Bicentenary Readings
Michael Oweill.
Edinburgh University Press, 1997
Protest, "Nativism," and Impersonation in the Works of Chatterton and Keats
Lau, Beth.
Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 42, No. 4, Winter 2003
Cullen, Keats, and the Privileged Liar
Goldweber, David E.
Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 38, No. 1, Winter 2002
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