THE closest of Keats's friends were his two brothers, both young men of intelligence with similar tastes to his own. George was Keats's complement, sanguine and cheerful where he was pessimistic and moody, more practical than his greater brother who was careless in worldly affairs. Of Tom's character we know little beyond that he too was of a sanguine nature and had 'an exquisite love of life.' There was no one who understood John so well as Tom. All three brothers shared in a love of Shakespeare.
When George and Tom left school they both entered Abbey's tea warehouse1 at 4 Pancras Lane. George we know lived at one time over the business and probably both brothers lived in the Abbey household in winter when their guardian, like most City tradesmen, moved in from Walthamstow with his family. They would therefore be for some months of the year with their little sister, Fanny.
Tom, tall, thin and narrow-chested, soon to become an invalid, did not remain long in the warehouse. To us but a shadowy figure, we know little of his movements. There is a bare record of a visit to Lyons. As Abbey had an interest in a hatter's in the Poultry and Lyons was a centre for hatmaking, Tom may have been sent there to gain some knowledge of the trade. But Tom was not fitted for the battle of life. His illness, combined with the cost of maintaining Keats at Guy's, was a heavy drain on the estate. Money difficulties were early to dog the steps of these unfortunate boys.
On Tom's seventeenth birthday, November 18th, 1816, John wrote a tender sonnet into which he put his love, the friendship between the brothers, their mutual delight in Shakespeare and a wish, pitiful to the reader, that they may long be together:
Small, busy flames play through the fresh laid coals,
And their faint cracklings o'er our silence creep
Like whispers of the household gods that keep
A gentle empire o'er fraternal souls.
And while, for rhymes, I search around the poles,
Your eyes are fix'd, as in poetic sleep,
Upon the lore so voluble and deep,
That aye at fall of night our care condoles.