John Keats may not have garnered any awards or won any significant acclaim during his lifetime, but he earned a posthumous recognition as one of the most skillful English Romantic poets. Over the course of his very brief career, he wrote tens of poems, including sonnets. Despite the fact that Keats’ life was short-lived, his impact on English literature was definitely not.
John Keats – Famous Works and Achievements. Image: Posthumous portrait of John Keats by British painter William Hilton, National Portrait Gallery, London (c. 1822)
Birth and Family
The oldest of four children, Keats was born in London in 1795. When he was still young, he lost his father in a riding accident. In 1803, Keats was put in Clarke’s school in Enfield which was only a short distance from his grandparents’ home.
At school, he loved literature, history and classical studies and was known to be quite temperamental. However, he decided to channel his energies into his academic exploits.
In 1809, he was a awarded his first prize for excelling in class. When Keats was age 14, his mother of tuberculosis. His grandparents, therefore, placed him under the guardianship of two London merchants, Sandell and Abbey. Later that year, Keats was withdrawn from school and sent to a surgeon and apothecary, Thomas Hammond, to train as an apprentice. In 1816, he became a licensed apothecary but never set up a practice as he was drawn to literature and writing.
John Keats’ Early Works
John Keats had developed a passion for arts while he was at Clarke’s and this devotion could not be quenched. In 1814, at age 19, he wrote his first poem, “An Imitation of Spencer.” The poem used the Spenserian rhyme scheme and rich imagery to paint a picture of a romantic dream world.
Keats was drawn to the works of Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth, Thomas Chatterton and Samuel Coleridge. Driven by their influence, he was set on a literary course of Romanticism for the rest of his life. Keats wrote another poem, “O Solitude,” which appeared in the magazine, The Examiner.
In 1816, he went on a vacation with author, Charles Cowden Clarke. Through Clarke, Keats got acquainted with Leigh Hunt and Thomas Barnes, the editor of the Times. Barnes published his first collection of poems which included “Sleep and Poetry” and “I stood Tiptoe.” The publications were heavily condemned by some critics that the poems’ popularity was greatly affected. Determined to succeed as a poet, Keats took his work to other publishers, Taylor and Hessey, who showed interest in his collection. The poems were published and shortly afterwards, Keats was paid an advance and signed to a contract to write a book.
John Keats was introduced to lawyer Richard Woodhouse, who became his legal advisor and eventually a passionate collector of Keats’ works. Over time, he became a great source of Keats-related information.
How did John Keats die?
In early 1820, Keats was diagnosed of pulmonary tuberculosis. Upon his doctor’s advice to get to a place where the climate was milder, he moved abroad and arrived in Rome via Naples in November 1820. His health continued to decline and on February 23, 1821, he succumbed to the disease. He was only 25.
Most Notable Works
In spite of his life being cut short at a very age, i.e. 25, the English poet was still able to produce some very remarkable works. His works – i.e. poems and letters – are revered as some of the most beloved in the English literature. The following are 5 of the most famous works by John Keats:
“To Sleep” (1816)
This poem, which focuses on sleep and death, talks about Keats’ yearning to escape from physical torment and emotional despair. In the poem, he beckons sleep to come rescue him from his suffering and to take him into her embrace before he dies. He employs personification and metaphor to paint a picture of sleep. The poem clearly portrays Keats’ desire for peace and stability.
“Bright Star” (1819)
This poem is regarded by many as the best poem by Keats. Critics and scholars are divided with regards to whether or not it was written for his love interest, Fanny Brawne. However, most would agree that she is central to the poem. “Bright Star” has a Shakespearean scope and an extraordinary peace about it. Keats, through the poem, expresses his wish to spend the rest of his life lying on his lover’s breasts. Written less than three years before his death, he alludes to both celestial and earthly elements and blends them together to produce a deeply passionate poem.
“The Eve of St. Agnes” (1819)
January 20 is the eve of St. Agnes. This poem was crafted on the basis of the myth that if an unmarried girl carried out certain rituals, she could see her future husband in her dream. The theme evolves around Keats’ idyllic view of love. It is believed that it was written following his first meeting with Brawne. The rituals referred to in this poem included saying the Lord’s prayer, fasting all day, walking backwards upstairs and other weird activities.
“La Belle Dame sans Merci” (1819)
This is arguably Keats’ most beloved and widely anthologized poems. The French title is reminiscent of medieval escapism, bringing to mind the era of polite knights, chivalry, and beautiful but dangerous women. The woman being described in the poem is beautiful but incapable of showing mercy. Though Keats conveys a sense of mutuality between the knight and the woman, he does not show exactly how equal they are.
“To Autumn” (1820)
This was written a year before Keats’ death. It is the first line of the poem that makes it truly memorable. Without doubt, no other poet of his time managed to use extensive personification to create such a beautiful depiction of the autumn and to express its fruitfulness. Keats is able to compress the conditions of three months into three verses. Various readers would find the natural and simple language appealing on many levels.
“Ode to a Nightingale” (1819)
Depending on which source one looks at, John Keats wrote this masterpiece either in a garden in Hampstead, London or under a plum tree in the garden of his house. The latter is according to his friend Charles Armitage Brown. It’s also been said that Keats was inspired the song of a nightingale that had built a nest in his house. Another interesting fact about “Ode to a Nightingale” is that Keats used a few hours to compose it.
In the poem, Keats communicates to the reader the pessimism that appeared to be gnawing at his soul, ushering Keats further into what he describes as a state of “negative capability”. Some of the major themes that “Ode to a Nightingale” explores are transient nature of human life. Keats’ 80-line poem touches on nature and beauty and how we are surrounded by transient things.
Keats’ most prolific period was between 1818 and 1819. Image: The first 10 lines of John Keats’ poem “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819).
Style and Themes used by John Keats
The critics of Keats may not have been very receptive of his work, yet he was regarded as one of the greatest Romantics after his death. Argentine essayist and poet, Jorge Luis Borges, for example, admitted he had his most profound experience of his literary career the first time he stumbled upon Keats’ work.
Like many traditional Romantics, Keats possessed a distinctive style of crafting his poetry with particular focus on ancient folklore, the remote past and fairy tales. He uses these features to flee the difficult realities of his life in the modern 19th century.
What makes him stand out as a poet is his ability to make the most mundane things seem most appealing to his audience through the masterly use of vivid imagery. Again, Keats’ works are usually swamped with literary devices such as metaphors, personification, alliteration and consonance. His poem, “Ode to Nightingale,” for instance, is overwhelmed with literary devices while “Lamia” and “Hyperion” have vivid connotations of sensuality. His themes are usually about love, death, decay, immortality, suffering and nature which are also characteristic of Romanticism.
He is widely seen as one of the most prominent poets in the English language. His woks had tremendous influence on the Romanticism movement. The London-poet ranks as one of the most quoted English poets today.
The first line of his poem, “To Autumn,” inspired writer, Neil Gaiman to start his Sandman series. His work also influenced such poets as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Millais and Rossetti.
Jane Campion’s 2009 film “Bright Star,” starring Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish, features the story of John Keat’s life. Whishaw was cast as Keats while Cornish played Fanny Brawne, Keats’ love interest.
The Houghton Library of the Harvard University stores the largest collection of the manuscripts and essays of Keats. Other collections can be found at Keats’ house in Hempstead, the British Library, and the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.
In 1896, the London-based Royal Society of Arts unveiled a plaque of Keats to honor his memory.
Did You Know?
He was friends with fellow poet P.B. Shelley. And following the death of Keats in 1821, Shelley composed a poem titled “Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats”. Shelley invokes the death of Adonis, a figure in Greek mythology, as a metaphor to describe the passing of John Keats.
John Keats is said to have been inspired by fellow poets such as Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron.
When Keats was eight, his father, Thomas Keats, passed away in an accident. Tragedy struck again 6 years later, when his mother, Frances Jennings, died of tuberculosis.
Between 1818 and 1819, he produced his most well-received masterpieces, including his famous six odes.
He had a romantic relationship with Fanny Brawne, whom he engaged secretly in 1819. It is said that Fanny served as his muse. Keats was absolutely devoted to Fanny; he also secured Fanny’s mother’s approval. This devotion to his fiancée, whom he described as his ‘Bright Star’, is partly captured in his poem “Endymion”, a poem that is based on love story of the moon goddess Selene and the shepherd Endymion.