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John Keats

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English Literature

What do you aim to achieve by your mid-twenties? For most, at the age of twenty-five, life is just beginning. When John Keats died at the tender age of twenty-five, he was a qualified surgeon and remarkable poet who had made a significant contribution to English literature. Learn more about his short but interesting life, marked by personal tragedy.

John Keats: Biography

Early life

John Keats is widely regarded as one of the great Romantic poets, alongside figures such as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron. The poet was born to Thomas and Frances Jennings Keats on the 31st October 1795. He was the eldest of five siblings, with three brothers and a sister. His brother Edward died shortly after he was born, but John, George, and Fanny Keats survived infancy.

John Keats father was the head livery stable-keeper at The Swan and Hoop Inn. Upon marrying his employer’s daughter, Frances, he was given the role of manager and later inherited the business. Although there is no evidence, it is widely believed that John Keats was born in his maternal grandfather’s stable at The Swan and Hoop, which bears an official blue plaque commemorating his birth.

John Keats attended an academy in the town of Enfield from the age of eight. He enjoyed a comfortable and secure upbringing until his father died from a head injury after falling off his horse when John Keats was just nine years old. His mother remarried within just two months, leaving her recently bereaved children in the care of her mother, Alice Jennings.

This second marriage proved to be disastrous, ending in legal separation within a few short years. When John Keats was fifteen, Frances died of tuberculosis. Alice Jennings was now the legal guardian of her orphaned grandchildren, but being elderly, she decided to share guardianship with Richard Abbey and John Sandell.

Discovering poetry

Amongst all this upheaval, young Keats applied himself well at school, which provided him with a familiar routine and structure. He became close friends with the headteacher’s son Charles Cowden Clark, and the headteacher was fond of him, too. He won an essay contest and made challenging translations from Latin and Greek.

In 1811, John Keats left school and entered an apprenticeship with Thomas Hammond, a local surgeon. However, the Clarke family continued to encourage and nurture his literary talents, engaging him in discussions of books and lending him volumes from their library, such as Edmund Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queen’ (1519). His former headteacher also introduced him to left-wing politics, lending him The Examiner, a weekly magazine that contained radical ideology and even criticised the Prince Regent.

In 1814, Keats elderly grandmother died, and his legal guardian Abbey was miserly with the distribution of the Keats sibling’s inheritance, which he held in trust. In the summer of 1816, Keats qualified as an apothecary and began work as a dresser, undertaking tasks such as setting bones and restraining patients during surgery.

That October, he was introduced to the poet and co-founder of The Examiner, Leigh Hunt, who read his poetry and gave him feedback. The two became firm friends. He would often spend his days working hard as a dresser and his evenings in Hunt’s house, a hive of literary energy. There, he enjoyed the company of Hunt’s circle of writers and artists, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Benjamin Robert Haydon. Keats, Shelley, and Hunt also engaged in timed sonnet-writing competitions, which produced works such as Keats’ ‘On the Grasshopper and Cricket’ (1816).

Combining his medical work with serious writing exhausted Keats. Soon after his 21st birthday, he made the decision to quit his job at Guys Hospital and dedicate his time exclusively to poetry.

John Keats brother George introduced him to George Felton Mathew. He formed a short-lived but significant literary friendship with this poet, dedicating the poem ‘To George Felton Mathew’ (1817) to him.

Keats had his first volume of poetry published in 1817. Unfortunately, the book sold abysmally and received poor reviews. Keats’ next publication, ‘Endymion’ (1818), had an even worse reception than Poems (1817). Critics such as John Gibson Lockhart made personal attacks on the poet’s socioeconomic background in addition to mocking the contents of his poetic works.

Illness and death

In the winter of 1818, Keats nursed his brother Tom, who was sick with tuberculosis. Despite his best efforts, Tom died on 1st December 1818. It is widely believed that Keats contracted tuberculosis from caring for Tom. After his brother’s death, Keats’ friend Charles Brown invited him to live with him in Wentworth Place.

Whilst staying with Charles Brown, Keats met Fanny Brawne, and the two fell in love. Passionate love letters between the two were later published. They were engaged but never married. The year 1819 is often referred to as his ‘Great Year’ because he wrote a large body of poetry, which is now considered to be his greatest works. However, Keats did not achieve literary acclaim during his lifetime.

Although he had been unhealthily pale for some time, in 1820, Keats began to experience some of the more serious symptoms of tuberculosis, including lung haemorrhages. Following his doctor’s suggestion, he travelled to Rome by sea for his health. The warmer climate was considered healthier. His friend Joseph Severn accompanied him. In Rome, Keats received medical treatments, such as leaching and a starvation diet, which would have made him weaker. A few months after arriving in Rome, the poet died, like his mother and brother before him, of tuberculosis.

There is some dispute as to the exact date of his death. Most scholars and biographers believe he died at 11 pm in the evening on 23rd February, and there are letters to confirm this. However, his gravestone bears the date 24th. This is likely due to the contemporary Italian practice of attributing evening deaths to the next day.

Tuberculosis is a potentially life-threatening contagious bacterial infection that spreads via coughs and sneezes.

John Keats history

John Keats lived through interesting and turbulent times that challenged the established order of British society. For example, the recent French Revolution posed a threat to the British monarchy, as there were fears that the British public would be inspired to do the same, especially since King George III suffered from mental illness and the Prince Regent was an unpopular substitute. This fear led to trials for the offence of treason and even executions.

Keats placed a black mark upon his own poetic career when he decided to openly support Leigh Hunt, who had been jailed for slandering the Prince Regent, in his first published volume of poetry. Many literary critics at the time disapproved of this.

John Keats biographical context

The unrequited love and sickness in ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ (1819) may have been inspired by his relationship with Fanny Brawne and the poet’s own deteriorating health. Keats died of tuberculosis, and victims of this illness were often referred to as ‘consumptive’. As with the doomed knight in his poem, this caused a death-like pallor.

During John and Fannys early courtship, the poet complained that she was too much of a flirt, and he was jealous of the other men she danced with. At times, he may have felt his feelings were one-sided, like the knight’s feelings for the fairy.

John Keats and romanticism

John Keats belonged to what are known as Romantic poets. These are poets belonging to the Romantic period. Features of Romanticism are significant in the poetic works of John Keats. For example, his On Autumn is an Ode to the season of autumn, which is marked by a bountiful harvest and a resplendent change in the colour of flora in the English countryside, which Keats attempts to capture in his poetic expression.

The Romantic period peaked in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Romantics prized human emotion, expression, individualism, and union with nature over the rationalism that characterised the neoclassical age. Other Romantic poets include William Blake, Percy B. Shelley, and Lord Byron.

John Keats friendships with other poets

John Keats formed several important friendships that inspired and encouraged his poetic development. Among his friends were:

When Percy Bysshe Shelley’s dead body was recovered, bloated from water, a copy of Keats’ poetry found in his pocket helped to identify him.

Timeline

  • John Keats was born on the 31st October 1795 in the Moorgate area of London.
  • He attended a school in Enfield from the age of eight.
  • His father died on the 15th April 1804, when Keats was nine.
  • In 1804, his mother left the family and married William Rawlings.
  • His mother died of tuberculosis in February 1810 when Keats was fifteen.
  • Keats left the academy in Enfield in 1811 and started his apprenticeship with the surgeon Thomas Hammond.
  • His grandmother died in December 1814.
  • On the 1st October 1815, John Keats entered Guy’s Hospital as a medical student.
  • On the 25th July 1816, he successfully qualified as an apothecary and began work as a dresser, a type of junior doctor.
  • Shortly after his 21st birthday, he left the medical profession to dedicate his time to his writing.
  • He had his first volume of poetry, Poems (1817), published.
  • His second poetic work, ‘Endymion’ (1818), was published.
  • In 1818, his brother Thomas died of tuberculosis.
  • 1819 is known as the poet’s ‘Great Year’. He published what are widely considered his best works of poetry.
  • On 20th September 1820, Keats travelled to Rome on the advice of his doctor.
  • He died of tuberculosis in Rome in February 1821.

A selection of Keats’ notable poems

During his short lifetime, Keats published fifty-four poems. Here is a selection of notable poems from his ‘Great Year’ of 1819:

  • Ode to a Nightingale (1819).
  • Ode on Indolence (1819).
  • Ode on Melancholy (1819).
  • Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819).
  • Ode to Psyche (1819).

An ode is a lyric poem that usually praises a person, animal, object, or occasion. It may also praise universal themes, such as love or loss. Whatever the subject, this form of poetry expresses great depth of feeling.

An Overview of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819)

The subject of exaltation and praise in this ode is the nightingale and its song. This ode consists of eight stanzas. The first seven are ten lines in length and in iambic pentameter, giving them a sense of uniformity. The final stanza is also ten lines long but, unlike the others, is written in iambic trimeter. This shift in form reflects the shift in subject. The final stanza deals with the nightingale leaving, the speaker’s reluctant return to humanity, and his questioning of reality.

The poet expresses an idealised perception of the life of the nightingale in the forest and the life of man in the city through contrasting synonyms for joy and misery.

A synonym is a word that has a highly similar or equivalent meaning.

Synonyms of joy:

  • Happy.
  • Mirth.
  • Ecstasy.

Synonyms of misery:

  • Sad.
  • Forlorn.
  • Fret.

An Overview of ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ (1819)

The title of this poem means the beautiful lady without mercy’. It is a ballad that consists of twelve stanzas, each of which contains four lines (quatrains). The poem tells a story inspired by traditional British folk tales featuring young men and women lured to the fairy realm.

In this ballad, a young knight falls in love with a beautiful but dangerous fairy woman. However, his love was not reciprocated. After falling asleep in her grotto, he finds himself alone and sickly in a bleak, lifeless landscape, and he realises he has been tricked like many before him.

A ballad is a form of narrative verse. It usually consists of a perfectly symmetrical construction of quatrains and tells a story.

Themes in John Keats’ work

Keats’ poetry is known to cover a variety of themes, often with opposing concepts, such as joy and melancholy, or mortality and immortality.

In ‘An Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819), the poet juxtaposes the joy of the bird and the misery of man.

In ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ (1819), a young knight is tricked out of the realm of mortals by the dangerous, ageless fairy who has been luring men to their doom.

John Keats (1795-1821) - Key Takeaways

  • John Keats was a Romantic poet.

  • Like many famous artists, poets, and writers, John Keats’ genius was not widely recognised during his lifetime.

  • John Keats wrote most of his best poetry in the year 1819.

  • John Keats young life was marked by the death of many of his loved ones.

  • John Keats died at just twenty-five years of age.

John Keats

Keats’ most famous poem is widely regarded to be his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819).

John Keats was in love with Fanny Brawne.

John Keats died in Rome, Italy.

John Keats was born in Moorgate, London.

John Keats wrote about interconnected yet opposing themes, such as pain and pleasure, life and death, separation and connection.

Final John Keats Quiz

Question

When was John Keats born?

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Answer

1795.

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How many siblings did John Keats have?

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Answer

4.

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How soon after John's father's death did his mother remarry?

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Answer

2 months later.

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Who encouraged John Keats' enthusiasm for reading after he left school to become an apprentice?

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Answer

His former headteacher.

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What is tuberculosis?

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Answer

An infectious bacterial infection.  

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John Keats was orphaned by the age of...?

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Answer

15.

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Which year was John Keats most productive in regard to poetry?

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Answer

1819.

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Where did John Keats die?

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Answer

Rome.

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Who was John Keats fiancee?

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Answer

Fanny Brawne.

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Which profession did Keats belong to before becoming a poet?

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Answer

Medicine.

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How did Keats father die?

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He fractured his skull after falling from his horse.

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Keats' poetry belongs to which literary movement?

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Romanticism. 

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John Keats was close friends with Percy Bysshe Shelly.

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Answer

True.

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John Keats was close friends with William Wordsworth.

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False.

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John Keats was widely recognized as a great poet during his own lifetime.

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False.

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'Ode to a Nightingale' (1819) was inspired by a real singing nightingale.

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True.

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The poem contains allusions to which ancient mythology?

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Greek.

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How many stanzas does 'Ode to a Nightingale' (1819) have?

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8.

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Which of these is NOT a thematic pair in the poem?

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Winter and summer.

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Which of the following can be found in the poem.

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Imagery of flowers.

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Which biblical figure is mentioned in the poem?

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Ruth.

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The poet wrote this poem shortly after the death of which family member?

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His brother Thomas.

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What rhyme scheme does this poem use?

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ABAB CDE CDE.

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'Ode to a Nightingale' (1819) is an example of Romantic poetry.

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True.

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How does Keats present the human experience?

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A complex mixture of joy and suffering.

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Which of the following are the key symbols of the poem?

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The nightingale and its song.

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This poem was written during what is known as Keats 'Great Year.'

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True.

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This poem contains rhyming couplets.

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False.

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How many stanzas does this poem consist of?

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12

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How many lines long is a quatrain?

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4.

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What does the beautiful woman feed the knight?

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Roots, honey, and dew.

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What meter is used in the poem?

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Iambic tetrameter.

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Which literary movement does this poem belong to?

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Romanticism. 

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Which real woman from the poet's life may have inspired 'Le Belle Dame sans Merci'?

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Fanny Brawne.

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Parallels can be drawn between 'Le Belle Dame sans Merci' (1819) and which poem?

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Thomas Rhymer and the Queen of Elfland.

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The knight displays the symptoms of which illness?

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Tuberculosis. 

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Which of the following is NOT a symbolic flower from the poem.

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Violets.

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The poem was written during the poet's 'Great Year'. 

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True.

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When the knight wakes up the birds are singing and the lakeside is green.

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False.

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Which two lines in each quatrain rhyme?

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The second and fourth.

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Ballads were an unusual choice of form for Romantic poets.

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False.

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What do both the knight in 'Le Belle Dame sans Merci' and Thomas in 'Thomas Rhymer and the Queen of Elfland' NOT do?

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Answer

Marry the fairy.

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When was 'To Autumn' published?

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1820.

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When was 'To Autumn' written?

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1819.

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Which best describes the poem's setting?

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Rural.

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'To Autumn' was inspired by a beautiful autumnal walk taken by the poet.

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True.

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What is the form of 'To Autumn'?

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Ode.

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How many stanzas does 'To Autumn' have?

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3.

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Which of the following animals are NOT mentioned in the poem.

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Answer

Sheepdog.

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Which literary movement does 'To Autumn' belong to?

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Answer

Romanticism.

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