xxxxxThe English romantic poet John Keats studied medicine, but turned to writing poetry in 1817, encouraged by the poet Leigh Hunt. His first major work, a long allegorical poem entitled Endymion, was severely criticised as being too ornate, but during a period of extreme personal distress, 1818 to 1820, he produced some of the finest poetry in English literature. This included his romantic narrative The Eve of St. Agnes, his ancient ballad La Belle Dame sans merci, his medieval narrative Isabella, and, above all, his famous set of Odes, notably To a Nightingale (1819), On a Grecian Urn and To Autumn. In these beautifully composed verses he compared the permanence of beauty with the inevitable sadness and uncertainty of human life. Meanwhile his own life had its share of sadness. In 1818 his brother Tom died of tuberculosis, and Keats discovered that he had also contracted the disease. This, together with his lack of money, put an end to his hopes of marrying his beloved Fanny Brawne. In 1821 he settled in Rome, hoping this might prolong his life, but he died there in February the following year, aged 26. He numbered among his friends the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.

JOHN KEATS 1795 - 1821  (G3b, G3c, G4)

xxxxxJohn Keats, alongside his contemporaries Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, was one of England’s outstanding romantic poets. He died at the age of 26, but in his short life he produced some of the finest poetry in English literature. A Londoner by birth, he was the son of an ostler, a stableman at a local inn in Moorfields. He led an active life as a youngster, but his father was killed in a riding accident when he was nine, and his mother died of the family illness, consumption, when he was in his teens. He attended a school at Enfield - where he showed very little literary talent - and at fifteen he became an apprentice to a local surgeon at Edmonton. From there he went on to study medicine at Guy’s Hospital and St. Thomas’ Hospital, but his heart was never in his work. By then an avid reader, particularly of classical mythology and medieval literature, he began to write verse, and this soon became his dominant interest. In 1817, encouraged by the poet and essayist Leigh Hunt, a champion of romanticism, he moved into lodgings with his brothers at Hampstead, and devoted his time to writing poetry. It was then that he came to know the most famous poets of the day, including Shelley and the Lake Poets, Coleridge and Wordsworth.

xxxxxHe had produced a number of poetic works earlier, but it was not until the publication in Hunt’s periodical The Examiner of his two poems, O Solitude if I with Thee Must Dwell and On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, that his work attracted attention. There followed his Poems, published in 1817 and containing a number of notable sonnets, including Sleep and Poetry, a poem stressing the need for a poet to experience the “agony and strife of human hearts”. His first major work, however, Endymion, an ambitious allegorical poem over 4,000 lines in length, did not appear until the following year, and it was far from a success. The style employed, owing much to that of Hunt, was seen as contrived and over elaborate. The reviews in both Blackwood’s Magazine and the Quarterly Review pulled no punches. Critics described the work as nonsense, poured scorn on Hunt’s “cockney school of poetry”, and went so far as to suggest that Keats should go back to studying medicine. Keats openly admitted that the poem was the product of his “inexperience and immaturity” though, in fact, it did contain passages of remarkable splendour, and its search for ideal beauty, woven on this occasion round the classical legend of the love of the moon goddess for a mere mortal shepherd, was a theme to which he was frequently to return.

xxxxxBut this failure was but a minor contribution to the personal crisis endured by the young Keats at this time. In the same year, 1818, his brother Tom died of tuberculoses, and he himself contracted the disease. And this, together with his constant lack of money, virtually put an end to any hopes he might still have had of marrying Fanny Brawne (illustrated), a young woman with whom he was passionately in love. Yet despite such anguish - perhaps because of it - 1818 to 1820 were to prove years of great creativity. It began with his romantic narrative The Eve of St. Agnes, a work which has been compared with the best of Shakespeare, and was followed by the ancient ballad La Belle Dame sans merci. Then came Lamia, a vampire that seduced young men, his medieval narrative Isabella (an adaptation of a tale by Boccaccio), and the brilliant set of Odes by which he is best remembered today, including On a Grecian Urn, To a Nightingale (1819), On Melancholy, and To Autumn - works in which he compares the permanence of beauty with the inevitable sadness and uncertainty of human life.

xxxxxIronically, in one of his last works, The Fall of Hyperion, an epic which he had begun earlier but had left unfinished, Keats looks back on his short poetic career and rededicates himself to the creative art of poetry. In September 1820, however, knowing that he was dying, he sailed to Italy in the hope that a warmer climate would at the least delay his end for a few years. But it was not to be. His illness was too advanced. He died in Rome five months later and was buried in the Protestant cemetery there. The distraught letters he wrote home during his brief stay in Italy, lamenting the love he had lost and the poetic heights he had hoped to achieve, are some of the most moving ever written.

xxxxxKeat’s poetry, dealing though it does with the bewildering, complex relationships between life and death, love and suffering, joy and sadness, beauty and decay, is amongst the most splendid ever written, and in many instances can only be described as verbal music. His odes, in particular, have a rich, sensuous quality, and their purity of expression, together with their imaginative association of ideas, create visual pictures which are vivid and thought provoking. A wild and emotional young man, he wrote much on death, suffering and decay, but stressed always the power of beauty to overcome and outlast them all. And his letters, too, provide a fascinating insight into the nature of his poetry and the development of its creator, the poet himself. We are told that faced with the criticism of his work Endymion at the start of his poetic career he remarked: “I think I shall be among the English poets after my death”. This he certainly was, and it was to be a place amongst the greatest of them.

xxxxxIncidentally, in 1821 Shelley wrote Adonais, a lament for Keats based on a Greek pastoral elegy. In it he alleged that his death had been hastened by the savage treatment his early work - especially Endymion - had received at the hands of the critics. This idea has not been generally accepted, though naturally Keats must have been upset by these attacks. ……

xxxxx…… Keats’ sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer was inspired by his reading the particularly powerful and beautiful translations of Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey by George Chapman, (c1559-1634) an English poet and dramatist of the 17th century. …..

xxxxx…… An outstanding biography of Keats was published by the American poet Amy Lawrence Lowell in 1925. ……

xxxxx…… When in Rome during the last months of his life, Keats lived in a house at the bottom of the Spanish Steps, and it is there that he died (illustrated). The Spanish Steps are sometimes seen as a memorial to both him and his friend Shelley.


Extracts from four of his works:



Keats: detail, by the English portrait painter William Hilton (1786-1839) – National Portrait Gallery, London. Brawne: miniature in watercolour, 1833, artist unknown. Wentworth Place: date and artist unknown. Spanish Steps: date and artist unknown. Hunt: by the English painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846), c1811 – National Portrait Gallery, London, on display at Dove Cottage and Wordsworth Museum, Grasmere, Lake District, England.


Leigh Hunt

xxxxxThe English poet and essayist Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) played an important part in John Keat’s career. He recognised his poetic genius and, having persuaded him to become a poet, introduced him to a literary circle which included Shelley, Coleridge and Wordsworth. Then in 1816 he published two of his early poems in The Examiner, the liberal periodical he edited at that time. And Hunt’s writing also had a marked influence on the English romantic movement as a whole, bringing to a wider public the works of Shelley, Byron and others.

xxxxxHe was born in Southgate, Middlesex, and his first poems, written in his early teens, were published by his father in 1801 under the title Juvenilia. For a time he worked as a clerk in the War Office, and during this period he wrote reviews for his brother’s paper The News. In 1808 he and his brother founded The Examiner. As its editor over the next 13 years, he used this periodical to support the romantic movement, and to press for a number of enlightened causes, including Catholic emancipation, the abolition of the slave trade, and parliamentary reform. A staunch liberal, he was prosecuted three times for his outspoken criticism of the government and, on the third occasion, was found guilty. For criticising the Prince Regent and calling him “a fat Adonis of fifty” he was convicted of libel in 1813, and he and his brother were sent to prison for two years. This gained him the sympathy and admiration of his fellow romantic poets, and he became something of a martyr in the cause of free speech.

xxxxxTo these early years belong his satirical piece Feast of the Poets and the narrative poem The Story of Rimini, published in 1816. The latter, regarded as his finest poetic work, is based on a tragic event in 13th century Italy when Francesa da Rimini, daughter of the Lord of Ravenna, was obliged to marry the none too pleasant Gianciotto Malatesta for political reasons. He later discovered her in adultery with his brother Paolo and killed them both. In 1818 he founded The Indicator, a periodical after the model of Addison’s Spectator, and from it countered attacks upon his “cockney school of poets” from the Quarterly Review and Blackwood’s Magazine.

xxxxxIn 1822, at the invitation of Shelley, he journeyed to Italy to help Shelley and Byron edit a new radical periodical. Shelley sailed to meet him at Leghorn (today’s Livorno) and was drowned at sea on his return journey. Despite this tragedy, Hunt and Byron pressed on with the work, and together they founded the journal The Liberal, a magazine which later published a number of Byron’s works. Hunt stayed on in Italy until 1825, but by then relations between him and Byron had become strained. On his return he wrote Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries, a book which included some personal criticism of Byron - though he admitted later that his remarks had been too severe.

xxxxxOnce settled in England again, he became an established and somewhat respectable critic, writing articles on politics, the fine arts and the theatre for a large number of magazines and newspapers. He became noted for critical but constructive reviews on the work of new poets and writers. In addition he published a play, The Legend of Florence (produced at Covent Garden, London, in 1840), wrote a novel, Sir Ralph Esher, and saw to the publication of works by the English dramatists Wycherley, Farquhar, Congreve and Sheridan. Two collections of his poems were published in 1832 and 1844, and these included The Fish, the Man and the Spirit, Rondeau, and his short narrative poem Abou ben Adhem. His essays covered a wide range of subjects. Some, as in Imagination and Fancy of 1844, wrestled with the relationship between poetry and painting, whilst others discussed mundane matters like the weather, shop windows or walking sticks. And his Autobiography of 1850 throws light not only on the man himself, but also on many of his contemporaries.

xxxxxIt is for his vast array of essays and critical works rather than for his poetry that Hunt is remembered today. In fact, however, his major contribution to English literature was the support he gave to the romantic movement of his day via articles in his own periodicals - The Examiner, The Indicator and The Contemporary - and in a variety of other magazines and newspapers. As a person, he saw himself as an easy-going dilettante, but he had a real love of life, and he cared for the common man, using his pen to condemn oppression and injustice. After his death his close friend, Charles Lamb, a fellow essayist, aptly described him as a wit, poet and proseman who was “only at ease in the old arms of humanity”.

xxxxxIncidentally, it has been suggested that the character of Harold Skimpole, created by the English writer Charles Dickens in his novel “Bleak House”, published in 1853, was based on Leigh Hunt. If so, it was not a very flattering image of his friend!

xxxxxThe English poet and essayist Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) greatly assisted Keats in his poetic career and, via the editorship of various publications - including The Examiner and The Indicator - brought the work of other romantic poets, such as Shelley and Byron, to a much wider public. A staunch liberal, he wrote in favour of Catholic Emancipation, the abolition of the slave trade, and the reform of parliament, and in 1813 he was imprisoned for criticising the Prince Regent. The Story of Rimini is amongst his best poems, and his essays and articles covered a wide range of subjects, including reviews on poetry and the fine arts. In 1821 he went to Italy where, following Shelley’s death, he helped Byron edit a new periodical, The Contemporary. His Autobiography includes some interesting comment on his contemporaries. He was acquainted with Charles Dickens, and was a close friend of Charles Lamb, who spoke highly of his love of life and his fellow men. His literary importance lies mainly in the powerful and widespread support he gave to the romantic movement of his day.