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John Keats

A thing of beauty is a joy forever,
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness. --John Keats, opening quote in book one of "Endymion: A Poetic Romance"

John Keats (October 31, 1795 - February 23, 1821) was one of the principal poets in the English Romantic movement. During his short life, his work was the subject of constant politically motivated critical attack, and it was not until much later that the significance of the cultural change which his work both presaged and helped to form was fully appreciated.

Born on Hallowe'en day, 1795 near London to a stable-keeper and his wife, Keats had a happy childhood for the first part of his life. The beginnings of his troubles occurred in 1803, when his father died from a fractured skull after falling from his horse. His mother remarried soon afterwards, but as quickly left the new husband and moved herself and her children to live with Keats' grandmother. There, Keats attended a school that first instilled in him a love of literature. However, in 1810, his mother died of tuberculosis, leaving him and his siblings in the custody of their grandmother.

His grandmother appointed two guardians to take care of her new charges, and these guardians removed him from his old school to become a surgeon's apprentice. This continued until 1814, when after a fight with his master, he left his apprenticeship and became a student at a local hospital. During that year, he increasingly devoted his time to studies of literature instead of medicine, until he finally joined the literary community entirely.

His introduction to the work of Edmund Spenser, particularly The Faerie Queene was to prove a turning point in Keats' development as a poetic force; it was to inspire Keats to write his first poem, Imitation of Spenser.

He made friends with Leigh Hunt, a fellow writer who helped him publish his first poem in 1816. In 1817, Keats published his first volume of poetry entitled simply Poems.

It should be remembered that the Romantic movement flowered during a period of major catharsis in world history: the American War of Independence and the French Revolution had cast long shadows across the existing world order; existing bourgeois values were being challenged as never before. Romanticism was the very cultural epitome of this rebellion, and its adherents work became the target of critical denigration. Keats' poetry was consequently not well received, and he moved to the Isle of Man.

Working on his writing, he soon found his brother, Tom Keats, entrusted to his care. Tom was, like their mother, suffering from tuberculosis. Finishing his epic poem "Endymion," Keats left to hike in Scotland and Ireland with his friend Charles Brown. However, he too began to show signs of tuberculosis infection on that trip, and returned prematurely. When he did, he found that Tom's condition had deteriorated, and that Endymio had, as had Poems before it, been the target of much abuse from the critics.

In 1818, Tom Keats died from his infection, and John Keats moved again, to live in Brown's house in London. There he met Fanny Brawne[?], who with her mother had been staying at Brown's house, and he quickly fell in love. The later (posthumous) publication of their correspondence was to scandalise Victorian society.

Keats produced some of his finest poetry during the spring and summer of 1819: Ode to Psyche[?], Ode on a Grecian Urn[?] and Ode to a Nightingale.

This relationship was cut short, however, when by 1820 Keats began to show worse signs of the disease that had plagued his family. On the suggestion of his doctors, he left the cold airs of London behind and moved to Italy with his friend Joseph Severn invited by Shelley. For one year, this seemed to help his condition, but his health finally deteriorated. He died on February 23, 1821 and was interred in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome[?]. His last request was followed, and thus he was buried under a tombstone reading "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."

Oscar Wilde, the aestheticist non pareil was to later write:

"[..] who but the supreme and perfect artist could have got from a mere colour a motive so full of marvel: and now I am half enamoured of the paper that touched his hand, and the ink that did his bidding, grown fond of the sweet comeliness of his charactery, for since my childhood I have loved none better than your marvellous kinsman, that godlike boy, the real Adonis of our age[..] In my heaven he walks eternally with Shakespeare and the Greeks."

Perhaps an even greater tribute to this mercurial and wayward genius is contained within one of the finest works of the poet himself:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. -- John Keats, in Ode on a Grecian Urn[?]

Major Works

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