From The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Margaret Drabble.
Keats, John (1795-1821), the son of the manager of a livery stables in Moorfields, who died when he was 8; his mother remarried, but died of tuberculosis when he was 14. The oldest of the family, he remained deeeply attached to his brothers George and Tom and to his sister Fanny. He was well educated at Clarke's school, Enfield, where he began a translation of the Aeneid, and in 1810 was apprenticed to an apothecary-surgeon. His first efforts at writing poetry appear to date from 1814, and include an 'Imitation of Spenser'; his school friend Cowden-*Clarke recorded the profound effect of early reading of *Spenser. In 1815 Keats cancelled his fifth year of apprenticeship and became a student at Guy's Hospital; to the same year belong 'Ode to Apollo' and 'Hymn to Apollo'. In 1816 he was licensed to practise as an apothecary, but in spite of precarious finances abandoned the profession for poetry. In 1816 he also met Leigh *Hunt, who published in the same year in the *Examiner Keats's poem, 'O Solitude', and in the course of a survey of young poets in the same journal he included Keats's sonnet 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer'. Keats met *Shelley and *Haydon, began to plan *Endymion, and wrote 'I stood tiptoe upon a little hill' as a first effort towards that poem. His first volume of poems was published in March 1817. It included, among sonnets, epistles, and miscellaneous poems, 'I stood tiptoe upon a little hill' and 'Sleep and Poetry'. There were at first some pleasing reviews, but public interest was not aroused and sales were meagre; and in the autumn came the first of *Lockhart's harsh attacks in *Blackwood's, labelling Keats and his associates as members of the so-called *Cockney School. He finished the first draft of Endymion and during the winter of 1817-18 saw something of *Wordsworth and *Hazlitt, both of whom much influenced his thought and practice. In December Haydon gave his 'immortal dinner' whose guests included Wordsworth, *Lamb, and Keats. Endymion, dedicated to *Chatterton, whom Keats greatly admired, was published in the spring of 1818, and *'Isabella, or the Pot of Basil' finished in May. With his friend Charles Armitage Brown (1786-1842) Keats then toured the Lakes, spent July and August in Scotland, and included a brief visit to Northern Ireland. He had travelled frequently in southern England but he had never before seen scenery of rugged grandeur. It moved him deeply and he made full use of it when he came to write *Hyperion. Bitter attacks on Endymion came in the autumn from Lockhart in Blackwood's and from the *Quarterly Review. For the time being Keats concealed his pain and wrote to his brother George that, in spite of the review, 'I think I shall be among the English poets after my death', but his friends believe the wound was very deep. Meanwhile his brother Tom was vary ill and Keats spent much time with him. When Tom died in December Keats moved into his friend Brown's house in Hampstead, now known as Keats House. There, in the early winter, he met Fanny *Brawne, with whom he fell deeply in love, and with whom he remained in love until his death. During the course of the summer and autumn of 1818 his sore throats had become more frequent and persistent. Nevertheless September 1818 marked the beginning of what is sometimes referred to as the Great Year; he began Hyperion in its first version, abandoning it a year later; he wrote, consecutively, *'The Eve of St Agnes', 'The Eve of St Mark', the 'Ode to Psyche', *'La Belle Dame sans Merci', *'Ode to a Nightingale', and probably at about the same time the *'Ode on a Grecian Urn', 'Ode on Melancholy', and 'Ode on Indolence'; *'Lamia Part I', *'Otho the Great' (in collaboration with Brown); the second version of Hyperion, called The Fall of Hyperion, *'To Autumn', and 'Lamia Part II'. During this year he was beset with financial problems, both his own and those of his friends and relations, and intensely preoccupied with his love for Fanny, to whom he became engaged. In the winter of 1819 he began the unfinished 'The Cap and Bells', but he became increasingly ill with tuberculosis and his great creative work was now over. His second volume of poems, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems, was published in July 1820, and included, as well as the title poems, the odes, Hyperion, 'Fancy', and other works. The volume was generally well received, gaining much praise in some quarters, with criticism from Blackwood's much muted, but the sales were very slow. Shelley invited Keats to Italy and in September, after sorting out his copyrights and financial affairs, Keats set off with his friend *Severn. They did not go to the Shelleys, but settled in Rome, where Keats died the following February.
Keats has always been regarded as one of the principal figures in the *Romantic movement, and his stature as a poet has grown steadily through all changes of fashion. *Tennyson considered him the greatest poet of the 19th cent., and Matthew *Arnold commended his 'intellectual and spiritual passion' for beauty,; in the 20th cent. he has been discussed and reconsidered by critics from T. S. *Eliot and *Leavis to *Trilling (The Opposing Self, 1955) and Christopher Ricks (Keats and Embarrassment, 1974).
His letters, published in 1848 and 1878, have come to be regarded with almost the admiration given to his poetry, to which many of them act as a valuable commentary. He wrote fully and revealingly to Fanny Brawne, to his brothers and ssiter, to Shelley, Leigh Hunt, Haydon, Severn, and many others, mixing the everyday evens of his own life with a lively and delicate interest in that of his correspondents, and displaying wit and high spirits as well as his profoundest thoughts on love, poetry, and the nature of man. T. S. Eliot described the letters as 'certainly the most notable and most important ever written by any English poet' (The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, 1933). The major biographies are by W. J. Bate (1963), R. *Gittings (1968), and Andrew *Motion (1997).
Endymion, a poem in four books, by *Keats, written 1817, published 1818. The poem tells, with a wealth of epithet and invention, the story of Endymion, 'the brain-sick shepherd-prince' of Mount Latmos, who falls in love with Cynthia, the moon, and descends to the depths of the earth to find her. There he encounters a real woman, Phoebe, and giving up his pursuit of the ideal he falls in love with her. She, however, turns out to be none other than Cynthia, who, after luring him, weary and perplexed, through 'cloudy phantasms', bears him away to eternal life. With the main story are woven the legends of Venus and Adonis, of Glaucus and Scylla, and of Arethusa. The poem includes in Bk I the well-known 'Hymn to Pan', and in Bk IV the roundelay 'O Sorrow'.
In his preface Keats describes the work as 'a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished'. It is a work, rich in luxuriant imagery, of an immature genius, the product of sensation rather than thought. The allegory, which is sometimes obscure, appears to represent the poet pursuing ideal perfection, and distracted from his quest by human beauty. The work was violently attacked in the *Quarterly Review and in *Blackwood's, in which *Lockhart described the poem as one of 'calm, settled, imperturbable drivelling idiocy'.
Hyperion: A Fragment and The Fall of Hyperion, fragments of epic poems by *Keats written 1818-19. Hyperion was published 1820, The Fall of Hyperion not until 1856. In 1818 Keats gave up the effort to finish Hyperion, then began to rewrite and recast it as The Fall of Hyperion, but once again the effort was abandoned.
In the first version, written as direct narrative, the tremendous figure of the fallen Saturn, conquered by Jove, mourns the loss of his kingdom, and debates with his fallen fellow Titans, in their craggy lair, how he may regain his kingdom. They conclude that only the magnificent Hyperion, who is still unfallen, will be able to help them. In Bk III the golden Apollo, god of music, poetry, and knowledge, speaks to the goddess Mnemosyne of his inexplicable anguish; hen, at the moment of his deification, the fragment ends. In the second version, the poet is in a luxuriant garden, where he drinks an elixir which induces a vision. He finds himself in a vast domed monument, then proceeds with pain and difficulty to climb the stair to the shrine of the priestess Moneta. Together they find the agonizing fallen Saturn, and with Mnemosyne and Thea they speak to him of his pain and loss. In despair he leaves with Thea to comfort his fellow Titans, while the poet and Moneta watch the magnificent, but much troubled, Hyperion blaze into the west. The precise meaning of the allegory is not always clear, but both poems have as their general theme the nature of poetry and the nature and development of the poet. It is not known why Keats abandoned what was to have been his great work, but one of his fears, expressed in a letter to his friend *Reynolds, was that his writing was too Miltonic.
'Isabella, or The Pot of Basil' ["Isabella, o la maceta de albahaca"], a narrative poem by *Keats, written 1818, published 1820.
The poem is based on a story in Boccaccio's *Decameron. The worldly, ambitious brothers of Isabella intend that she shall marry a nobleman. When they discover her love for the humble Lorenzo they lure him away, murder him, and bury his body in a forest. His ghost then appears to Isabella and tells her where he is buried. With the help of her old nurse she finds his body, severs the head, and places it in a pot with a plant of basil over it. Her brothers, observing how she cherishes the plant, steal the pot, discover the mouldering head, and fly, conscience-stricken, into banishment. Pathetically Isabella mourns her loss, pines away, and dies. The poem reflects a contemporary fashion for the macabre, and *Lamb pronounced it the best work in the volume of poems of 1820, but Keats himself very soon came to dislike it.
'The Eve of St Agnes', a narrative poem in Spenserian stanzas by *Keats, written 1819, published 1820.
The poem is set in a remote period of time, in the depths of winter. Madeline has been told the legend that on St Agnes's Eve maidens may have visions of their lovers. Madeline's love, Porphyro, comes from a family hostile to her own, and she is herself surrounded by 'hyena foemen, and hot-blooded lords'. Yet he contrives to steal into the house during a ball on St Agnes's Eve, and with the aid of old Angela is secreted in Madeline's room, where he watches his love prepare for sleep. When she wakes from dreams of him, aroused by his soft singing, she finds him by her bedside. Silently they escape from the house, and fly 'away into the storm'. With its rich and vivid imagery, its heightened atmosphere of excitement and passion, the poem is generally regarded as among Keats's most successful works.
'La Belle Dame sans Merci', a ballad by *Keats, written 1819, published 1820, which describes a knight fatally enthralled by an elfin woman. Although Keats himself spoke of it lightly, critics and biographers have written of it at length, many concurring with Robert *Graves (The White Goddess, 1948) that 'the Belle Dame represented Love, Death by Consumption . . . and Poetry all at once'. It was much admired by the *Pre-Raphaelites and William *Morris asserted that 'it was the germ from which all the poetry of his group had sprung.'
La Belle Dame sans mercy is also the title of a poem translated from *Chartier, attributed at one time to *Chaucer, but now thought to be the work of Sir Richard Ros.
'Ode on a Grecian Urn', a poem by *Keats, written 1819, published 1820.
While he describes the various pastoral scenes of love, beauty, and joy illustrated in the urn, the poet reflects on the eternal quality of art and the fleeting nature of human love and happiness. The last two lines are particularly well known and their meaning much debated:
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
'Ode to a Nightingale', a poem by *Keats, written 1819, published 1820.
Keats's friend Charles Brown relates that a nightingale has nested near his house in Hampstead (now known as Keats House), and that on e morning Keats sat under a plum-tree in the garden composing his ode on 'some scraps of paper'. Briefly, the poem is a meditation on the immortal beauty of the nightingale's song and the sadness of the observer, who must in the end accept sorrow and mortality.
'To Autumn', a poem by *Keats, written Sept. 1819, published 1820. It was his last major poem, and although usually included in a discussion of the Odes (see under ODE), it was not so labelled by Keats himself.
The poem, in three stanzas, is at once a celebration of the fruitfulness of autumn (lightly personified as a figure in various autumnal landscapes) and an elegy for the passing of summer and the transience of life, and its mood has been generally taken to be one of acquiescence. The association of autumn and early death in the mind of Keats is poignantly revealed in a letter to Reynolds (21 Sept. 1819), written immediately after the composition of the poem, in which he says, 'I always somehow associate Chatterton with the autumn'.