John Keats, who died at the age of twenty-five, had perhaps the most remarkable career of any English poet. He published only fifty-four poems, in three slim volumes and a few magazines. But at each point in his development he took on the challenges of a wide range of poetic forms from the sonnet, to the Spenserian romance, to the Miltonic epic, defining anew their possibilities with his own distinctive fusion of earnest energy, control of conflicting perspectives and forces, poetic self-consciousness, and, occasionally, dry ironic wit. In the case of the English ode he brought its form, in the five great odes of 1819, to its most perfect definition.
In his own lifetime John Keats would not have been associated with other major Romantic poets, and he himself was often uneasy among them. Outside his friend Leigh Hunt's circle of liberal intellectuals, the generally conservative reviewers of the day attacked his work, with malicious zeal, as mawkish and bad-mannered, as the work of an upstart "vulgar Cockney poetaster" (John Gibson Lockhart), and as consisting of "the most incongruous ideas in the most uncouth language" (John Wilson Croker). Although Keats had a liberal education in the boy's academy at Enfield and trained at Guy's Hospital to become a surgeon, he had no formal literary education. Yet Keats today is seen as one of the canniest readers, interpreters, questioners, of the "modern" poetic project-which he saw as beginning with William Wordsworth—to create poetry in a world devoid of mythic grandeur, poetry that sought its wonder in the desires and sufferings of the human heart. Beyond his precise sense of the difficulties presented him in his own literary-historical moment, he developed with unparalleled rapidity, in a relative handful of extraordinary poems, a rich, powerful, and exactly controlled poetic style that ranks Keats, with the William Shakespeare of the sonnets, as one of the greatest lyric poets in English.
Keats was born in London on 31 October 1795, the eldest of Thomas and Frances Jennings Keats's four children. Traditionally, he was said to have been born in his maternal grandfather's stable, the Swan and Hoop, near what is now Finsbury Circus, but there is no real evidence for this birthplace, or for the belief that his family was particularly poor. Thomas Keats managed the stable for his father-in-law and later owned it, providing the family an income comfortable enough for them to buy a home and send the older children, John and George (1797-1841), to the small village academy of Enfield, run by the liberal and gifted teacher John Clarke. Young Tom Keats (1799-1818) soon followed them. Although little is known of Keats's early home life, it appears to have been happy, the family close-knit, the environment full of the exuberance and clamor of a big-city stable and inn yard. Frances Keats was a lively woman, tall and attractive, ardently devoted to her children, particularly her favorite, John, who returned that devotion intensely. Keats's father, recalled John Clarke, was a man "of fine commonsense and native respectability," under whom the family business prospered, so that he hoped to send his son John to Harrow.
At the age of eight Keats entered Enfield Academy and became friends with young Charles Cowden Clarke, the fifteen-year-old son of the headmaster. Clarke remembered an outgoing youth, who made friends easily and fought passionately in their defense: "He was not merely the `favorite of all,' like a pet prize-fighter, for his terrier courage; but his high-mindedness, his utter unconsciousness of a mean motive, his placability, his generosity, wrought so general a feeling in his behalf, that I never heard a word of disapproval from any one, superior or equal, who had known him." He was not a shy, bookish child; one of his schoolmates, Edward Holmes, later said that "Keats was not in childhood attached to books. His penchant was for fighting. He would fight any one."
On the night of 15 April 1804, when Keats had been in school less than a year, an accident occurred that would alter his life and proved to be the first in a series of losses and dislocations that would pursue him throughout his brief life, certainly contributing to his mature sense that the career of the artist was an exploration of art's power to bring solace and meaning to human suffering. His father was seriously injured when his horse stumbled as he rode home, and he died the next day. The shock to the family was great, emotionally and financially. Within two months of her husband's death, Frances Keats had moved the children to her mother's home and remarried; but the marriage soon proved disastrous, and it appears that, after losing the stables and some of her inheritance to her estranged husband, William Rawlings, the poet's mother left the family, perhaps to live with another man. She had returned by 1808, however, broken and ill; she died of tuberculosis (as had her brother just a few months before) in March 1809. John became the oldest male in his family, and, to the end of his life, felt a fiercely protective loyalty to his brothers and sister, Fanny Keats. His most thoughtful and moving letters on poetry's relation to individual experience, to human suffering and spiritual development, were written to his brothers.
At school, Keats drew closer to the headmaster, John Clarke, and his son, Cowden. He became, in fact, one of Clarke's favorite pupils, reading voraciously and taking first prizes in essay contests his last two or three terms. In some part this new academic interest was a response to his loneliness after his mother's death. But he had by then already won an essay contest and begun translating Latin and French. It is likely, then, that his mother's reappearance in 1808 inspired him to act responsibly and to bring a sense of order and achievement to his turbulent family. Keats's love for literature, and his association of the life of imagination with the politics of a liberal intelligentsia, really began in Clarke's school. It was modeled on the Dissenting academies that encouraged a broad range of reading in classical and modern languages, as well as history and modern science; discipline was light, and students were encouraged to pursue their own interests by a system of rewards and prizes. Clarke himself was a friend of the radical reformers John Cartwright and Joseph Priestley and subscribed to Leigh Hunt's Examiner, which Cowden Clarke said, "no doubt laid the foundation of [Keats's] love of civil and religious liberty."
Keats's sense of the power and romance of literature began as the Clarkes encouraged him to turn his energy and curiosity to their library. Cowden Clarke recalled his reading histories, novels, travel stories; but the books "that were his constantly recurrent sources of attraction were Tooke's `Pantheon,' Lamprière's `Classical Dictionary,' which he appeared to learn, and Spence's `Polymetis.' This was the store whence he acquired his intimacy with the Greek mythology." On his own, Keats translated most of the Aeneid and continued learning French. Literature for him was more than a dreamy refuge for a lonely orphan: it was a domain for energetic exploration, "realms of gold," as he later wrote, tempting not only as a realm of idealistic romance but also of a beauty that enlarges our imaginative sympathies. All through his life his friends remarked on his industry and his generosity: literature for Keats was a career to be struggled with, fought for, and earned, for the sake of what the poet's struggle could offer humankind in insight and beauty. This impression recurs often in accounts of Keats, this pugnacity of one who fought his way into literary circles, and this compassion for others that justifies the literary career.
Of course, at this point, when Keats was only fifteen or sixteen, a literary career was not a serious thought. In 1810 Alice Whalley Jennings, Keats's grandmother, was seventy-five, and in charge of the four orphaned children, John, George (then thirteen), Tom (eleven), and Fanny (seven). She had inherited a considerable sum from her husband, John Jennings (who died in 1805), and in order to ensure the children's financial future turned to Richard Abbey, a tea merchant who, on the advice of her attorney, she appointed to act as trustee. Most of Keats's later financial misery can be traced to this decision. If Abbey was no villain, he was nevertheless narrow-minded and conventional, and, where money was concerned, niggardly and often deceitful. He dispensed the children's money grudgingly and often lied or freely interpreted the terms of the bequest: it was not until 1833, years after Fanny Keats came of age, that she finally forced a legal settlement. It has been estimated that by the time of Keats's death in 1821 either Abbey had withheld from him, or Keats had failed to discover, about £2000, a considerable inheritance (in those days £50 per annum was at least a living wage, and £100-200 would provide a comfortable existence). Keats left Enfield in 1811, and, perhaps at Abbey's urging—though Clarke remembered it as Keats's choice—he began to study for a career as a surgeon. He was apprenticed to a respected surgeon, Thomas Hammond, in a small town near Enfield, Edmonton, where his grandmother lived.
We know little of Keats's life during these years 1811-1814, other than that Keats assisted Hammond and began the study of anatomy and physiology. Surgery would have been a respectable and reasonable profession for one of Keats's means: unlike the profession of medicine, the job of surgeon in Keats's day did not require a university degree. A surgeon, licensed by examination, was a general practitioner, setting bones, dressing wounds, giving vaccinations. Keats always maintained he was "ambitious of doing the world some good." It is likely that he began his career with enthusiasm, but living in the small rooms over the surgery, Keats grew restless and lonely; he began to wander the woods and walk the four miles to Enfield to see the Clarkes. He completed his translation of the Aeneid, and, according to Cowden Clarke, he "devoured rather than read" books he borrowed: Ovid's Metamorphosis ,John Milton's Paradise Lost, Virgil's Eclogues, and dozens of others. But the book that decisively awakened his love of poetry, indeed shocked him suddenly into self-awareness of his own powers of imagination, was Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene.
This was a turning point. Certainly this close teacher-pupil friendship with Cowden Clarke, these evenings at the headmaster's table, and the long late-night rambles discussing books borrowed from the library, were crucial in making John Keats a poet. His friend Charles Brown believed Keats first read Spenser when he was eighteen, in 1813 or 1814: "From his earliest boyhood he had an acute sense of beauty, whether in a flower, a tree, the sky, or the animal world; how was it that his sense of beauty did not naturally seek in his mind for images by which he could best express his feelings? It was the `Fairy Queen' that awakened his genius. In Spenser's fairy land he was enchanted, breathed in a new world, and became another being. . . ." Soon, wrote Brown, he "was entirely absorbed in poetry." (Brown subsequently struck out the word entirely.) Clarke recalled Keats's exuberant joy, "he ramped through the scenes of that . . . purely poetical romance, like a young horse into a Spring meadow." Some time in 1814 Keats wrote his first poem, "In Imitation of Spenser." What is remarkable about this first poem is its vitality, its appropriation of the Spenserian rhyme scheme and richly compressed imagery to evoke a romantically voluptuous dream world. It is a youthful piece. But the poetic ear is acute, the natural description delights in itself, and even when clumsy the verse dares with naive persistence to draw attention to the power of poetic image to set a dreamy scene ("Ah! could I tell the wonders of an isle / That in that fairest lake had been / I could e'en Dido of her grief beguile." And of course he does attempt to tell).
But there was more than "pure poetry" involved in Keats's turn, over the next year or two, to poetry as a vocation. Politics played a role as well-in the circumstances, in fact, a decisive one. As early as 1812 Cowden Clarke had met the radical publisher of The Examiner, Leigh Hunt; in 1814 he was a regular visitor to Hunt's prison cell (he had been imprisoned in 1813 for libeling the Prince Regent), and Keats must have been enthralled by another kind of romance than Spenser's-the romance of the London circle of artists and intellectuals who supported progressive causes and democratic reform, and opposed the aristocratic counterrevolution then waging war on Napoleon. Indeed, in these liberal circles of the Regency bourgeoisie, Keats might even hope to attract attention, even as an outsider, on the strength of his political enthusiasm and poetic talent. His next poems are political: in April 1814 the kings of Europe had defeated Napoleon, but amid the general optimism in England, liberals, including Keats in "On Peace," called on the victors to support reform. The sonnet, his first, is clumsy and shrill. But it does show how Keats meant to get attention. In February 1815, Hunt was released, and Keats offered a sonnet, "Written on the Day That Mr. Leigh Hunt Left Prison," through Cowden Clarke, whom he stopped on his way to meet Hunt: "when taking leave, he gave me the sonnet," said Clarke, "... how clearly do I recall the conscious look and hesitation with which he offered it!" The publication of this sonnet in the Poems of 1817 would have been noted by the conservative reviewers who would later attack him as an associate of Hunt's. To take a political stand so early in his career was a bold act: in those turbulent times political passions ran deep.
It may have been over political matters that Keats quarreled with Dr. Hammond. We know that he did and that for some reason he left his apprenticeship early. On 1 October 1815, Keats moved to London and registered at Guy's Hospital for a six-month course of study required for him to become a licensed surgeon and apothecary. This move to the dreary neighborhood of the Borough, just south of London Bridge, was exciting for Keats. He could be near his family now: his grandmother had died in December 1814, and George and Tom moved to Abbey's countinghouse where they were apprenticed (Fanny went to live with the Abbeys at Walthamstow). Before the move, Keats in 1815 seems to have been moody and at times deeply depressed. In the February 1815 poem "To Hope" he speaks of "hateful thoughts [that] enwrap my soul in gloom," and "sad Despondency." This was perhaps only a fashionable literary pose—he had recently written a sonnet in praise of Byron's "sweetly sad" melody—and it takes a political turn, looking to "Hope" as a principle of social liberation. But his brother recalled this time as one of brooding uncertainty, his grandmother's death no doubt having increased his anxiety to bring some stability to what remained of a family so shaken by death and dislocation. More pressing, perhaps, was his growing eagerness, in the exciting political climate of Napoleon's brief return from March until the Battle of Waterloo in June, to make some contribution as a poet to the liberal cause. He was fully committed to a career as a surgeon but was still determined to find time to write verse.
His brother George, to ease John's troubled moods, introduced him to his friends Caroline and Anne Mathew and their cousin, a would-be poet, George Felton Mathew. Keats's friendship with Mathew was brief but stimulating. With the two sisters Keats maintained a bland and rather conventional literary friendship, addressing to them some stilted anapests ("To Some Ladies," "On Receiving a Curious Shell ...," "O Come, dearest Emma!") in the style of the popular Regency poet Thomas Moore. The friendship with George Mathew, though, buoyed his spirits and encouraged him in his poetic purpose. Here at last was a poet, who—initially at least—seemed to share his literary tastes and encouraged his verse writing. If his brother remembered Keats's emotional distress, Mathew, writing to Keats's biographer Richard Monckton Milnes more than thirty years later, remembered that Keats "enjoyed good health—a fine flow of animal spirits—was fond of company—could amuse himself admirably with the frivolities of life—and had great confidence in himself." Mathew was reserved, rather conservative, and earnestly religious; the friendship soon cooled. But in November 1815 Keats addressed to him his longest poem yet, "To George Felton Mathew," in heroic couplets modeled on the Elizabethan verse epistle. Despite the stiffness of the verse and some awkwardness, the style, colloquial yet descriptively lush, is becoming recognizably Keats's own though clearly developed from his reading of Hunt and Wordsworth; and, most interestingly, the themes would become characteristic, though here they are only suggested: that poets associate in a "brotherhood" of the "genius-loving heart"; that they represent, as much as political figures, fighters for "the cause of freedom"; and that poets bring "healing" to a suffering world, often hostile to their genius, by evoking a world of escape and timeless myth.
Few English authors have ever, in fact, had as much direct observation and experience of suffering as John Keats. Until the early summer of 1816 he studied medicine at Guy's Hospital, and he did so well he was promoted to "dresser" unusually quickly. His duties involved dressing wounds daily to prevent or minimize infection, setting bones, and assisting with surgery. He took to the work well, lodging with two older students at 28 St. Thomas Street, attending lectures by the foremost surgeon of the day, Astley Cooper, as well as courses in anatomy and physiology, botany, chemistry, and medical practice. Yet by the spring of 1816 he was clearly becoming restless, even defensive, about poetry. He was increasingly excited by the new modern poetry of Wordsworth (whose 1815 Poems Keats had obtained just as he entered Guy's), its naturalism and direct appeal to the secular imagination so different from Spenser's romance. And, once again, there was the influence of Hunt, whose homey, even vulgar poetic diction with its colloquial informality, seemed daring to the twenty-year-old Keats, who would have associated Hunt's 1816 poems in The Examiner with a politically antiauthoritarian movement of which modern poetry was a part. He began to speak about poetry, and little else, to his fellow students, with a kind of insecure arrogance. "Medical knowledge was beneath his attention," said his fellow student and roommate, Henry Stephens, "no—Poetry was to his mind the zenith of all his Aspirations—The only thing worthy the attention of superior minds.... The greatest men in the world were the Poets, and to rank among them was the chief object of his ambition.... This feeling was accompanied with a good deal of Pride and some conceit; and that amongst mere Medical students, he would walk & talk as one of the Gods might be supposed to do, when mingling with mortals." We need not, perhaps, take this memory too seriously, but clearly Keats wanted to think of himself as a man of literature. Flushed with enthusiasm for Hunt's poetry, he sent to The Examiner in March a sonnet that he had written the previous autumn, "Solitude." It was published 5 May 1816. Stephens recalled, "he was exceedingly gratified."
However lofty his conception of the poet in 1816, Keats chose an unfortunate model in Leigh Hunt. The typical Hunt idiom was a highly mannered luxuriance, characterized by an abundance of -y and -ly modifiers, adjectives made from nouns and verbs ("bosomy," "scattery," "tremblingly"), as well as a jaunty, often vulgar, colloquialism. Surely we can hear this Huntian influence in the little verses Keats scribbled on the cover of Stephens's lecture notebook: "Give me women, wine and snuff, / Until I cry out `hold, enough!'"; or in some verses he began in the style of Hunt's Story of Rimini (1815), "Specimen of an Induction to a Poem": "Lo! I must tell a tale of chivalry; / For while I muse, the lance points slantingly / Athwart the morning air: some lady sweet ... Hails it with tears." The reader notes in this poem the frequent enjambment for which Hunt himself had argued, against the masculine (strong-syllable) rhymed, end-stopped couplets of Alexander Pope; Hunt also disliked median caesurae, arguing for the fluidity of lines that paused later, after "weak" syllables. This argument (however arcane it may appear now) had political resonance for Hunt, since it promised to break the "aristocratic" sound of the heroic couplet so pleasing to conservative tastemakers. (Lord Byron, who objected to Hunt's theories, never completely forgave Keats for his attack on Pope in "Sleep and Poetry.")
But if these elements in Hunt's poetry seemed declassé to his and Keats's critics, today one cannot say that Hunt's influence on Keats was in any simple sense bad. For one thing Hunt was not Keats's only model. Spenser was a more serious and enduring influence, as were Browne, Drayton, Milton, Wordsworth, and later, Shakespeare. Most twenty-year-old poets need a model of some sort, and there were certainly more banal models in his day from which to choose. On the other hand (as Walter Jackson Bate suggests), to attempt to have written like a greater and more popular poet, like Byron, would not have had the energizing effect on Keats's verse that Hunt had. Hunt enabled Keats to write and, eventually, to surpass him. For a young middle-class liberal with no university training, a healthy dislike of Pope and an enthusiasm for Hunt and Wordsworth provided an enabling sense of identity. Finally, Keats was by no means, even in 1815-1816, a slavish imitator. His works have a troubled sense of self-consciousness completely absent from Hunt's. Keats's are also poems of escape to nature, and in these tropes we can sense as much Keats's very shrewd (and early) understanding of Wordsworth's poetic project as of Hunt's. In poems such as the fine sonnet "How many bards gild the lapses of time!" or the "Ode to Apollo," or the lovely (summer 1816) sonnet "Oh! how I love, on a fair summer's eve," one finds an important Keatsian trope: the poem about the poet's own sense of himself as a modern, preparing to write from his experience a new poetry to match that of England's great writers.
On 25 July 1816 Keats took, and passed, the examinations that allowed him to practice surgery, and left London for the fashionable seaside resort of Margate. It had been a trying year (and a difficult exam: Stephens flunked), and Keats needed to escape the hot, dirty streets of the Borough to collect his thoughts. Here, for the first time really, he confronted, in a long poem of generally self-assured verse, his own struggle to become a poet, in the Epistle to My Brother George, inspired by verse epistles Hunt published in The Examiner but interesting in its own right. For here Keats explored what it would mean to him "to strive to think divinely," to have a poet's imaginative vision while absorbing the sights and sounds of nature in a kind of Wordsworthian "wise passiveness." As so often in Romantic poetry, a poet's complaint at being unable to have a vision itself becomes a vision of what he might see if he were a true poet. After fifty lines or so of such inspiration, though, Keats breaks off—"And should I ever see [visions], I will tell you / Such tales as must with amazement spell you"—in favor of a long, discursive speech by a dying poet who celebrates the joy he has brought the world. Despite the sketchiness of the effort, and Keats's obvious frustration with himself, this poem and the other Margate epistle, "To Charles Cowden Clarke," are remarkable for their brave and serious tone of self-exploration. Keats, confronting his indebtedness to other poets and his hopes for himself, had found a theme that would launch his career.
He returned to London in late September and took rooms near Guy's Hospital, 9 Dean Street, and amid the gloomy little alleys began again his work as a dresser until he could formally assume the duties of a surgeon on his twenty-first birthday in October. Dreary as this beginning must have seemed, the month would be fateful for the young poet.
Cowden Clarke had been living in London, and this warmhearted schoolmaster was excited to receive the long epistle from Keats. One night in early October, Clarke invited Keats to his rooms in Clerkenwell. He especially wanted to show Keats a volume that was being shown around Hunt's circle, a 1616 folio edition of George Chapman's translation of Homer. The two friends pored over the volume until six in the morning, and when Keats reached home he sat down immediately to compose a sonnet, titled in manuscript "On the first looking into Chapman's Homer." With obvious pride and excitement he sent it to Clarke by a post that reached him at ten that morning. Surely Keats felt, as critics today would agree, that this was the most perfect poem, the most beautifully written and sustained verse, he had yet written.
As he would so often, Keats wrote the "Homer" sonnet in response to the power and imaginative vision of another poet. And again, that power is perceived as an absence, a gap between Keats's small voice—or the concrete experience of any individual—and the sublime limitlessness of a great and distant imagination (this tension reappears in the more complex relation of the poet to the Grecian urn and the nightingale). Unlike his first sonnets, inspired by the natural charm of Hunt's sonnets, this sonnet is based on a structural principle that he would later bring to perhaps its greatest fulfillment in English poetry in his odes, the expression of the irresolvable contrarieties of experience in the interplay of verse elements—quatrain, octave and sestet, rhymes, words, and even sounds. In this sonnet, the energy and excitement of literary discovery—Keats, in reading Homer, feels not bookish pleasure but the awe of a conquistador reaching the edge of an uncharted sea—is presented as direct emotion, not, as it had been in the epistles, a disabling and self-conscious pose. The emotion is, for the first time, sustained and controlled throughout the verse, with a sureness of diction, and even sound, that never falters: for example, the sense of openness to a vast sea of wonder is suggested by long vowels ("wild," "surmise," "silent"), tapering off to hushed awe in the weak syllables of the final word, "Silent, upon a peak in Darien." As published (with line 7 altered, in The Examiner , 1 December 1816), the sonnet takes its place with Wordsworth's and some of Keats's own, as among the finest of the nineteenth century.
Keats carefully copied out this sonnet, along with some other poems including the sonnet "How many bards," and gave them to Clarke to take to Hunt at his Hampstead cottage. Hunt, of course, had published a Keats sonnet, but now was anxious to meet the man himself. Keats responded to Clarke, in a letter of 9 October, "'t will be an Era in my existence." It proved to be.
Some time that month he met not only Hunt, but also men who were to be close friends and supporters all his life: John Hamilton Reynolds and Benjamin Haydon. Within a few weeks he would meet Shelley's publisher Charles Ollier, who would bring out Keats's first volume. Hunt recalled of this first meeting "the impression made upon me by the exuberant specimens of genuine though young poetry that were laid before me, and the promise of which was seconded by the fine fervid countenance of the writer. We became intimate on the spot, and I found the young poet's heart as warm as his imagination." It was, said Clarke, "`a red-letter day' in the young poet's life, and one which will never fade with me while memory lasts. . . . Keats was suddenly made a familiar of the household, and was always welcomed." This was so to the last months of his life, when the ill poet made his way back to the Hunts' even though by then Keats had come to judge him egotistical and manipulative and had long since rejected his poetical influence on his career.
However trying Keats may have found Hunt, throughout his life he could think of Hampstead as a refuge, Hunt's pleasant domesticity in his beautiful surroundings harmonizing with the easy urbanity of high Regency culture, of books, paintings, music, liberal politics, and literary conversation with the great talents of the age. Keats himself had moved, in November, to lodgings at 76 Cheapside, with his brothers, George and Tom. Until Tom's death two years later broke it up, this would be the happiest household Keats would know. He traveled often to Hunt's in these months, his friendship growing with the witty young Reynolds and the crotchety, energetic egomaniac Haydon. Reynolds, about Keats's age, was a not-too-successful poet and essayist, but had a quick mind and literary polish; in the next few weeks he would introduce Keats to John Taylor and James Hessey, who became his publishers after Ollier dropped him; to Charles (Armitage) Brown, the rugged, worldly businessman who was one of Keats's most loyal friends, traveling with him through Scotland in the summer of 1818, and sharing rooms with him at his home at Wentworth Place, Hampstead (now the Keats House and Museum), from December 1818 until May 1820; Charles and Maria Dilke, who built the double house in Hampstead with Brown; and Benjamin Bailey, an Oxford student with whom Keats stayed the following fall. Haydon's vast canvases and blustering (later in life, sadly manic), often pugnacious self-assurance impressed Keats with his notion that modern artists could produce great works of epic dimensions; he introduced Keats to William Hazlitt, whose notions of poetic energy, "gusto," and of imagination as an intensification of sensory experience enabling us to transcend self, were to begin Keats's own meditations on aesthetics.
When Keats stayed at the Hunts', a cot was set up in the library for him, and it was here, in November and December 1816, he planned his two long poems "I stood tip-toe" and "Sleep and Poetry." Though the diction of these rhymed couplets is often clumsy and adolescent, and the syntax often turgid, these were the first serious long poems Keats intended for publication, and their themes introduce enduring concerns. Clearly, by November, Hunt had begun to plan a volume of his new protégés verse, with the Olliers as publishers. "I stood tip-toe" was filled out for this purpose, Keats having begun it some time in the summer as a treatment of the myth of Endymion. In this poem, Keats begins with lush, tedious natural description, although his purpose is Wordsworthian, to write poetry inspired by nature that will rise to myth: "For what has made the sage or poet write / But the fair paradise of Nature's light?" Nature inspires poets to sing sweet songs of mythic figures; but the poet is called by "unearthly singing" from a resting place of the divine, "Full in the speculation of the stars." This meeting of the divine with the human is symbolized by the marriage of the mortal Endymion with the moon, Cynthia, and initiates a regenerated world of art and poetry: "Was there a Poet born?" in this marriage, the poem asks. Keats finished this poem in December, and tentatively called it "Endymion," his first poetic use of the myth.
"Sleep and Poetry," written in December, is the more serious poem of the two. It lays out a poetic project and manifesto for the young poet. Poetry here is distinguished from mere sleep, or dream, in engaging "the strife of human hearts," the sorrow of life, as well as proceeding from an immersion in the joys of sensation. Keats boldly aligns himself with Wordsworth's naturalism, attacking the "foppery" of neoclassicism: he will begin his poetic education in nature in order to comprehend the human heart. The "great end" of poetry is "that it should be a friend / To sooth the cares, and lift the thoughts of man." The poem ends with the notion of a "brotherhood" of literary cultivation as the poet returns to his evening in Hunt's library, an ideal union of natural grace, liberality, and poetic tradition. Although these thoughts began with the verse epistles, this poem is his most earnest attempt yet to find a purpose for literature within modern life, and he boldly asserts that a new poetry has begun, a modern humanism with roots in nature and myth. Contemporary critics immediately understood, and condemned, this young poet's radical associations—more offensive to them than the poem's occasional Huntian lapses and adolescent posturing.
On 1 December, Hunt published in The Examiner a brief notice of "Young Poets"—Shelley, Keats, and Reynolds—extolling a "new school" that would "revive Nature" and "'put a spirit of youth in everything.'" He quotes in full the "excellent" "Homer" sonnet. At about this time Keats was determined to give up medicine and devote himself to poetry. Stephens believed that this notice "sealed his fate," and that he immediately changed his mind, but Stephens may not have known the whole story. Charles Brown remembers Keats becoming disillusioned with his career as a surgeon and becoming fearful that he might not be a good enough surgeon to avoid inflicting needless suffering. The truth was undoubtedly a complex mixture of these, but certainly the excitement of these months, and the promise of a published volume, gave him confidence and determination. In December Haydon took his life mask of Keats, as a study for including him (standing behind Wordsworth) in his large painting Christ's Entry Into Jerusalem, completed in 1819.
Later that month, the Hunt household was set into commotion by the arrival of Shelley, whose wife Harriet's suicide provoked a crisis, as Shelley arranged to marry Mary Godwin (with whom he had eloped in 1814) and fight for custody of his children. The pride and fuss over Keats's forthcoming volume was shared with the attention Shelley demanded. The two poets walked together across the Heath frequently that winter, and at least once Shelley cautioned Keats to wait for publication until he had a more mature body of work from which to compile a volume. It was perhaps good advice, but Keats never warmed to Shelley as Shelley did to him, and he seems to have been annoyed at Hunt for moving to Marlow for an extended visit with Shelley that spring.
Keats's first volume, Poems, appeared on 3 March 1817, with its dedicatory sonnet to Leigh Hunt. It begins with "I stood tip-toe," ends with another long poem, "Sleep and Poetry," and includes youthful poems as well as some recent, good work, "Keen, fitful gusts"; the poem to Wordsworth, Hunt, and Haydon, "Addressed to the Same [Haydon]"; and the three long verse epistles, to Mathew, George Keats, and Clarke. It received about half a dozen notices, half from Keats's circle. In October 1817 a polite review, warning the young poet to "Cast off the uncleanness of [Hunt's] school," appeared in the Edinburgh Magazine, and Literary Miscellany. Months later, in the 1-13 June Examiner, Hunt extolled Wordsworth's revolutionary modern poetry and placed Keats as an emerging new poet of a second wave, though his praise of Keats's actual poetry was rather reserved. The volume was no success, and few copies were sold. "The book might have emerged in Timbuctoo," recalled Clarke. One of the Ollier brothers wrote to George Keats (who perhaps had written to complain about the book's promotion), "We regret that your brother ever requested us to publish his book. . . . By far the greater number of persons who have purchased it from us have found fault with it in such plain terms, that we have in many cases offered to take the book back rather than be annoyed with the ridicule which has, time after time, been showered upon it."
On 1 March Hunt had invited Keats home to celebrate the publication. After dinner Hunt wove a laurel crown for Keats; Keats wove an ivy one for Hunt; and Hunt then suggested a fifteen-minute sonnet-writing contest to commemorate this event. Keats dashed off a poor, rather silly sonnet, which Hunt published to Keats's dismay. Horribly embarrassed, angry at Hunt's frivolity, he sought out Haydon the next day, and the two went to see the Elgin Marbles, which Haydon had been active in persuading the government to buy. Keats wrote his sonnet "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles" that evening; it is a splendid evocation of the grandeur of monumental art set against the aspirations of the individual artist, of human weakness and pain poised against an aesthetic vision of the gods.
Keats was not deterred by the book's poor sales. He determined to begin a large poem, on the great theme that he so cannily saw had produced his most serious thought, the striving of man to be one with his ideals, his gods. He resolved to get away, to return to the seaside. Before he left on 14 April for the Isle of Wight, he and his brothers moved to Hampstead, to a home in Well Walk, hoping the country air might be good for young Tom, who was becoming ill. He also arranged for John Taylor, of Taylor and Hessey, to become his new publisher, and this association was, both emotionally and financially, to be a source of real support for years to come.
On the Isle of Wight he sat alone for some weeks, writing to Haydon of his new passion for Shakespeare, whom Haydon had read to him with inspiring gusto, whose works he had brought along, and whose portrait he hung up over his desk (he took this portrait with him everywhere all his life). His goal was to write a four-thousand-line poem, Endymion, by autumn. It was an unrealistic, though bold, project, and he sat for weeks anxious and depressed, though moved by the beauty and power of the sea. His friends back home had faith in him, which sustained him: Reynolds wrote a fine review of his Poems in the radical Champion (9 March 1817); Haydon wrote to him, "bless you My dear Keats go on, dont despair . . . read Shakespeare and trust in Providence"; and Taylor kindly advanced him money—having written to his father, "I cannot think he will fail to become a great Poet."
He did, by the end of April, manage to write part of book I, the "Hymn to Pan." Yet he was lonely, nervous, and blocked. He fled the Isle of Wight for Margate, where he had been so productive the previous summer. In May he went to Canterbury with Tom, hoping "the Remembrance of Chaucer will set me forward like a Billiard-Ball," as he wrote to Taylor. By June he was back at Well Walk, Hampstead, spending many days with the quiet, shy, by-no-means intellectual painter Joseph Severn, who would be with Keats to his last moments in Rome; and also with Reynolds, with whom he read Shakespeare. By August his first extended narrative poem was half finished, a total of two thousand lines.
In July, 1820, John Keats published his third and final book, “Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes and Other Poems.” He had no reason to expect that it would be a success, with either the public or the critics: in his short career, the twenty-four-year-old poet had known nothing but rejection on both fronts. After his first book, “Poems,” appeared, in 1817, his publishers, the brothers Charles and James Ollier, refused to have anything more to do with him. In a letter to the poet’s brother George, they wrote, “We regret that your brother ever requested us to publish his book, or that our opinion of its talent should have led us to acquiesce in undertaking it.” They went on, “By far the greater number of persons who have purchased it from us have found fault with it in such plain terms, that we have in many cases offered to take the book back rather than be annoyed with the ridicule which has, time after time, been showered upon it.”
When Keats’s long poem “Endymion” came out, the following year, from a different firm, the ridicule was even worse, and far more public. The leading Tory magazines of the day published savagely satirical reviews, linking the poem’s undisciplined exuberance with its author’s working-class origins. Keats was the son of a stable-keeper, and he had trained as an apothecary: no wonder, the critics smirked, that he had fallen in with the sentimental “Cockney School” of poets, led by the radical journalist Leigh Hunt. Keats’s class and his liberal politics were enough to damn him sight unseen, as the Quarterly Review made clear when its critic admitted that he had not bothered to read “Endymion” to the end: “If any one should be bold enough to purchase this ‘Poetic Romance,’ and so much more patient, than ourselves, as to get beyond the first book, and so much more fortunate as to find a meaning, we entreat him to make us acquainted with his success.” Blackwood’s Magazine said, “It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr John, back to ‘plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.’ ”
After all this, Keats could hardly have been optimistic about his third volume. He grumbled in a letter to George that he ought to give up writing and become a doctor—it couldn’t be any “worse than writing poems, & hanging them up to be fly-blown on the Review shambles.” But he must have been particularly unsettled by a review in the Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review. The book was not mocked; the anonymous critic simply said, more in sorrow than in anger, that it was not much good. “We confess this volume has disappointed us; from Mr Keats’s former productions, we had augured better things,” the paper opined. “We are confident he can do better.”
To Keats, this would have been the bitterest verdict of all, for by the summer of 1820 he knew that he would not live to publish another book. Tuberculosis was slowly choking him to death, leaving him without the will or the energy to work: he had written almost no poetry since late the preceding year, and would write no more before he died, in Rome, in February, 1821. Keats continued to believe that, with time and study, he would have become a great poet, but he was starting to agree with the critics that nothing he had written could prove it. A year before his death, he wrote that he was reconciled to failure: “ ‘If I should die,’ said I to myself, ‘I have left no immortal work behind me—nothing to make my friends proud of my memory—but I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d.’ ”
Of all the piteous elements in Keats’s story, none is more distressing than the idea that he went to his grave convinced of his failure. For Keats’s last book, in addition to the three masterpieces named in its title, included a series of odes—“Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to Psyche,” “Ode on Melancholy,” and “To Autumn”—that are now universally regarded as among the greatest poems in the English language. If any single book ever earned its author immortality, it was this one. And, as Stanley Plumly points out in “Posthumous Keats” (Norton; $27.95), his moving new study of the poet’s work and legend, “one could form a considerable collection from what was left out of this last book.” Some of Keats’s best poems, including “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” were never collected in his lifetime.
Did Keats really believe that, having written such poems, he was a failure? The question is more urgent in his case than in any other poet’s, for no writer ever yearned for fame more ardently than Keats. His ambition was all the more remarkable considering that he started life with none of the advantages of the noble Byron or the wealthy Shelley. Born in 1795, the eldest child of a prosperous working-class family, he soon learned how precarious his fortunes really were. His father, Thomas, died in a riding accident when Keats was eight years old, a blow made worse by the remarriage of his mother, Frances, just a couple of months later. The hasty marriage was brief, and when it collapsed Frances disappeared in a cloud of scandalous rumors, leaving her children in the care of their grandmother. When she came back home, a few years later, it was to die. John nursed her through the final stages of consumption, as he was to do with his youngest brother, Tom, in 1818.
Keats, orphaned at the age of fourteen, was not entirely without resources. A small legacy paid for his apprenticeship to a surgeon, after which he went on to medical school, leaving in 1816 with a license to practice as an apothecary—the lowest, most menial kind of medical man. But by then he had decided that poetry, not medicine, was his calling. In the time remaining to him—less than five years—he lived off the remains of his inheritance in order to devote himself to greatness.
From his first mature poem, the sonnet “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” written just before his twenty-first birthday, to his last—the dreamlike fragment “The Fall of Hyperion,” which he abandoned just before his twenty-fourth—this ambition was Keats’s major theme. In that first poem, written in the early-morning hours after a night spent reading Homer with friends, Keats evokes his dawning sense of the immense realm of poetry—“like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes / He stared at the Pacific”—and of the heroic effort required to carve out for himself one of the “goodly states and kingdoms” which “bards in fealty to Apollo hold.” In the last, he records a hallucinatory encounter with the goddess Moneta, who tells him that his quest has failed, that he is not a poet but a mere dreamer:
The poet and the dreamer are distinct,
Diverse, sheer opposite, antipodes.
The one pours out a balm upon the world,
The other vexes it.
Keats offered an apparently unambiguous assessment of his short career when he told his friend Joseph Severn—a young painter who volunteered to accompany him to Rome, and nursed him through his last months—that he did not want his name to appear on his tombstone. Instead, he instructed, it should simply read, “Here lies one whose name was writ in* water.” Yet Plumly, an award-winning poet, is deeply attuned to the subtleties of poetic ambition, and he points out that the famous epitaph is not quite as resigned as it seems. “The fact that Keats did not want his name to appear on the tombstone adds only interest to the mystery of who might be buried so anonymously,” Plumly writes. “The unnamed is, after all, written in stone, not water.” It is the epitaph not of a man accepting oblivion but of a poet cultivating his legend from beyond the grave. Plumly quotes Keats’s publisher John Taylor, who approved of the anonymous gravestone because he foresaw “that it will be as clear an indication to posterity as the plainest, everyday inscription that one may find in Westminster Abbey.”
Such moments of canny sympathy justify the unusual approach that Plumly takes in “Posthumous Keats.” Instead of simply recounting the life and analyzing the poems, Plumly pursues his intuitions through a series of linked essays, all of them concerned with aspects of the poet’s death and afterlife. He explores the “drawings, paintings, engravings, and sculptings” of Keats’s face “by some forty separate artists,” showing how he was turned into the Victorians’ archetypal poet, “perfected and abstracted” into unrecognizability. He narrates Keats’s last days in Rome, evoking the eerie contrast between the sensual city and the increasingly incorporeal sufferer. He shows us Keats running into Coleridge on Hampstead Heath, and quotes the older poet’s prophecy: “When I shook him by the hand there was death!”
Through this interweaving of themes and episodes—a “walk around in Keats’s life and art, not simply through them”—Plumly emphasizes, as a more conventional biography never could, the fatal, fated quality of Keats’s career. He shows how Keats, in a way that feels unique even among the doomed Romantics, became posthumous while he was still alive. In one sense, this is because he knew that he was dying long before death arrived. Thanks to his medical training, and to his experiences nursing his mother and his brother, Keats was well acquainted with the symptoms of tuberculosis. On February 3, 1820, when he fell into a coughing fit and brought up blood on the sheets, he had no doubt what was in store. “I know the colour of that blood. It’s arterial blood,” his friend Charles Brown remembered Keats saying. “That blood is my death-warrant. I must die.”
For the next year, Keats went along with his doctors’ various treatments—bloodletting, starvation diets, complete avoidance of excitement. He agreed to leave England, on the slight chance that Italian air would cure him. But he could never trick himself into believing that his first, fatal diagnosis was mistaken. In November, 1820, in the last letter Keats wrote, he told Brown, “I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.”
Keats is hardly the only nineteenth-century writer to have died a lingering, consumptive death; what sets him apart is that his art, from the beginning, was connected with the imagination of death, especially his own. Like Socrates, he could have said that his life was a long preparation for death, so often had he written about it in poems and letters. Keats’s “posthumous existence,” one might say, began at the moment he became a poet.
That is why, after he died, so many of his lines began to look eerily like premonitions. In “Sleep and Poetry,” an early attempt at a long poem, Keats was already bargaining for time to complete his work: “O for ten years, that I may overwhelm / Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed / That my own soul has to itself decreed.” By the age of twenty-one, he was imagining what it would be like to lie in his grave:
If I do fall, at least I will be laid
Beneath the silence of a poplar shade;
And over me the grass shall be smooth shaven;
And there shall be a kind memorial graven.
The union of poetry and death, in Keats’s work, only became more intimate as his powers grew. In March, 1817, shortly after the Parthenon marbles taken from Greece by Lord Elgin had been put on display at the British Museum, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon took Keats to see them. A day or two later, Keats recorded his impressions in a sonnet that invokes death in its very first line:
My spirit is too weak—mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship, tells me I must die.
Why should the sublimity of these images immediately have reminded Keats that he must die? One might as well ask why he exclaimed, in another poem, “Verse, Fame, and Beauty are intense indeed, / But Death intenser.” Or why, in one of his last poems, a love sonnet, he yearned “Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, / And so live ever—or else swoon to death.”
It would be easy to explain Keats’s preoccupation with death by assigning it a straightforward biographical cause. Many biographers and critics have pointed to the early loss of his father, and to his bedside view of his mother’s and brother’s slow deaths. Then, there was his experience as a student at Guy’s Hospital, in London, where he attended gruesome surgeries and dissections. To an extent unusual even by the grim standards of his time, Keats was constantly surrounded by death and dying. It was only rational for him to wonder if he, too, would die young. This was, in fact, the subject of one of his most moving sonnets—the one that begins, “When I have fears that I may cease to be / Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain.”
Plumly unsparingly relates the bodily reality of Keats’s sickness and death. His description of the poet’s last days is as clinical as anything Keats might have observed while walking the wards:
First the coughing of “a fawn coloured mixture” of blood and phlegm, then diarrhea, then laxity and gripping of the bowels, then food—warm milk and pudding—then the cycle starting over again, with the sweats lasting usually until dawn. The waste itself was mucus, nothing solid, though in the struggle not to go under, the expectorations seemed to thicken and boil in the throat.
After all this, it might seem insane to assert, with Wallace Stevens, that “death is the mother of beauty.” Yet Stevens was the most Keatsian of twentieth-century poets, and his famous line is absolutely faithful to Keats’s belief. To understand why Keats meditated so constantly on death, it is not necessary to look to his biography; one need only listen to his writing.
When it first dawned on him that he might be a poet, Keats—well aware of his class disadvantages and his limited education—was almost frightened by his audacity. “I have asked myself so often,” he wrote to Leigh Hunt in May, 1817, “why I should be a Poet more than other Men,—seeing how great a thing it is.” But it did not take long for Keats to sense that his gifts were equal to his ambition. Bad reviews in the quarterlies, he once told George, were “a mere matter of the moment—I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death.”
But Keats was not content to wallow in visions of glory. Once he took fame as his destiny, he began to question its value and purpose. This is a kind of self-questioning that comes to most poets only in middle age, if it comes at all. To Keats, who compressed the experience of a lifetime into a career of five years, it came in his early twenties. And it led him inevitably to the paradox of posthumousness, the way that immortality is gained only at the price of mortality.
“There is an awful warmth about my heart like a load of Immortality,” Keats once declared. Yet he recognized that no dead poet, however famous, can actually enjoy his fame, as he acknowledged in a bitter sonnet to Robert Burns: “Yet can I gulp a bumper to thy name— / O smile among the shades, for this is fame!” For art to deserve the supreme value that Keats assigned it, it must mean something more than the glorification of the artist. Beauty must be a good in its own right, even a metaphysical principle. In serving beauty, Keats came to believe, he was in some obscure way serving the divine, not just his own ambitions. Finally, he decided, “I should write from the mere yearning and fondness I have for the Beautiful even if my night’s labours should be burnt every morning and no eye ever shine upon them.”
This worship of the beautiful has often appeared, to Keats’s detractors, as crass sensuality. A critical trope connecting Keats’s luxuriant language with his low origins has been remarkably durable. In Matthew Arnold’s view, Keats’s love letters displayed “the entire want of tone, the abandonment of all reticence and all dignity, of the merely sensuous man, of the man who ‘is passion’s slave.’ . . . One is tempted to say that Keats’s love-letter is the love-letter of a surgeon’s apprentice.” In the same vein, W. B. Yeats wrote, “I see a schoolboy when I think of him, / With face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window,” a boy “poor, ailing and ignorant, / Shut out from all the luxury of the world, / The coarse-bred son of a livery-stable keeper.”
Yeats was thinking of passages like the one from “The Eve of St. Agnes,” in which Keats conjures up “a heap / Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd, / With jellies soother than the creamy curd, / And lucent syrups, tinct with cinnamon.” So sternly does the literary superego command the sublimation of these childish pleasures that, even today, Plumly sounds suspicious of the “luxury, drapery, weft, and rich weave” of Keats’s romances. Such lusciousness strikes him as “middle-brow” and “enabling,” the side of Keats that the Victorians loved—tendencies that “reinforce rather than resist convention.”
There is no such enabling to be found, however, in the great odes. Written between April and September of 1819, these five poems represent the apex of Keats’s achievement, because they heighten almost beyond endurance the tension between beauty and death. Keats is not content to give either of these competing drives a simple victory. He does not say that beauty is defeated by the inevitability of death, or that death is an illusion that beauty’s radiance can dispel. Instead, the poems are a series of sustained balances: in the “Grecian Urn,” between “heard melodies” and those “unheard,” the “sensual ear” and the “spirit”; in the “Nightingale,” between “the weariness, the fever, and the fret” of human life and the “ecstasy” of song. In the last stanza of the “Ode on Melancholy,” these opposites join in a mysterious avowal:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veiled Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
To be defeated by sorrow, in this poem, is to triumph over it. The poet’s reward is no longer to collect a trophy from posterity but to become a trophy himself—as though his suffering and his pleasure were an offering to the gods.
Yet the consolations of poetry, as “Posthumous Keats” reminds us, last only as long as the poem lasts. The sublimity of the odes did not stop Keats from suffering in body and mind, or from cursing the fate that allowed him to taste the pleasures of life and art so intensely, only to snatch them away. “Keats, of all poets, cannot be divided between the artist and the man,” Plumly writes. But in a sense it is precisely the violent sundering of the artist and the man that is Keats’s tragedy. The poet saw autumn as fulfillment, the season that “set budding more, / And still more, later flowers for the bees, / Until they think warm days will never cease.” The man died in winter, in a foreign country, certain that his work had not kept the promises his imagination made. “Is there another Life? Shall I awake and find all this a dream?” he asked in one of his last letters home. “There must be,” he decided. “We cannot be created for this sort of suffering.” ♦
*Correction, August 7, 2008: The inscription on Keats’s tombstone reads, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” not “on water,” as originally stated.