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John Keats

1795–1821

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English Romantic poet John Keats was born on October 31, 1795, in London. The oldest of four children, he lost both his parents at a young age. His father, a livery-stable keeper, died when Keats was eight; his mother died of tuberculosis six years later. After his mother's death, Keats's maternal grandmother appointed two London merchants, Richard Abbey and John Rowland Sandell, as guardians. Abbey, a prosperous tea broker, assumed the bulk of this responsibility, while Sandell played only a minor role. When Keats was fifteen, Abbey withdrew him from the Clarke School, Enfield, to apprentice with an apothecary-surgeon and study medicine in a London hospital. In 1816 Keats became a licensed apothecary, but he never practiced his profession, deciding instead to write poetry.

Around this time, Keats met Leigh Hunt, an influential editor of the Examiner, who published his sonnets "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" and "O Solitude." Hunt also introduced Keats to a circle of literary men, including the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth. The group's influence enabled Keats to see his first volume, Poems by John Keats, published in 1817. Shelley, who was fond of Keats, had advised him to develop a more substantial body of work before publishing it. Keats, who was not as fond of Shelley, did not follow his advice. Endymion, a four-thousand-line erotic/allegorical romance based on the Greek myth of the same name, appeared the following year. Two of the most influential critical magazines of the time, the Quarterly Review and Blackwood's Magazine, attacked the collection. Calling the romantic verse of Hunt's literary circle "the Cockney school of poetry," Blackwood's declared Endymion to be nonsense and recommended that Keats give up poetry. Shelley, who privately disliked Endymion but recognized Keats's genius, wrote a more favorable review, but it was never published. Shelley also exaggerated the effect that the criticism had on Keats, attributing his declining health over the following years to a spirit broken by the negative reviews.

Keats spent the summer of 1818 on a walking tour in Northern England and Scotland, returning home to care for his brother, Tom, who suffered from tuberculosis. While nursing his brother, Keats met and fell in love with a woman named Fanny Brawne. Writing some of his finest poetry between 1818 and 1819, Keats mainly worked on "Hyperion," a Miltonic blank-verse epic of the Greek creation myth. He stopped writing "Hyperion" upon the death of his brother, after completing only a small portion, but in late 1819 he returned to the piece and rewrote it as "The Fall of Hyperion" (unpublished until 1856). That same autumn Keats contracted tuberculosis, and by the following February he felt that death was already upon him, referring to the present as his "posthumous existence."

In July 1820, he published his third and best volume of poetry, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems. The three title poems, dealing with mythical and legendary themes of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance times, are rich in imagery and phrasing. The volume also contains the unfinished "Hyperion," and three poems considered among the finest in the English language, "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode on Melancholy," and "Ode to a Nightingale." The book received enthusiastic praise from Hunt, Shelley, Charles Lamb, and others, and in August, Frances Jeffrey, influential editor of the Edinburgh Review, wrote a review praising both the new book and Endymion.

The fragment "Hyperion" was considered by Keats's contemporaries to be his greatest achievement, but by that time he had reached an advanced stage of his disease and was too ill to be encouraged. He continued a correspondence with Fanny Brawne and—when he could no longer bear to write to her directly—her mother, but his failing health and his literary ambitions prevented their getting married. Under his doctor's orders to seek a warm climate for the winter, Keats went to Rome with his friend, the painter Joseph Severn. He died there on February 23, 1821, at the age of twenty-five, and was buried in the Protestant cemetery.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

The Poems of John Keats (1978)
The Poems of John Keats (1970)
The Poems of John Keats (1970)
Collections: The Poetical Works of Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats (1831)
Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820)
Endymion: A Poetic Romance (1818)
Poems (1817)

Prose

Letters of John Keats: A New Selection (1970)
The Letters of John Keats (1958)
Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats (1848)

Drama

Otho The Great: A Dramatic Fragment (1819)
King Stephen: A Dramatic Fragment (1819)
 

Joseph Severn’s miniature of Keats, 1819
Joseph Severn’s miniature of Keats, 1819

By This Poet

28

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight, 
  Alone and palely loitering;
The sedge is withered from the lake, 
  And no birds sing.

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight, 
  So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel's granary is full, 
  And the harvest's done.

I see a lilly on thy brow,
  With anguish moist and fever dew; 
And on thy cheek a fading rose
  Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads
  Full beautiful, a faery's child; 
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
  And her eyes were wild.

I set her on my pacing steed, 
  And nothing else saw all day long;
For sideways would she lean, and sing 
  A faery's song.

I made a garland for her head, 
  And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love, 
  And made sweet moan.

She found me roots of relish sweet, 
  And honey wild, and manna dew;
And sure in language strange she said, 
  I love thee true.

She took me to her elfin grot, 
  And there she gazed and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes—
  So kissed to sleep.

And there we slumbered on the moss, 
  And there I dreamed, ah woe betide,
The latest dream I ever dreamed 
  On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings, and princes too, 
  Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cried—"La belle Dame sans merci 
  Hath thee in thrall!"

I saw their starved lips in the gloam 
  With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here 
  On the cold hill side.

And this is why I sojourn here 
  Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake, 
  And no birds sing.

Ode on a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness, 
  Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express 
  A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape 
  Of deities or mortals, or of both,
    In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
  What men or gods are these? what maidens loth? 
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
   What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
 
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard 
  Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd, 
  Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave 
  Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
    Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss, 
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
  She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, 
    For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed 
  Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
  For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love! 
  For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
    For ever panting, and for ever young; 
All breathing human passion far above,
  That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd, 
    A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice? 
  To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies, 
  And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore, 
  Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
    Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn? 
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
  Will silent be; and not a soul to tell 
    Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede 
  Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed; 
  Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
  When old age shall this generation waste, 
    Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
  'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'—that is all 
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 
  Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless 
  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees, 
  And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; 
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells 
  With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees, 
Until they think warm days will never cease,
    For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store? 
  Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor, 
  Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep, 
  Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
    Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep 
  Steady thy laden head across a brook; 
  Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
    Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? 
  Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, 
  And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn 
  Among the river sallows, borne aloft
    Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies; 
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn; 
  Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
  The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft, 
    And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

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