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John Keats, the cockney poet who lived in leafy Hampstead

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History on Tuesday, 30 April 2013

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This edited article about John Keats originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 236 published on 23 July 1966.

John Keats, picture, image, illustration

John Keats in his last illness from the sketch by Joseph Severn

A gloomy mass of ivy partly hides the front door of a house in Keats Grove, Hampstead, which was once, as the old brown plaque on the wall explains, the home of John Keats. The house is now maintained as a museum.

Keats was born at the “Swan and Hoop”, Moorfields, son of the head ostler at the inn’s livery stable. Reports of his early school life gave little indication of the “poet within”, for fun and fighting seemed his only interests.

Among his friends John Keats had a reputation for daring and generosity, a reputation he maintained even after he was seized by a love for books and study. He found himself drawn particularly to classical mythology and he won all the school literary prizes available to him.

At 15 he was apprenticed to a surgeon but he still found time to visit his old school, where his literary flair was encouraged. His writing was at that time imitative and showed very little promise.

His medical tutor probably had the same opinion of his medical work which led to quarrels and the apprenticeship being broken off by common consent. Despite this, Keats continued to study surgery at the London teaching hospitals – St. Thomas’s and Guy’s. It was at the latter that he was appointed dresser in 1816.

This was also the year in which he passed his medical examination and his poems came into print.

His heart was not in surgery, however, and although he performed a few operations, in 1817 he gave it up.

Shortly afterwards he published a small book of poems but this was not a success. Nevertheless this work did not go unnoticed and its influence on a publisher led to generous advances for his first long poem – Endymion – which was then in preparation.

Keats, anxious to be alone, moved to the Isle of Wight and then to Margate but soon he abandoned the seaside and returned to his brother in Hampstead. When Endymion was finished, he went on a walking tour with some friends to the Lake District and Scotland. On this tour he wrote several pieces of verse but they lacked brilliance. The walk sapped his strength and he developed a throat infection from which he never fully recovered. On the advice of his doctor he returned to London by sea.

On his return he found that Endymion was taking effect – he was being publicly and violently criticized for the work! One particularly vicious attack had a result unintended by the writer, for it drew Keats a great deal of sympathy including a gift of ¬£25 from an anonymous admirer. But though much of Keats’ best poetry was produced in the next few years it only brought more criticism.

By now he was dispirited, sick, and hopelessly in love with Fanny Brawne, a girl of 17, who amused herself greatly at his expense. Money, too, was getting short and for a time Keats thought of earning a living by journalism. He even contemplated giving up writing altogether and returning to the medical profession.

Luckily a friend rescued him from his financial problems and he took up his pen again, this time to write a play, Otho the Great, which, despite an early offer was not produced.

By 1819 he had stopped writing. Now very ill, he was nursed at the houses of several of his friends, including that of his beloved Fanny. Finally his doctors sent him to Italy, but to no avail and he died three months later, at the age of 25.

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