John Keats: A Brief Life

Born on October 31, 1795 in London, John Keats would later go on to become one of the more renowned lyrical poets of his time, joining contemporaries such as Percy Shelley and William Wordsworth in the annals of poetic history – a great accomplishment in and of itself, if not punctuated more so by the short life he lived, passing at the age of 25 years due to tuberculosis. In that time, Keats had published three volumes of poetry and completed works such as “O Solitude” and “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” as well as the epic explorations of Greek mythology, “Endymion” and the posthumously published “Fall of Hyperion.”

The oldest of four children, Keats’ appetite for literature and poetry sprouted at an early age while he was receiving education at Enfield Academy, later to be taken under apprenticeship as an apothecary-surgeon at the age of 15 and studied in a London hospital. Six years later, at the age of 21, Keats was a licensed apothecary, though he never practiced medicine for the rest of his life. His true passion had remained in poetry and its evocative nature.

However, despite how history has held him on a pedestal for his brilliance as a lyrical poet, many within the community of his contemporaries often criticized Keats for his work, labeling him as a “vulgar Cockney poetaster” and degrading his work due to his liberal education compared to their more conservative world views at the time. And while history may sometimes assume that Keats was quite affected by this criticism, the prolificacy that he displayed in the final years of his life might suggest otherwise, particularly in his undertaking of the 4000-line epic, “Endymion.”

While Keats had explored the arenas of politics and social reform in much of his literary work, he is well-remembered for his utility of imagery, of lyric (his Shakespearean sonnets have received notable praise) and especially of his grasp of the human condition – particularly when dealing with terminal beauty as well as suffering and loss, much of which he had braved in his life.

Much of the unknown often explores Keats’ life as one of great hardship, losing his father to horse riding accident at a young age and his mother effectively driving herself from her children’s lives after mishandling family finances. His grandmother eventually turned over matters of the estate to a man named Richard Abbey, who history remembers as miserly and deceitful regarding the family wealth. In fact, it is estimated that, by the time of Keats’ death, Abbey had withheld approximately £2000 from him in a day when even £100 yearly afforded a rather comfortable lifestyle.

Known well for his matters of the heart and the human condition as it relates to suffering, it seems that Keats was fated to experience much of that directly as it related to his family life (the death or loss of his parents and a failed romance with one Fanny Brawne), his finances courtesy of Mr. Abbey, and the backlash of criticism he suffered for his work at the whims of socially disparate counterparts. Yet, despite all that and the misfortune of a short life, Keats was seemingly able to use these experiences to enhance his work and bring to life the evocative nature of poetry that he had spent nearly his entire life daring to explore. Having passed on February 23, 1821 after a trip to Italy, Keats was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.