John Keats: Poet, Father Of Romanticism Who Peaked When He Was Young

By | March 29, 2021

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Posthumous portrait of John Keats by William Hilton. (National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)

During his life, John Keats was far from the most important poet of the Romantic movement. In fact, he had only been serious about poetry for six years, and the few volumes of his that were published earned deeply unfavorable reviews. At the time of his death in 1821 at age 25, he was certain that his work was destined to be forgotten. Thankfully, Keats was wrong.

Keats's Early Life

John Keats was born in London on October 31, 1795 into a romantic doom-and-gloom lifestyle. When he was eight years old, his father died after falling off a horse, and as the oldest of four children, Keats did his best to watch over his younger siblings when his mother died of tuberculosis six years later in 1810. Following his mother's death, Keats's maternal grandmother appointed two men, Richard Abbey and John Rowland Sandell, as the family's guardians.

Abbey briefly convinced Keats to pursue a career in medicine, apprenticing under an apothecary and surgeon at 15, but he preferred reading the classics and mythology. He found medicine far too gruesome for his disposition, and though he received his apothecary's license in 1816, he abandoned the medical profession shortly thereafter. Financially, it was a bad move, gore or no: He should have received £800 from his grandfather's trust when he turned 21, but likely due to Abbey's poor guardianship, he never saw it. Thanks to his mother, he had some money to split with his siblings, but it wasn't enough to afford him the privilege of lying around writing poetry all day.

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Life mask of Keats by Benjamin Haydon, 1816. (Daniel Hass/Wikimedia Commons)

The New Romantics

In 1816, Keats's sonnet "O Solitude" was published in The Examiner, boosting his confidence that this poetry thing might work out after all. He took off for the seaside town of Margate to write with his friend, Charles Cowden Clarke, and returned to London with the manuscript for Poems. The collection was a critical flop and an even worse financial disaster, but it earned Keats admission into the "new school of poetry" alongside Percy Shelley and John Hamilton Reynolds.

Today, Keats, Shelley, and Lord Byron are all lumped into one group as the Romantics, but at the time, Keats was a straggler within the group. Byron actually hated Keats's work as much as the critics, referring to it as "onanism" on paper. Shelley had a soft spot for the poet and tried to impart some wisdom unto his young friend, but Keats didn't listen. Rather than wait until he had a more substantial collection of poetry, as Shelley advised, Keats went forward with Endymion, a 4,000-line erotic romance based on a Greek myth written entirely in iambic pentameter that received the worst reviews of the young poet's career. The critical response was so harsh that Shelley considered publishing a favorable review out of sheer pity. Keats never recovered from the humiliation and almost gave up poetry entirely, but then he went to Wentworth Place.