The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Keats, John

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The American Cyclopædia
Keats, John
Edition of 1879. See also the disclaimer.

KEATS, John, an English poet, born in London in 1795 or 1796, died in Rome, Feb. 27, 1821. He was sent at an early age with his two brothers to a school in Enfield, where he remained until his 15th year. He seems to have been careless of the ordinary school distinctions, but read whatever authors attracted his fancy. He never advanced in his classical studies beyond Latin, and his knowledge of Greek mythology was derived from Lempriere's dictionary and Tooke's "Pantheon;" a singular fact considering the thoroughly Hellenic spirit which imbues some of his works. In 1810 he was removed from school, and apprenticed for five years to a surgeon in Edmonton. His earliest known verses are the lines "In Imitation of Spenser." About the same time he became acquainted with Homer through Chapman's translation, and commemorated his emotions in the sonnet, "On first looking into Chapman's Homer." Upon the completion of his apprenticeship he removed to London to "walk the hospitals," and made the acquaintance of Leigh Hunt, Haydon, Hazlitt, Godwin, and other literary men, incited by whose praise he published a volume of poems, comprising sonnets, poetical epistles, and other small pieces, which excited little attention. He soon perceived that the profession of a surgeon was unfitted for him, both on account of his extreme nervousness in the performance of operations, and of the state of his health; and in the spring of 1817 he was induced by symptoms of consumption to make a visit to the country. During this absence he commenced his "Endymion," which, with some miscellaneous pieces, was published in the following year. Keats had allied himself with a political and literary coterie obnoxious to the "Quarterly Review" and "Blackwood's Magazine," and the appearance of a volume of poems by a new writer of the "cockney school" was the signal for an attack upon him by these periodicals, the bitterness of which savored more of personal animosity than of critical discernment. The insulting allusions to his private affairs and his family aroused in the poet no other feeling than contempt or indignation; and if we may judge from his letters, far from being crushed in spirit by the virulence of his reviewers, he would have been much more inclined to inflict personal chastisement upon them if he had met them. Byron in "Don Juan," and Shelley in "Adonais," have apparently confirmed the notion that his sensitive nature on this occasion received a shock from which it never recovered; but the effect of the criticism has been greatly exaggerated. His health was failing rapidly, but from other causes. His younger brother's death in the autumn of 1818 affected him deeply, and about the same time he experienced a passion for a lady of remarkable beauty, the effect of which upon a frame worn by disease was fatal. His little patrimony became exhausted, and he began to think of making literature his profession. While preparing a third volume for the press he was attacked with a violent spitting of blood. After a long illness he recovered sufficiently to think of resuming his literary avocations, but found his mind too unstrung by sickness and the passion which had such an influence over him. In this emergency he had nearly determined to accept the berth of surgeon in an Indiaman, when a return of the previous alarming symptoms made it apparent that nothing but a winter in a milder climate would offer a chance of saving his life. Before his departure he published a volume containing his odes on the "Nightingale" and the "Grecian Urn," the poems of "Lamia," "The Eve of St. Agnes," "Isabella," &c., and the magnificent fragment of "Hyperion." In September, 1820, Keats left England with Mr. Severn, a young artist and a devoted friend, who never left his bedside. He lingered a few months at Naples and Rome, and died at the latter place after much suffering. A few days before his death he said that he "felt the daisies growing over him." He was buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, near the spot where Shelley's ashes were afterward interred; and upon his tomb was inscribed the epitaph, dictated by himself: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water." His modest hope that "after his death he would be among the poets of England," has been more fully realized than he could have anticipated; and his influence can be traced in the poetic development of many later writers.—See "Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats," by R. M. Milnes (Lord Houghton) (2 vols., London, 1848).