The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Keats, John

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Keats, John
Edition of 1920. See also the disclaimer.

KEATS, John, English poet: b. London, 29 or 31 Oct. 1795; d. Rome, 23 Feb. 1821. He was the eldest child of Thomas Keats, employee and son-in-law of a livery-stable keeper named Jennings, and was bom at the stable in Finsbury Pavement. There were four other children, three of whom reached maturity, George, Thomas and Frances (Mrs. Llanos). In 1804, Thomas Keats, who like his wife, Frances, seems to have been a strong character, died from a fall from his horse. His widow soon remarried, but was speedily forced to leave her new husband and to reside with her mother at Edmonton, where she died, after a rapid decline, in 1810.

Meanwhile the boys had been placed at Mr. John Clarke's school at Enfield, where John distinguished himself by his manly pugnaciousness and, later, by his zeal for literary studies, particularly mythology. He formed a friendship with the master's son, Charles Cowden Clarke (q.v.), an under teacher, who encouraged his literary tastes; but unfortunately Keats' guardian, in 1810, took him from school before he had begun Greek, and apprenticed him for five years to a surgeon at Edmonton.

He was still near enough to young Clarke to profit from the latter's influence, and Elizaethan poetry, especially 'The Faerie Queene' awoke his poetic genius. His earliest known poem, 'Imitation of Spenser.' dates probably from 1813. The study of medicine became distasteful to him and a break with Hammond, the surgeon, followed in 1814. Keats went to London, studied fitfully in the hospitals, and more and more gave himself up to reading and writing verse. The best of his early poems, the 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer,' seems to date from the summer of 1815, and was composed after a night of reading with Clarke. Besides this friend certain fellow students and his brothers formed Keats' chief society. In the winter of 1816 Clarke introduced him to Leigh Hunt (q.v.) whose influence upon him was at first very strong. Through Hunt Keats was led to widen his reading, especially in the direction of Italian poetry, and to develop an appreciation of the arts; but the elder poet also encouraged his new protégé's luxuriant sentimentality and, through his own unpopularity, prepared the way for the critical hostility which Keats encountered as a member of the so-called "Cockney School."

The first of his poems to be printed was the sonnet. 'O Solitude,' which appeared in Hunt's Examiner for 5 May 1816. A little later Keats, who had previously been appointed a dresser at Guy's Hospital, passed his examination as licentiate at Apothecaries' Hall; but we hear more of literary plans and of acquaintances, such as Shelley and John Hamilton Reynolds, than of preparations for practice. He was much at Hunt's cottage at Hampstead, he visited the sea shore, he wrote epistles in verse and prose to friends and relatives. By the winter of 1816-17 he had become intimate with the painter, Haydon (q.v.), had published several sonnets in The Examiner, and had made up his mind definitely to abandon medicine for poetry. His first volume 'Poems by John Keats,' with a dedication to Hunt, was published early in March 1817.

The book, naturally, fell flat. Keats was still immature in thought and feeling he had reacted too far from the pseudo-classical taste of the majority of readers toward the unrestrained luxuriance of style of the later Elizabethans, and he had submitted too unreservedly to the mawkish and shallow æstheticism of Hunt. The young poet look his disappointment well and resolved to improve himself by study. In April 1817 he went alone to the Isle of Wight, then with his brother Tom he visited other places, and by midsummer he was domiciled with both his brothers at Hampstead, where he saw much of literary and artistic friends, including Charles Wentworth Dilke, Charles Armitage Brown and the painter, Joseph Severn. More important for his poetical development, however, was the growing influence of Shakespeare and of the loftier, more spiritual portion of Wordsworth's verse, which may be seen in 'Endymion.' This ambitious poem was begun on the Isle of Wight, steadily labored upon during the summer and fall despite distractions such as a visit to Oxford, and finished at the end of November 1817, at Burford Bridge, near Dorking. Keats spent the winter of 1817-18 in London, seeing 'Endymion' through the press, frequenting theatres, and having a rather gay time with his friends. Before 'Endymion' was published in April 1817, he had begun with Reynolds the experiment of making metrical versions of tales from Boccaccio, and in 'Isabella, or the Pot of Basil' he had given evidence, not only of maturing thought and of increasing control of his emotions, but of a manly faculty of self-criticism that enabled him to perceive without flinching the faults that jostled the beauties of 'Endymion.'

The last-named poem received a few favorable reviews, but made little impression on the public. Still fascinated with Greek mythology, Keats chose another subject from it, that of the fall of the Titans; but, before beginning 'Hyperion' he wisely resolved to study a more restrained model than his beloved exuberant Elizabethans—to wit, Milton. Meanwhile his brother George married and removed to Kentucky, and Keats with Armitage Brown took a tour, partly on foot, through the Lake Region and a portion of Scotland. Exposure and strain undermined Keats' health so much that a physician at Inverness had to order him home. He reached London in August 1818, where the sad task awaited him of nursing without hope his consumptive brother Tom through more than three months of decline. Just at this time an ironical fate decreed that the Quarterly and Blackwood's should publish their now notorious diatribes upon 'Endymion' (by John Wilson Croker and, probably, J. G. Lockhart, respectively). Keats on the whole bore the attacks well; but unfortunately Byron and Shelley have made the world think otherwise.

During the fall of 1818 Keats began 'Hyperion,' and wrote long letters to George and his wife in America. He also made the acquaintance of a handsome girl of 17, Miss Fanny Brawne, and speedily falling in love, became engaged to her. Rarely at his best in his relations with women, owing partly perhaps to his antecedents, partly to his sensuousness, partly to the struggles of his spirit to escape from its actual environment to the ideal world of beauty and romance, Keats gave himself up to this passion with an abandonment that might be described as disgusting, did not one make allowances for his slowly failing health.

After the death o£ Tom Keats. 1 Dec 1818, the poet resided for a time with Armitage Brown at Wentworth Place. Here he not only worked at 'Hyperion,' but wrote many of the poems that mark the zenith of his genius, such as 'The Eve of Saint Agnes,' the odes 'On a Grecian Urn,' 'To a Nightingale,' and 'To Psyche,' and the ballad 'La Belle Dame sans Merci.' It was an extraordinary six months' work (December 1818-May 1819) for an ailing poet in his 24th year. And he was not merely sick in body but poor in purse, most of his patrimony having been tangled up by his guardian, or spent, or loaned to impecunious friends. Other friends, like Brown, stood by him, however, though this fact can scarcely have made the marriage he dreamed of seem much more possible. He took summer excursions, wrote on tragedy, 'Otho the Great,' with Brown, and completed his own 'Lamia,' in some respects the most individual and promising of his narrative poems. He abandoned 'Hyperion,' rightly judging that it was too Miltonic, yet he did not cease to form literary plans and to face the present and the future bravely. But on his return to London, he came once more under the influence of Miss Brawne, and he lost ground in health, courage and literary power. His work in the drama and in satire proved on the whole unavailing; he recast 'Hyperion' for the worse ('The Fall of Hyperion'); and he lost his cheerfulness, becoming moody, suspicious and somewhat dissipated.

Early in February 1820 he had his first hæmorrhage from the lungs and was confined for several weeks, Brown being his indefatigable nurse. With Fanny Brawne, who was living next door, he kept up a correspondence which many of his admirers could spare. When he was stronger, Brown having left for Scotland, Keats occupied himself by seeing through the press his third volume—one of the most memorable in the history of our literature, for it can scarcely be disputed that in color and form latter-day English poetry owes more to Keats than to any other writer among the moderns. It was entitled 'Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of Saint Agnes and Other Poems,' and was welcomed, not only by friends like Hunt, but by such a critic as Jeffrey, in the Edinburgh. It appeared early in July 1820, just after two hæmorrhages had shown that its author must soon cut short in what promised to be nothing less than a marvelous career.

During his new illness, Keats was kindly nursed by the Hunts; then ungrounded suspicions of their friendship caused him to leave them, and he was welcomed by Mrs. Brawne and her daughter. Becoming more tranquil, he determined to see what the climate of Italy could do for him, and with Severn he sailed for Naples in September. On the voyage he wrote his last poem, the fine sonnet 'Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art.' After reaching Rome about the middle of December, he suffered many violent attacks of fever and pain; then he lingered in a calmer state of mind and body until death took him from the arms of the faithful Severn, in the early morning of 23 Feb. 1821. He was buried three days later in the old Protestant cemetery at Rome, and on his tomb was placed at his desire the non-prophetic epitaph, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water." In 1881 Severn was laid by his side; long before (December 1822) the ashes of the author of 'Adonais' had been buried nearby.

In person Keats was small, but evidently in his early years strong and well made. His features were clear cut and his eyes large, dark and full of meditative depth. In character he seems to have been essentially open, kindly and manly. That his social status and his exceptionally sensuous nature were without deleterious effects upon his life, as well as upon his poetry, it would be idle to assert; yet it would be equally beside the mark to think of him chiefly as a hyperæsthetic anomaly among the men of his day. He was far more than a lower middle-class Briton of the Regency; but he was also more than the neo-Greek, or the neo-Elizabethan, or the idolatrous priest of beauty that some have fancied him. He was a wonderfully endowed poet of strong human interests, keen intelligence, ever deepening moral sense, extraordinary sensitiveness to physical impressions—not only upon eye and ear, but upon taste and touch—growing appreciation of artistic form, and steadily developing power of self-control. He filled all the rôles his admirers have claimed for him; but he filled them, or was learning to fill them, in combination—a fact which makes him greater than even some warm admirers have fancied.

His rank among English poets is not easy to determine. In a sense Matthew Arnold was right when he declared that Keats "is with Shakespeare." It might be added that he is with Milton also; but he is with these supreme poets only in respect to certain qualities of genius. He is obviously not with them in sustained power, in unexcelled majestic achievements, in breadth and duration of popular appeal. Even when he is compared with his contemporaries he is found to lack, in a measure, Byron's passion and cosmopolitan influence, Wordsworth's power to calm and ennoble the spirit and quicken the vision, Coleridge's ineffable secret of casting glamour, and Shelley's gift of interpenetrating poetry and life with the radiance of a pure idealism. In quantity of approximately perfect work he falls short; of course, through no fault of his own. The juvenile volume of 1817 and 'Endymion,' though in a sense the latter confirms the truth of its first line that "a thing of beauty is a joy forever," are on the whole immature, and the posthumous poems and letters, though abounding in merits, are uneven in value and below the highest excellence. It is mainly on the magnificent volume of 1820—on the impressive artistic mastery shown in 'Lamia,' on the romantic charm of 'The Eve of Saint Agnes,' on the tender pathos of 'Isabella,' on the matchless harmonies, the deep, subtle appeal to mind and heart, and the indescribable richness of the great odes, on what it is hardly rash to call the dewy felicity of some of the less elaborate lyrics that the claim of Keats to rank among the greater English poets rests, and rests securely. To lovers of poetry he has long been almost an idol: the public has scarcely yet realized the full significance of his noble, and in some respects unique, genius.

Bibliography.—Keats' poems were first collected, with those of Coleridge and Shelley, in 1829. In 1848 R. M. Milnes (Lord Houghton) published the 'Life, Letters and Literary Remains' (revised 1867); biographical material then began to accumulate through such books as Leigh Hunt's 'Autobiography.' In 1876 Mr, H. B. Forman edited the letters to Fanny Brawne, and in 1885 the works in prose and verse in four volumes (reissued and augmented in 1889). In 1883 J. G. Speed, of the American branch of the family issued a volume of 'Letters and Poems.' In 1887 brief lives of the poet appeared in 'Great Writers' and the 'English Men of Letters' by W. M. Rossetti and Sidney Colvin respectively. In 1891 Mr. Colvin edited 'Letters of John Keats to His Family and Friends.' In 1895 Mr. Forman issued the complete correspondence (1 vol.), and in 1901 what is the best edition of the entire works (5 vols.). The [American] Cambridge edition of the poems and letters is also good. There are numerous editions of the poems, including several by Lord Houghton (especially the Aldine, 5th edition, 1890), one by W. T. Arnold (1883), the 'Golden Treasury' by F. T. Palgrave (1884), and the latest and best by E. de Sélincourt (1905). On 18 May 1914 the London Times published two previously unpublished sonnets by Keats. Books dealing with Byron, Shelley and Hunt usually touch on Keats, and the mass of criticism upon him is large. Among his chief critics are Matthew Arnold, Robert Bridges, DeQuincey, Dowden, Leigh Hunt, 'Imagination and Fancy'), Lowell, Masson, J. M. Robertson, Swinburne and Woodberry. Consult also Sharp's 'Life and Letters of Joseph Severn' (1892); Marie Gotheim's 'John Keats, Leben und Werke' (1897); Colvin, S., 'John Keats; His Life and Poetry; His Friends, Critics and After-Fame' (New York 1917). See also Endymion; Hyperion; Isabella; Lamia; Ode to a Grecian Urn; Ode to a Nightingale.

William P. Trent,
Professor of Literature, Columbia University.