The Life and Works of John Keats

The bicentenary of Keats’s most productive years as a poet, and the period when he found inspiration, friendship and love, is an exciting opportunity to (re)discover and enjoy his works as well as engage with poetry and its ongoing relevance to us all today.

By City of London Corporation

This online exhibition has been created by Keats House, Hampstead for the #Keats200 bicentenary programme.

"Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!" (2021) by Elaine DuigenanOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats

Introducing John Keats

John Keats was born and baptised in the City of London in 1795. 

After education in Enfield and an apprenticeship in Edmonton, he trained to be a doctor at Guy’s Hospital before giving up a career in medicine to become a poet.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health,
and quiet breathing.

From 'Endymion: A Poetic Romance', 1817

Keats House, Hampstead (2015) by Keats HouseOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats

Keats moved to Hampstead, then a village outside of London, in 1817 and lived at Wentworth Place (now Keats House) from December 1818 to September 1820. While living there he mixed with a circle of friends who nurtured him and his work, met and fell in love with Fanny Brawne, and wrote most of the work for which he is now famous.

After falling ill with consumption, he left England to go to Italy for his health but died there on 23 February 1821 at the age of just 25.

His gravestone in Rome bears the words ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’, as he believed he had not achieved literary fame in his lifetime. Two hundred years later however, Keats is one of the best-known English Romantic poets and the works he wrote in the spring and summer of 1819 in particular, are still republished, studied, read and loved around the world. 
 
Whether you already love his work or are new to Keats and his writing, we hope you find his genius and legacy living on through this exhibition.

John Clarke’s school, Enfield (About 1900) by E.G. HillOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats

Early Life

John Keats was born in Moorgate, right on the edge of the expanding city of London. His father worked at an inn and his mother was the inn keeper’s daughter. John was the eldest child, followed by brothers George, Tom, and Edward (who died young), and finally a sister called Frances.   
   

Mapping John Keats's Life (2121) by Keats HouseOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats

While the family weren’t wealthy, they could afford to send their sons to a good school. They chose John Clarke’s School in Enfield, which awarded prizes for good work instead of punishing children. This more liberal education encouraged Keats to change from a boy known for fighting to one who loved literature and poetry. 

When he was eight, his father died in a riding accident while returning from visiting him at school. Within months his mother remarried, leaving her children with their grandparents. She returned five years later suffering from consumption, a common and fatal illness. Keats nursed his mother and began to study hard, believing this could help her. She died soon after leaving them as orphans.

The Keats children were given legal guardians by their grandmother but they were unable to access their inheritance. At the age of 14, Keats left school to train in medicine.  

Keats's cottage next to Thomas Hammond's house' (1925) by H. CutnerOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats

Medical Training

Keats left school aged 14 to begin a career in medicine. He was apprenticed to Dr Thomas Hammond in Edmonton, who taught Keats to diagnose illnesses, prepare remedies and perform minor surgery.  

Two pages from John Keats’s medical notebook (1815) by John KeatsOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats

At the end of his apprenticeship, Keats returned to London to continue his medical training at Guy’s Hospital. Keats was a good student and was awarded the prestigious role of surgeon’s dresser, which involved assisting at amputations and dressing wounds. Witnessing operations performed before anaesthetics and antibiotics influenced his later writing on human suffering.

He passed his medical exams in 1816 at the age of 20, but was becoming increasingly drawn to a career as a poet. While studying at Guy’s he met the influential journalist Leigh Hunt, who was to become a great friend of Keats, and champion of his poetry. Keats’s first published  poem, ‘To Solitude’ appeared in Hunt’s journal The Examiner in May 1816, two months before passing his medical exams.      

By the end of 1816 Keats could no longer balance both his work at the hospital and his writing. He chose poetry. While his guardians were appalled, Keats began to find support in a new circle of writers, artists and journalists living in Hampstead.   

O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep, –
Nature’s observatory – whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
’Mongst boughs pavillion’d, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.
But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.

‘To Solitude’, 1816

A view of the Vale of Health, Hampstead Heath (About 1800) by Francis John SarjentOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats

Wentworth Place, Hampstead

The Keats brothers, John, George and Tom, moved from Southwark to Hampstead in 1817, initially to benefit from its healthier environment. Situated eight miles outside London, it was then a small village, or more accurately, villages, on the edge of the Heath, which was already a popular leisure destination for Londoners. Keats was also attracted by the literary people who lived there, including Leigh Hunt who was living in the Vale of Health at that time.    

"Keats's Corner" Well Walk' (About 1875) by Frederick CookOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats

On 1 December 1818, John Keats’s brother Tom died of consumption at their lodgings in Well Walk, Hampstead. 

John walked to Wentworth Place to tell his friends the Dilke family and Charles Brown the news and was invited by Brown to come and live with him at the house.  

‘Wentworth Place, Ham[p]stead’ (About 1890) by Fred Holland DayOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats

Keats lived at Wentworth Place on and off until September 1820. 

During this period, and inspired by his reading and surroundings, he produced many of the works for which he is now famous. He also found friendship with a creative, literary circle who championed his writing and encouraged him to work. Most significantly, while living in Hampstead he met and fell in love with Fanny Brawne, who lived at the house from April 1819 to December 1831.

Portrait miniature of Fanny Brawne (About 1833) by AnonymousOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats

Fanny Brawne

In April 1819, the Dilke family moved out of Wentworth Place and rented their side of the house to Mrs Brawne and her three children, including the eldest daughter Fanny.

Engagement ring given to Fanny Brawne by John Keats (Late 18th, early 19th century?)Original Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats

Fanny Brawne and Keats first met some time in late 1818. The Brawne family had rented Brown’s home for the summer while Keats and Brown were walking in Scotland. On Brown’s return, the family took another house nearby in Hampstead and continued to visit their friends at Wentworth Place. 

After she moved back to Wentworth Place, and now separated only by a wall, the two fell deeply in love. It is not known when they exchanged rings, but we do know that Keats wrote 39 love letters to her between April 1819 and September 1820. 

The spring and summer of 1819 was a remarkably productive period in Keats’s life, inspired in large part by his love for Fanny Brawne. Even after he became seriously ill from February 1820, he continued to write letters to her despite being told by his doctors not to read or write poetry, in case it distressed him.

Fanny Brawne saw Keats for the last time on 13 September 1820, when he left for Rome. She continued to live in the house until a few years after her mother’s death in 1829.

Holograph draft of ‘Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art’ written in ‘The Poetical Works’ by William Shakespeare, John Keats, April? 1820, Original Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats
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Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art –
Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night,
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors;
No – yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever – or else swoon to death.

‘Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art’, 1819

Keats’s Parlour (2015) by Keats HouseOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats

The Poems of 1819

Keats wrote some of the finest poems in the English language in one phenomenally creative period from September 1818 to September 1819. 

He was just 23. 

John Keats' (1819) by Charles BrownOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats

Despite being hampered by family tragedy, continued money worries and literary criticism, Keats began and revised his epic poem ‘Hyperion’, composed two long narrative poems, sonnets, a ballad, a play and six exceptional odes.

Inspired by the loss of his brother Tom and the beauty, friendship and love he found in Hampstead, his poems of that year are both sad and uplifting at the same time, beautifully demonstrating how sorrow and happiness exist together. He was skilled enough to write about different subjects in different types of verse, yet his poems all show his love of nature and his belief in how powerful the human imagination is. 

He seems to say that though everything in life fades, we still have beauty, an idea he represented in his poems through a malicious maiden or the melodic song of a nightingale.

‘Keats Listening to the Nightingale on Hampstead Heath’ (1849) by Joseph SevernOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats

Critical Responses

Most of the poems Keats wrote between 1817 and 1819 were criticised by the conservative, literary establishment of the day. 

As a follower of Leigh Hunt, he was mockingly referred to as a ‘Cockney poet’, with the Tory paper the ‘Quarterly’ calling him

‘more unintelligible,… twice as diffuse and ten times more tiresome and absurd than his prototype’.

Title page of ‘Poems’ by John Keats which belonged to Charles Brown, John Keats, 1817, Original Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats
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Title page of 'Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St. Agnes and other poems’ which belonged to Charles Brown, John Keats, 1820, Original Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats
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Drawing of a lyre and an oboe in 'Endymion’ by John Keats, which belonged to Charles Brown, John Keats, About 1818, Original Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats
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Keats only published three books of poetry during his lifetime. The publication of his first book, ‘Poems’ in 1817, mostly went unnoticed while reviews of ‘Endymion’ the following year, attacked both the poem itself and Keats personally. One critic questioned whether someone of his background should write about classical subjects and suggested that he should abandon all hope of being a poet.

Title page of 'Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St. Agnes and other poems’ which belonged to Charles Brown, John Keats, 1820, Original Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats
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The critical response to his last book, ‘Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems’ published in 1820, was more positive. The respected ‘Edinburgh Review’ praised the collection’s imaginative power and beauty of expression and Charles Lamb writing in the ‘New Times’, compared Keats favourably to Dante, Chaucer and Spenser.

The ‘Lamia’ volume contains many of the poems written during 1819 and is now seen as one of the strongest collections of poetry ever published. Sadly, Keats never knew the pleasure the poetry in this volume would later bring to so many people. The reviews at the time were not positive enough to make his work widely popular and fully understood by the public, and worsening symptoms of consumption meant that Keats wrote no more poetry after 1820.

Tuberculous lungs (1830s) by Robert CarswellOriginal Source: https://www.wellcomecollection.org

Keats and Consumption

In February 1820 Keats realised he had consumption, now known as tuberculosis or simply TB. There was no known cause, though many believed it was hereditary and that sensitive or creative people were more likely to be affected.  

‘The Maria Crowther, Sailing Brig’ (1820) by Joseph SevernOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats

Keats probably contracted the illness in 1818 while nursing his brother Tom, but the disease lay dormant throughout 1819 allowing time for his most creative and brilliant writing. However, from February 1820 his health deteriorated, destroying his hopes for literary success.

Keats was initially prescribed rest, a starvation diet and bloodletting, but this only made him weaker. He was also told to stop reading or writing poetry in case it over excited him. 

 As was common practice, Keats was advised to go abroad where a warmer climate could relieve his symptoms. On 17 September 1820, Keats sailed on the Maria Crowther to Italy where he intended to stay the winter. Joseph Severn, a friend and painter, accompanied Keats on his journey.

The ship made slow progress along the English Channel and the passengers had to endure being seasick as well as a violent storm. In the Mediterranean Keats suffered another haemorrhage, followed by a fever.

On 21 October they finally arrived in the Bay of Naples but were forced to quarantine on board for two weeks before they could disembark. More than six weeks after leaving London they finally set foot in Italy on 31 October 1820. It was Keats’s 25th birthday. 

John Keats on his death-bed (1939) by Emery Walker after Joseph SevernOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats

Death and Legacy

Keats died in Rome on 23 February 1821 aged just 25. He was buried four days later and the words ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ were later inscribed on his gravestone, as he believed he had failed in his ambition to be a great poet.

Keats published just three books of poetry in his lifetime but was also a prolific writer of letters, many of which survived providing a glimpse into the life and character of both him and the society he lived within.

When Keats died his writing was not well known beyond his circle of friends. It was through their love and dedication that many of his manuscripts survived.

I shall soon be laid in the quiet grave...
O! I can feel the cold earth upon me -
the daisies growing over me -
O for this quiet -
it will be my first -

Keats quoted in a letter from Joseph Severn to John Taylor, 6 March 1821.

After the first biography of Keats was published in 1848, the Pre-Raphaelite painters began to take an interest in his work. Keats’s sensuous imagery inspired them to paint scenes from his poems, bringing them to a wider audience.

By the 1880s Keats’s poetry was becoming increasingly popular and enthusiasts wanted to find his Hampstead home. A dedication plaque was added above the front door in 1896. When the house was threatened with demolition in 1920, the Keats Memorial House Fund raised enough money to save it. It opened to the public on 9 May 1925 and, today, Keats House is provided by the City of London Corporation as part of its contribution to the cultural life of London and the nation.

Despite changing tastes in literature over the last 200 years, Keats’s poetry is still fresh and meaningful. His life was short, yet he created some of the most enduring poems in the English language. We now celebrate him as one of the world’s finest poets.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health,
and quiet breathing.

From ‘Endymion: A Poetic Romance’, 1817

Keats's Desk (2015) by Keats HouseOriginal Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats

We hope you enjoyed this exploration of John Keats's life.

If you'd like to learn more, visit Our City Together, where you will find in-depth articles covering specific periods in Keats's life, his letters, poetry and friends. 

Introducing Keats200

The Keats200 bicentenary is a celebration of Keats’s life, works and legacy, beginning in December 2018 through to February 2021 and beyond. It is led by three major partners – Keats House, Hampstead, The Keats Foundation and the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association – and is open to all individuals and organisations who have an interest in Keats or poetry.

The bicentenary of Keats’s most productive years as a poet, and the period when he found inspiration, friendship and love, is an exciting opportunity to (re)discover and enjoy his works as well as engage with poetry and its ongoing relevance to us all today.

One Keats200 project has been with photographer and artist, Elaine Duigenan. As Artist in Residence during 2020, Elaine has been inspired by the garden and collections at Keats House, Hampstead. She has created new artworks drawing on themes associated with Keats’s life and works. Two of these are featured in this display and Keats House would like to thank Elaine for permission to use these beautiful works of art to help engage us with the events of 200 years ago.

Today, Keats House is managed by the City of London Corporation and is a registered charity (1053381).

Keats200 logo, Keats House, 2018, Original Source: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keats
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