Thomas Keats ran the Swan and Hoop pub in London's Moorgate. He probably met his wife Francis Jennings as a customer at his pub, although the Jennings family had a long connection with the Keats family through business. Thomas married Francis in October 1794, and John Keats was born the following year, on 31st October. Keats had three brothers, one of whom died in infancy, and one sister. Thomas and Francis then seem to have simply got on with the job of running a business and bringing up the children, in what seems to have been a fairly relaxed manner. The Swan and Hoop still survives, at 85 Moorgate, and is now called the John Keats at Moorgate.
Keats grew up in turbulent times. Revolution was taking place in France, and there was much unrest in Britain. The stress of the time is indicated by the striking fact that between 1790 and 1820, a time roughly coincidental with Keats' life, nineteen MPs committed suicide, and twenty more lapsed into insanity. This stress did not lead to outright revolution, probably because threat of foreign invasion from France helped pull Britain together. As a child Keats would have seen men going through military training on open ground near the Swan and Hoop.
John Keats was soon to face huge turbulence in his own life. His parents seem to have been sensible, caring people, choosing to send Keats to the progressive school at Enfield, rather than to harsh, disciplinarian Harrow. However, Keats was unable to enjoy his parents' enlightened views for long. In April 1804, when John had been at Enfield for only nine months, his father was killed in a riding accident. Francis took Thomas's death very badly, married an unsuitable second husband, appeared to have a breakdown and disappeared. The children were looked after by their grandmother Alice Jennings. Francis was to reappear three years later, but by then she had contracted tuberculosis, and was more a patient than a mother. She died in 1810. By this time Alice Jennings was in her seventies and turned for help to a friend of the family, Richard Abbey. This man was a no nonsense business man and stern disciplinarian. He disapproved of Keats' parents, and was later to pour scorn on their son's literary ambitions. The Keats children hated him.
Keats seemed to react to his troubles by developing a voracious appetite for reading. He did well at school, and his headmaster at Enfield became a good friend. In 1809 Keats began medical training at Guys Hospital in Southwark, London. Keats lived with Thomas Hammond who had looked after Francis in her final illness, and initially the training went well. Guys Hospital shared its training with St Thomas's next door. The Old Operating Theatre, a nineteenth century operating theatre, the sort of place where Keats would have worked, survives in the attic of what was once St Thomas's hospital chapel. A bare wooden table sits in a small amphitheatre surrounded by a semicircular tier of benches. The place speaks of frightening scenes that Keats must have witnessed. The only anaesthetic in those days was alcohol. Keats was a caring man, and the new concept of being kind to patients was being fostered at Guys at this time. Later when Keats had abandoned medicine for poetry, he was to think of his poems as medicine for people's minds. His training also taught him to engage with life. Astley Cooper the much admired senior surgeon at Guys would tell his students, hundreds of which followed him around the wards, that knowledge can only be gained through observation. Keats would be known for his escapist poems, but these poems would also bring readers back to the real world. The contradictory desire to look closely, and yet escape the harshness of reality was perhaps bred into Keats during his years of surgical training at Guys.
In 1816 Keats decided to take a break from medicine. His poetry career was hardly established, and his guardian Abbey called him a "silly boy," but Keats made the change anyway. At this time he was assisting an incompetent surgeon named William Lucas, and the experience of working for him perhaps helped Keats make his decision. Keats wanted to write poems which were "a Remedy against...wrongs within the pale of this world," and set to work as a full time poet. In 1816 a big break seemed to arrive when a meeting was arranged with publisher and editor Leigh Hunt. Hunt was editor of The Examiner magazine which had published Keats' first poem. Hunt lived in the Vale of Health on Hampstead Heath in north London. Hampstead was to become an important place in Keats' short life, and in his poetry. Keats himself described this turning point in his life.: "As we approached the Heath, there was a rising and accelerated step, with the gradual subsidence of all talk." (Quoted in Keats by Andrew Motion.) Within days of this meeting Keats was being introduced to powerful literary and artistic figures in London.
Hampstead Heath was a place of escape which also remained close to the everyday urban life of London. It was in the words of Wilkie Collins "a suburban Nirvana". This was a very fitting place for an ambivalent escapist like Keats to live and work. He could seemingly leave the everyday world, walk high above London, and yet be back there within an hour. This same ambivalence is illustrated by Keats' visit to the area of Box Hill in Surrey during 1817 to finish Endymion. Box Hill had been a popular destination for day trippers since the reign of Charles II. The lovely walks and views were within easy travelling distance of London, and provided convenient escape for an increasingly urban population. Keats stayed at Burford Bridge Hotel at the bottom of Box Hill. Visiting Box Hill today the sense of escape is undiminished, and it is still an escape to which people in general have access. This isn't fairy tale escapism, but a down to earth variety which is within reach of most people who are wondering what to do on their day off. Appropriately in the famous opening lines of Endymion Keats describes escapism as something which brings people back to earth. This is the sort of escape you find at Box Hill, seemingly other worldly, and yet close to everyday life.
A thing of beauty is a joy forever
It's loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness, but will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams and health and quiet breathing
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flower band to bind us to the earth
Spite of the despondence of the inhuman dearth
Beautiful things seem to set us free, but they also create a "flower band" that creates an engagement and interest in life. In beautiful things we go out and come back again.
After this promising start Keats' career failed to take off. The young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was a member of Hunt's circle. Shelley had everything that Keats seemed to lack. He had been a brilliant schoolboy at Syon House and Eton. He had been expelled from Oxford for refusing to admit that he had written an essay called The Necessity of Atheism. He was the heir to a baronetcy, had eloped with an innkeeper's daughter at the age of nineteen, and then three years later left her for the daughter of William Godwin and the women's rights campaigner Mary Wollstonecroft. Hunt began to favour Shelley. The two poets would walk together on Hampstead Heath, Shelley trying to persuade Keats not to publish a selection of his poems. Shelley believed he was acting in Keats' best interests, knowing how cruel reviewers could be. Keats did not take this advice well. Shelley informed Keats he was immature, and when Poems was published, on 1st March 1817 to hostile reviews Shelley seemed to be proved right.
The Plum Tree at Keats' House
After some time spent touring, Keats returned to Hampstead late in 1818 and moved into the house of his friend Charles Brown at Wentworth Place. It was an attractive white painted house with a well tended garden which contained a plum tree and a mulberry tree. The house survives, is now called Keats House, and can be visited. Keats and Brown lived together here for seventeen months. "They played cards, held claret feasts, argued with each another (or at least Keats railed at Brown for seducing the maid over making 'more feet for little stockings,') engaged in drawing contests, wrote Spenserian stanzas against one another... attended the theatre, read together, and often sat opposite one another all day authoring." (Andrew Motion, Keats P328, with quotes from the Letters of Charles Abraham Brown.) It was during this time that Keats wrote some of his finest and most famous poems. Charles Brown described how in the spring of 1819 Keats wrote Ode to a Nightingale in the garden at Wentworth Place:
"In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took a chair from the breakfast table to the grass plot under a plum tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiring, I found these scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale. The writing was not well legible, and it was difficult to arrange the stanzas on so many scraps. With his assistance I succeeded and this was his Ode to a Nightingale, a poem which has been a delight to everyone." (Quoted by Andrew Motion in Keats P 395.)
O for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cooled a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth,
That I might drink and leave the world unseen
and with thee fade away into the forest dim -
The nightingale makes Keats want to come back from his daydream and taste life deeply. And in embracing the world in this way, Keats seems to fade into it. His escape becomes his engagement with the world. He leaves and returns.
Elgin Marbles at the British Museum
Keats made a similar contradictory journey in his best known poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn, also written in 1819. A visit was made to the display of artifacts accompanying the display of the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum. This display, the successor of which can still be seen at the British Museum today, inspired a poem in which ancient painted or sculpted figures are caught in an endless movement:
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Keats saw figures whose "struggle to escape" was continuing, thousands of years after they were created. In a sense the escape attempt of gods, men and maidens would never succeed, frozen forever in their moment. On the other hand the same stillness that holds them also means the escape attempt never fails. In stillness of a captured moment wild movement goes on forever:
Fair youth, beneath the trees thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal - yet do not grieve:
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss
Forever wilt thou love and she be fair
Keats might be seen as an escapist, but he knows that the world holds him, as if he were frozen on the side of a Grecian Urn. He will never quite be able to kiss the love of his life who seems so near. And yet this same restriction sets him endlessly free. His wild movement cannot end. This is the kind of escapism that fully accepts reality. The truth of the world is the same as a beauty that allows us to leave harsh truth behind:
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all
Ye on earth, and all ye need to know."
Keats House (Wentworth Place)
It was during his time at Wentworth Place that Keats met and fell in love with Fanny Brawne who lived next door. Already, however, Keats' health was failing. Like the figure on the urn, Keats was to find Fanny close but out of reach: "never canst thou kiss, though winning near the goal."
He had nursed his brother Tom who had died of tuberculosis, or consumption as the disease was then known. Keats probably contracted the tuberculosis bacterium during this time. An arduous tour of Scotland seemed to bring on the start of the disease. During his last illness Keats was sadly rootless. He moved to lodgings with Leigh Hunt, but after an upset involving the opening of his mail he staggered back to Wentworth Place where he was looked after by Fanny and her mother. Only his illness allowed Keats and Fanny to live in the same house in this way. For these brief few months at Wentworth Place in 1820 Keats found the home he had always lacked. But by early September his condition was so bad that doctors recommended a journey to the warmer climate of Italy. In reality this journey only took Keats away from the people he loved, and exposed him to a stormy sea voyage he was ill equipped to withstand. Once in Italy he moved into rooms in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. He was cared for by his friend Joseph Severn. It is perhaps a mark of the man that when he realised he was dying Keats thought of his friend, telling Severn not to be scared. Keats died on 23rd February 1821. He was twenty five.
For many years Keats's reputation as a poet was low. It was only in 1848 with the publication of the first biography of Keats, by Richard Monckton Milnes, that his work began to receive the attention it deserved.