KEATS, John (1795-1821). An English poet, born in London, October 31, 1795. When about eight years old he was sent to the school kept by John Clarke at Enfield. Here he formed a friendship with the master's son. Charles Cowden Clarke, learned Latin, possibly French, and read vehemently, especially in Greek mythology. He, however, never learned the Greek language. Oddly enough, Keats got most of his early notions of Greece from the Classical Dictionary of Lemprière. His father, a livery-stable keeper, died in 1804; and his mother, who had married a certain Rawlings, soon quitted him and went to live with her mother in Edmonton, where she died in 1810. Although Keats had hardly known his father, he was much influenced by his mother. He loved her; yet at the age of five, if Haydon is to be trusted, the lad shut his mother in a room and stood guard at the door with a sword, declaring that she should not come out till he pleased. Between Edmonton and the school at Enfield passed Keats's best years (1806-10). He was whimsical and absent-minded and not very studious, but generous and passionate. All his schoolmates admired his nobility of character, his courage, and his personal beauty. He was quick-tempered, but quick to forgive: he was a fighter and an athlete. On his mother's death Keats was taken from school by his guardians and apprenticed for five years to a surgeon at Edmonton. Of this period we know little save that one day a comrade read him Spenser's Epithalamium, and lent him the Faerie Queene. This was a revelation. Keats had found his way. He was entranced by Spenser's fairies, dwarfs, magic, knights, and wondrous adventures. He became a lover of fine phrases, and even brilliantly imitated Spenser. At this time he also fell under the influence of Gray and Moore. In 1814 he quarreled with his master, and went to London, where he continued his studies in surgery; but he disliked it—above all, the operations.
Keats soon made the acquaintance of Leigh Hunt, Shelley and others, and in 1817 of the painter Haydon, all of whom exerted a powerful influence upon him. His first published poem, the sonnet beginning "O Solitude, if I with thee must dwell," appeared in Leigh Hunt's Examiner (May 5, 1816). It was followed on December 1st by the great sonnet On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer, which Hunt accompanied with observations on its author and the new school of poetry. Four other sonnets speedily followed. In March, 1817, appeared Poems by John Keats, dedicated to Hunt. The volume fell flat, for every one was at that time under the sway of Moore, Scott, and Byron. Keats at once began Endymion, which was published in 1818. This year he made a tour through the English Lake district and Scotland, where he contracted the throat trouble which ultimately developed into consumption. Just after his return to England appeared the famous attacks on Endymion (Blackwood's Magazine, August, 1818; and the Quarterly Review, dated April, 1818, but published in September). Whether or not Keats's critical foe was Lockhart, he had fervent defenders in Shelley, who in his Adonais calls his friend's assailants assassins, and in Byron, who devoted to Keats a strophe in Don Juan. Keats, though his health was breaking, continued to write. In 1820 appeared his third volume, Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of Saint Agnes, and Other Poems. He died in Rome, February 23, 1821, and was buried there near Shelley, by the pyramid of Caius Cestius. Keats did not live to produce so much as several of his contemporaries. His first two volumes were marred by many affectations, which naturally led to severe contemporary criticism. The third volume contains poetry of the most exquisite quality. Most of his loveliest, strongest work, as Hyperion, is in fragments. All that is best in him might be held in a small volume, and most of his work was done in four years (1817-20). Keats was for a while democratic in tendency, but the effects of the French Revolution are not perceptible in him. Since his death his fame has increased more and more. He has long since been given his place by the side of Shelley and Byron. His letters, except those devoted to an unfortunate love, are delightful.
The best literary appreciation of Keats is by Matthew Arnold, in Ward's English Poets, vol. iv. Consult: Milnes, Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of Keats (London, 1848; rev. 1867); Lowell, The Political Works of Keats, with Life (Boston, 1854, 1873); complete edition of Works, edited by Forman (4 vols., London, 1883; rev. 1889); the Cambridge edition of Works (Boston, 1899); Letters of Keats to His Family, edited by Colvin (London, 1891); and for his Life, Colvin (London, 1887); Rossetti, Poetical Works of Keats with a Memoir, which has a bibliography (ib., 1887); Hoops, Keats' Jugend und Jugendgedichte (Leipzig, 1895); Texte, "Keats et le Neo-Hellénisme dans la poésie anglaise," in Etudes de littérature européenne (Paris, 1898); Gothein, John Keats' Leben und Werke (Halle, 1897); and Henry C. Shelley, Keats and His Circle (New York, 1902).