John Keats was born in 1795 to a lower-middle-class family in London. When he was still young, he lost both his parents. His mother died of tuberculosis, the disease that eventually killed Keats himself.
He was well educated at a private school in Enfield, where his schoolmaster encouraged him to read and write. In 1810, after leaving school, he was apprenticed to an apothecary-surgeon but he remained a passionate reader.
In 1815 he left his apprenticeship and became a student at Guy's Hospital, London. However, in 1816 he abandoned the profession of medicine for poetry. Keats's first volume of poems was published in 1817 and was not entirely well received.
In the summer of 1818, Keats toured the north of England and Scotland, returning home to nurse his brother Tom, who had fallen ill with tuberculosis. After Tom’s death, in December, he moved into a friend’s house in Hampstead, London, now known as Keats House.
There he met and fell in love with a young neighbour, Fanny Brawne. She would become the love of his life and the inspiration for poems like Bright Star, which was addressed to her as a declaration.
However, his passionate love for Fanny Brawne was never fulfilled because of financial problems and the beginning of his tuberculosis.
During the following year he wrote a great amount of poetry, including The Eve of St Agnes, La Belle Dame sans Merci, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode on Melancholy and To Autumn. His second volume of poems was published in July 1820. Tuberculosis took hold and Keats was advised by his doctors to move to a warmer climate to try to improve his health. In September 1820 Keats left for Rome with his close friend Joseph Severn.
He lodged in a house on the Spanish Steps, today the Keats-Shelley Memorial House museum.
Keats was convinced that he had made no mark in his lifetime. Aware that he was dying, he wrote to Fanny Brawne in February 1820, "I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have lov'd the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember'd."
Keats considered Shakespeare as his role-model in the creation of his masterpieces. He is believed to have kept an effigy of Shakespeare beside him for inspiration. Keats praised Shakespeare's "negative capability". Instead of preaching or moralizing, Shakespeare's works mirror life, and let the readers come to their own conclusions.
Keats’s genius was not generally recognised during his lifetime or immediately after his death. But 19th century critics and readers came to admire him, though, for the most part, they had only an incomplete understanding of his work. They saw Keats as a sensual poet; they focused on his vivid, concrete imagery. With the 20th century, the appreciation of Keats's poetry expanded; he was and is still praised for his thoughtfulness, for his dealing with difficult human conflicts and artistic issues, and for his intense mental pursuit of truth. Keats recommended living "the ripest, fullest experience that one is capable of"; he was convinced that what determines truth is experience. The publication of Keats's letters, with their concern with moral and artistic problems, contributed to this reconsideration.
In his short life, John Keats wrote some of the most beautiful and enduring poems in the English language. Among his greatest achievements is La Belle Dame Sans Merci, a literary ballad which describes the meeting between an unnamed knight and a mysterious woman who, after deceiving the knight, leaves him alone and desperate. The poem was inspired by an old legend and its title was taken from a poem by a medieval French poet, Alain Chartier.
You can download a very useful mind map of John Keats here.
To bring this post to a close, let's enjoy the trailer of Bright Star, the 2009 film directed by Jane Campion, based on the last three years of the life of the poet and his romantic relationship with Fanny Brawne.
Here you can download Keats’ Poetry: 4 Books by John Keats, a publication of The Electronic Classics Series.