John Keats: The first 20 years

John Keats
John Keats, portrait by William Hilton (1786-1839)

John Keats was born on 31st October 1795, the eldest of four children of Thomas and Frances Keats, who ran the Swan and Hoop, an inn on London Wall. Two years later George Keats was born; in 1799 another brother (Tom) and in 1803 a sister (Fanny). That year Keats started at Clarke’s School in Edmonton, where he remained a pupil until he was 14.

In 1804, when Keats was 8, his father died after falling off his horse. Within two months Frances Keats had remarried and moved away to start a new life as Mrs William Rawlings. The Keats children were sent to live with their grandmother in Edmonton. Their father had left no will, and their mother conducted a long, expensive and bitter law-suit against Keats’s uncle and grandmother, as a result of which the Keats children found themselves with only one ally in the whole family. John in particular was left with a morbid fear of financial matters. In 1810, his mother returned to her family — but was terminally ill with consumption (tuberculosis). Despite Keats’s nursing, she died the same year. His grandmother Alice Jennings, now 74, made a will in which the care of the Keats children, as well as her fortune, were put into the hands of a tea-merchant Richard Abbey. Keats’s brothers and sister (now aged 13, 11 and seven) went to live with Mr and Mrs Abbey, spending some of the year in Walthamstow, some in the City of London.

In 1811 Keats became apprenticed to Thomas Hammond, a surgeon and apothecary who practised in Edmonton. In his spare time, Keats often revisited his old school, where Charles Cowden Clarke (the son of his former headmaster — and the first of several influential father-substitutes) continued his education in literature, encouraging his early love of poetry, and his interest in left-wing politics. Clarke Senior subscribed to the radical weekly magazine The Examiner, and encouraged his pupils to read it. In today’s terms it was a mixture of Private Eye, the New Statesman and the London Review of Books. This was a time of considerable unrest; the upheaval of the French Revolution was a vivid memory and a real threat to the aristocracy; as King George III was insane, his unpopular son had been made Prince Regent; democracy was the preserve of a tiny minority (fewer than 3% of adults had the vote); Luddites were destroying industrial machines in the north of England.

The March 1812 issue of The Examiner suggested that the Prince Regent was ‘a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties’[1]. This was a brave thing to do, since the Treasonable Practices Act of 1795 had introduced heavy penalties for anyone who wrote, printed, published, uttered or declared ‘any words or sentences to excite or stir up the people to hatred or contempt of the person of H.M., his heirs or successors, of the Government and Constitution of this realm’[2]. The Examiner’s editors, the Leigh Hunt brothers, were imprisoned for two years. To the fury of the Establishment James Leigh Hunt continued editing The Examiner from the Surrey Gaol, where he also composed the Story of Rimini (published in 1816), which incensed Tory critics with its sympathetic depiction of adultery, and its literary style.

In 1814 Alice Jennings died. On 1st October 1815, Keats enrolled at Guy’s Hospital as a medical student.

In the summer of 1816 Keats began writing ‘I stood tiptoe on a little hill’. On July 25th he qualified as an Apothecary, then spent the summer in Margate, trying to choose between continuing with medicine and devoting himself to poetry. In October, while working at Guy’s Hospital as a ‘dresser’ (very junior doctor), Clarke presented him (and his best poems) to Leigh Hunt, who recalled:

‘I shall never forget the impression made upon me by the exuberant specimens of genuine (though young) poetry that were laid before me. We became intimate upon the spot, and I found the young poet’s heart as warm as his imagination. We read and walked together, and used to write verses of an evening upon a given subject. No imaginative pleasure was left unnoticed by us, or unenjoyed; from the recollection of the bards and patriots of old, to the luxury of a summer rain at our window, or the clicking of coal in winter-time.'[3]

Keats started living two lives: after holding patients down so that surgeons could operate on them, he would sometimes walk six miles to Hampstead for literary evenings at Leigh Hunt’s house, where he took part in sonnet-writing contests with Hunt and Shelley. They were heady days for him — imagine being a junior doctor today and (if you had the time) popping over to Ian Hislop’s house of an evening to mingle with Elton John, Stephen Fry and Damien Hirst. Hunt’s circle included the manic artist Benjamin Robert Haydon, who was painting an enormous picture of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, which would eventually include Wordsworth, Voltaire and Keats as members of the crowd. The three years he worked on it spanned nearly all of Keats’s creative life. Keats immediately recognised that Haydon’s intense and single-minded dedication to art was quite different from Leigh Hunt’s cosy aestheticism.

Poets count for much less in our culture today than they did in the 1810s, when poetry was as important as pop music is today — if anything, it was more important (people don’t fight duels over reviews in New Musical Express). Another difference is that our sound-bite generation favours short poems, ones you can read between stations on the Underground.

Keats’s poetic heroes wrote Big Verse: Wordsworth (The Excursion, 8,800 lines), Milton (Paradise Lost, 10,500 lines) and Spenser (The Faerie Queene, over 27,000 lines). By December 1816 very few of Keats’s poems had exceeded 100 lines. He was convinced that poetry had to be long to be great. He composed ‘Sleep and Poetry’ as if desperate to prove himself:

O Poesy! for thee I hold my pen
That am not yet a glorious denizen
Of thy wide heaven.[4]

He faced some serious disadvantages: in 1816 poetry was an occupation for gentlemen. With two exceptions, the poets of the day had all been educated at Public School and university; Keats had left school at 14, and his medical school was no university. The two exceptions, Robbie Burns and John Clare, wrote poems about country life; Keats planned to write works that would challenge the Greek epics. He was only too aware of the gap between his ambition and his abilities:

O for ten years, that I may overwhelm
Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed
That my own soul has to itself decreed.[5]

Ten years can hardly have seemed a long time to pray for. Yet within three he had written all the verse for which he is remembered. Before five years had passed he was dead, almost as he predicted:

If I do fall, at least I will be laid
Beneath the silence of a poplar shade;
And over me the grass shall be smooth-shaven;
And there shall be a kind memorial graven.[6]

The poem continued the theme of his obsession with fame:

But off, Despondence! miserable bane!
They should not know thee, who, athirst to gain
A noble end, are thirsty every hour.[7]

On 1st December 1816, Leigh Hunt published an article in The Examiner on ‘Young Poets’, which introduced Shelley and Keats, with examples of their work. One of Keats’s fellow medics commented: ‘This sealed his fate and he gave himself up more completely than before to Poetry.’[8]

Keats’s friends and supporters persuaded him to publish a volume of his verse, and put him in touch with Shelley’s publishers. Shelley seems to have been the only one who urged caution — at this stage of his career Keats had produced very little, and much of what he had written was embarrassingly juvenile.


[1] The Examiner, 221 (22 March 1812) p. 179
[2] Arthur Aspinall English Historical Documents 1783-1832 (London: Routledge 1996) Vol. 8 p. 319-320
[3] Leigh Hunt, J. (1828) Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries, p. 409-410
[4] ‘Sleep and Poetry’ lines 47-49
[5] ‘Sleep and Poetry’ lines 96-98
[6] ‘Sleep and Poetry’ lines 277-280
[7] ‘Sleep and Poetry’ lines 281-283
[8] Letter from Henry Stephens to G. F. Mathew, March (?) 1847, in Hyder E. Rollins (ed.) (1948) The Keats Circle Letters and Papers 1816-1878. Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press II, 211

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