John Keats’s poetic achievement in a span of a mere six years can only be described as astonishing. But in his own lifetime, critics came close to destroying him.
Born in London in October 1795 to a respectable London innkeeper Thomas Keats and the lively and comfortably-off Frances Jennings, he lost his father after a riding accident when he was eight, and his mother to tuberculosis when he was 14. In the summer of the same year, he was apprenticed to a surgeon neighbour of his maternal grandparents in Edmonton. In 1815 he began medical training at Guy’s Hospital. Despite qualifying, he never practised medicine, turning instead to writing poetry.
His first volume of poems, published in 1817, attracted little attention beyond the odd dismissive remark - despite including ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’. In the same year, Blackwood’s Magazine published a series of reviews denouncing what it called the ‘Cockney school’: poets and essayists associated with the writer Leigh Hunt, of which Keats was one.
His long and ambitious Endymion (1818) fared little better critically than the 1817 volume. Nevertheless, he was encouraged by appreciative friends including Hunt, William Hazlitt and Benjamin Haydon, who classed him with Percy Bysshe Shelley as a rising genius. Between 1818 and 1819, the most fertile period of his life, he fell in love with his ‘Bright Star’ Fanny Brawne, and produced his six famous odes, and such great narrative poems as ‘Isabella, or The Pot of Basil’, ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, ‘Hyperion’, ‘Lamia’, and ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. Even then critical praise was grudging.
In 1820, he was, like his mother and brother Tom, fatally stricken with tuberculosis. He sailed for Italy in the hope of recovering, but died in Rome on 23 February 1821.
The second half of the century at last brought him fame, praised by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Algernon Charles Swinburne and the Pre-Raphaelites. Today he is one of the best-loved and most quoted of all English poets.