Keats’ literary career

Important friendships

In the autumn of 1816 Keats met not only Leigh Hunt but also several other men who would have an important impact on his artistic and intellectual development. These included:
  • John Hamilton Reynolds (a minor poet and essayist)
  • the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon
  • Shelley’s publisher, Charles Ollier, who would publish Keats’ first volume of verse. 
Leigh Hunt wrote of his first meeting with Keats and:
.. the impression made upon me by the exuberant specimens of genuine though young poetry that were laid before me, and the promise of which was seconded by the fine fervid countenance of the writer. We became intimate on the spot, and I found the young poet’s heart as warm as his imagination.      
Cowden Clarke recalled that, from that day until the end of his life, Keats was welcomed as a ‘familiar of the [Hunts’] household’ in Hampstead, a world filled with books, paintings, music, liberal politics and opportunities to meet some of the most significant thinkers of the age.

The circle widens

William Hazlitt self-portraitIn November 1816 Keats moved into lodgings at 76, Cheapside with his brothers, George and Tom. His friendships with Hunt, Reynolds and Haydon meant that he also met other influential people:
  • Reynolds introduced Keats to John Taylor and James Hessey who later took on the role of publishing his poems
  • He also met Charles Brown, a businessman, who became a loyal friend and energetic travelling companion, touring Scotland with him in 1818 and sharing rooms with him at his home at Wentworth Place, Hampstead from December 1818 until May 1820
  • He made friends with an Oxford student called Benjamin Bailey
  • It was Haydon who introduced Keats to William Hazlitt, who was to have an important influence on Keats’ ideas about art and beauty.
 On December 1 1816 Hunt wrote in The Examiner about a new school of ‘young poets’ that would ‘revive Nature’ and ‘put a spirit of youth in everything’. This notice, together with the fact that Keats was becomingly increasingly disillusioned about his career as a surgeon, probably helped Keats to decide to devote his life entirely to writing poetry. 
At about the same time Keats met Percy Bysshe Shelley, who arrived at Hunt’s house following the suicide of his first wife, his decision to marry Mary Godwin and in the midst of a battle for custody of his children. Not surprisingly, Shelley’s arrival, for all the literary advice he was able to offer Keats, had a disruptive effect on life at the Hunts’.

Poems 1817

Keats’ first published volume, Poems, appeared on March 3 1817, containing I stood tip-toe, Sleep and Poetry, Keen fitful gusts and a number of sonnets, rhymed epistles and miscellaneous poems. Sales of the book were poor. One of the Ollier brothers, who had published the volume, wrote to George Keats: 
We regret that your brother ever requested us to publish his book … By far the greater number of persons who have purchased it from us have found fault with it in such plain terms, that we have in many cases offered to take the book back rather than be annoyed with the ridicule which has, time after time, been showered upon us.     


Keats spent much of his time in 1817 away from London, in Margate and on the Isle of Wight. He also spent time with his friend Benjamin Bailey in Oxford. It was during this period that he first began to use letters written to his family and friends as a vehicle for conveying his deeply thoughtful ideas about poetry, love and philosophy. His own personality and his observations of the people close to him shine out from these documents. 
Keats’ letters were eventually collected together and published in 1848 and 1878, becoming almost as highly regarded as the poems themselves and of the utmost importance to anyone studying Keats and his writing. Many of the letters contain the texts of poems he was working on, as well as providing commentaries upon them.
1817 also saw the completion of Keats’ poem Endymion, supposed by some to have been undertaken in friendly rivalry with Shelley who was writing Laon and Cythna at the same time.

A growing social life

The winter of 1817-18 saw Keats spending much time in the company of his friends. In December 1817 he deputised for Reynolds as theatre critic of The Champion and wrote an insightful article on the leading Shakespearean actor Charles Kean. In the same month he attended a social gathering which Benjamin Haydon called his ‘Immortal Dinner’ attended by Keats, Wordsworth, Lamb, Reynolds and other important artists and intellectuals. At about this time Keats also read passages of Endymion to Wordsworth who commented that they amounted to ‘a pretty piece of paganism’, a comment which both Keats and his friends found condescending.
The same winter Keats attended lectures given by William Hazlitt. These helped him shape his ideas, both about poetry and on the role of the poet, who he believed should be an individual of ‘negative capability’. Keats defined this as: 
when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.     
Many of Keats’ most important artistic ideas are contained in his letters to Reynolds, with whom he also planned a volume of verse narratives based on tales from Boccaccio’s Decameron. It was for this potential volume that he wrote Isabella: or The Pot of Basil.

Family issues

In June 1818 Keats’ brother George, one of his closest confidants, got married and emigrated to America. 
The same month Keats decided to accompany Charles Brown on a walking tour of the Lake District and Scotland. Keats found the experience inspiring, writing to his brother, Tom: 
I shall learn poetry here, and shall henceforth write more than ever.     
However, the weather was bad and Keats became ill, suffering from a sore throat that would plague him for months after his return to Hampstead.
When Keats arrived home he found his brother Tom seriously ill with tuberculosis and he devoted much time to nursing him. This was a very difficult time for Keats. He was extremely close to his brothers, yet one had now left the country and the other was dying. To make matters worse, his poem Endymion received wounding reviews in the critical journals.
His brother Tom died on December 1, 1818.

Fanny Brawne

Fanny BrawneOn the day of Tom’s death, Keats was invited to move to Wentworth Place, the house of his friend Charles Armitage Brown in Hampstead (now the Keats House and Museum). It was a double house that Brown had built with his friend Charles Dilke, who lived with his wife in one half. The previous summer, whilst he was away with Keats on their walking tour of the north, Brown rented his side of the house to a widow, Mrs Frances Brawne and her three children, the oldest of whom was an eighteen year old girl called Fanny. After Brown’s return to his home, the Brawnes continued to visit their friends the Dilkes at Wentworth. 
Keats probably met Fanny for the first time in November 1818, and they declared their love for each other on Christmas Day the same year, becoming engaged in October 1819. Despite falling deeply in love with her, their relationship brought Keats little real happiness and was bound up with the fact that he lacked the financial means to support a wife and that his health was far from good. 
Much of Keats’ relationship remains obscure as he burned all the letters he received from Fanny (apart from her last). From Keats’ letters to her there emerges the impression of a fashionable, sociable young woman who respected Keats’ literary ambitions, without sharing his artistic or intellectual passions.

1819: a remarkable year

Poetic output

1819 was a year of astonishing output and poetic development for Keats. He worked on Hyperion during the winter of 1818/19. This was Keats’ epic about the fall of the Titans and their replacement by the Greek gods who were more beautiful than the Titans because of their superior knowledge and consequent insight into the suffering of humanity.
The Eve of St Agnes and The Eve of St Mark were composed during a visit to Dilke’s parents and relatives in Sussex at the end of January. Then between March and May he wrote several of his best-known odes, the works which have established him, more than any others, at the forefront of English poets: On Indolence, On a Grecian Urn, To Psyche, To a Nightingale and On Melancholy
Other poems which date from this period are La Belle Dame Sans Merci, the two sonnets on Fame and Why Did I Laugh Tonight? In the second half of the year Keats wrote (with Brown) the tragedy Otho the Great, began another play on the subject of King Stephen, finished Lamia, composed the Ode to Autumn and produced a second version of Hyperion called The Fall of Hyperion.

Private unhappiness

However, as far as Keats’ private life was concerned, the year was far from happy. His relationship with Fanny was not going well; he had financial difficulties and his health was deteriorating. His own money was exhausted and there was no access to the legacy he was owed following the death of his grandmother. There is still some doubt about whether Richard Abbey, the trustee of the grandmother’s estate, was wholly responsible for Keats’ failure to come into his inheritance, but it has been estimated that, by the time of his death, Keats could have been deprived of about £2000, an enormous sum, bearing in mind that many people existed on a total income of £50 per year.


When Keats’ brother George returned to England for a brief visit he discovered his brother John so ill (with tuberculosis) and downcast that he commented that ‘he was not the same being.’ His friend Charles Brown described the effect of the lung haemorrhage that convinced Keats he was dying:
One night, at eleven o’clock, he came into the house in a state that looked like fierce intoxication. Such a state in him, I knew, was impossible … I heard him say, - ‘That is blood from my mouth … Bring me the candle Brown; and let me see this blood.’ After regarding it steadfastly, he looked up in my face, with a calmness of countenance that I can never forget, and said, - ‘I know the colour of that blood; it is arterial blood; - I cannot be deceived in that colour; - that drop of blood is my death warrant; - and I must die.’     
Keats was right: he would die within a year. 

Second volume of Poems

After supervising his second book of Poems through publication, Keats became too weak to write. This volume was published in July 1820 under the title Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems, and it included most of the great Odes, Hyperion, Fancy and a number of other poems. 
This time the critics were generous in their praise, amongst whom were Frances Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review and John Scott in the London Magazine, both of whom showed perceptive respect for Keats’ poetic powers. The volume sold slowly but steadily and the Odes were republished in a number of literary magazines. Unfortunately, Keats was far too ill to take much notice.

Keats’ death


Keats was nursed by the Hunts and then by Fanny Brawne and her mother, but his condition continued to deteriorate and, in a last desperate attempt to find a climate which might help his condition, he set his affairs in order and sailed to Italy with his friend, the artist Joseph Severn. In August Shelley invited him to stay with him in Pisa; however, Keats declined and hoped to meet Shelley after a stay in Rome. 
Keats left for Rome in November 1820. Severn nursed Keats and managed his daily affairs until the end of Keats’ life. They took rooms on the Piazza di Spagna and Keats tried to endure his suffering stoically, out of concern for Severn. His last known letter (November 30 1820) asks Brown to write to his brother, and 
to my sister – who walks about my imagination like a ghost – she is so like Tom. I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.
God bless you!
John Keats.    

Keats grave in RomeDeath

Keats died on February 23 1821. His last words were to comfort Severn: 
Severn – lift me up – I am dying – I shall die easy – don’t be frightened – be firm, and thank God it has come!
Keats was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, his headstone bearing no name, simply the words: ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’ Severn and Brown honoured these wishes but added:
This Grave contains all that was Mortal of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET, Who on his Death Bed in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone.    
Brown later said that he regretted adding these words, although they suggest the strength of conviction amongst Keats’ friends that his death was hastened by the savage attacks he had suffered from his critics.


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