John Keats was born in London on October 31 1795, the eldest of Thomas and Frances Keats’ four children.
Thomas Keats initially managed his father-in-law’s stable before he took over its ownership. The family enjoyed a fairly comfortable income, sufficient for them to own their own home and to send their three sons to the small village academy in Enfield, run by an inspirational teacher called John Clarke.
Frances Keats was devoted to all her children, particularly John, who in turn loved his mother intensely. John Clarke described Keats’ father as a ‘man of fine common sense and native respectability’ under whom the family business went from strength to strength.
Keats went to Enfield Academy when he was eight years old and immediately established warm relationships both with the Headmaster, John Clarke and with his fifteen-year-old son, Charles Cowden Clarke. In a memoir, Cowden Clarke remembered Keats as someone who was very sociable and who stood up for his friends, fighting passionately in their defence. Clarke said:
He was not merely the favourite of all, like a pet prize-fighter, for his terrier courage; but his high-mindedness, his utter unconsciousness of a mean motive, his placability, his generosity, wrought so general a feeling in his behalf, that I never heard a word of disapproval from any one, superior or equal, who had known him.
A fellow pupil, Edward Holmes, said of Keats:
Keats was not in childhood attached to books. His penchant was for fighting. He would fight anyone.
On April 15 1804, Keats father died, having been seriously injured when his horse stumbled. This had both an emotional and a financial impact on the family. Within two months Keats’ mother moved the children to her mother’s home and remarried. This marriage, to a man called William Rawlings, was a disaster and Frances Keats soon left him, although this man now had both the stables and a substantial part of her inheritance.
Frances subsequently left the family, returning in 1808, a broken woman and in poor health. She died of tuberculosis in 1809, as a result of which John became the oldest male in the family at the age of only thirteen, a fact which explains why he felt such a protective loyalty to his brothers and sister throughout his life.
School became even more important to Keats and his friendship with both John Clarke and his son Cowden deepened. He read voraciously and it was at school in Enfield that his love for literature was born. Clarke’s regime was very liberal; students were encouraged to read widely in both classical and modern languages, as well as to take a keen interest in history, science and current affairs. Clarke subscribed to Leigh Hunt’s Examiner, a radical weekly magazine, which was to have a strong influence on Keats’ thinking. He had free access to the school library, literature becoming for him a stimulus for the intellect and admitting him to a beauty that expanded his imaginative sympathies.
By 1811 Keats’ grandmother, Alice Whalley Jennings, was 76 and had charge of four orphaned grandchildren. John was sixteen, George fourteen, Tom twelve and Fanny eight. Although Keats’ grandmother had inherited a considerable sum when her husband John died in 1805, her subsequent decision to appoint a tea-merchant called Richard Abbey as trustee had a serious effect on the family finances. Instead of ensuring the children’s financial future, it has been suggested by some biographers that Abbey withheld money from them.
This lack of financial independence meant that Keats had to find a career. He left Enfield in 1811 and began to study surgery. He was apprenticed to a respected surgeon, Thomas Hammond, in the nearby town of Edmonton.
John Keats, 1795-1821, an English Romantic poet, noted for his odes.
James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) English poet, essayist, critic and editor of influential journals. Friend of the leading Romantic poets, Shelley and Keats.
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