John Keats (1795 - 1821)


Oscar Wilde said of John Keats:

... for since my childhood I have loved none better than your marvellous kinsman, that godlike boy, the real Adonis of our age.... In my heaven he walks eternally with Shakespeare and the Greeks....



John Keats was born and brought up in Enfield. He was a a pugnacious, ardent, generous, and high-spirited youth who cared little for books, at least in his early schooldays. A classmate later reminisced that he was possessed of an absolute "penchant" for fighting, that thrashing friends, brothers -- anyone -- was "meat & drink" to him. But by age 14, Keats‘s passion was literature, which "he devoured rather than read."


Orphaned in 1810 when his mother died, probably of tuberculosis, he was apprenticed to an apothecary in Edmonton. He later trained, halfheartedly, in surgery and in December 1816, Keats finally abandoned medicine for poetry, flabbergasting his guardian, who called him a "Silly Boy."


Keats‘s second book, the woefully ambitious Endymion (1818), was savaged by the Tory press. Blackwood's sneered: "It is a better and wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr John." Undeterred, Keats entered a period of rapid intellectual and poetic development, beautifully charted in his remarkable and moving letters. With astonishing speed, supreme confidence, and the greatest artistic mastery, Keats wrote virtually all his major poetry between January and September of 1819.


On February 3, 1820, Keats coughed blood for the first time ("That drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die."). Here began the final phase of an excruciating danse macabre with the disease that had claimed not only his mother, but, little more than a year before, his beloved younger brother, Tom.


He travelled to Italy in a desperate effort to regain his health, but died there on February 23, 1821, directing that the epitaph for his Roman grave be inscribed "Here lies one whose name was writ in water." Below are the opening verses to 2 of his poems – The Eve of St. Agnes and Ode to a Nightingale.


The Eve of St. Agnes

St. Agnes‘ Eve--Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp‘d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman‘s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem‘d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin‘s picture, while his prayer he saith.


Ode to a Nightingale

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,--
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.