Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
John Keats

John Keats

NICHOLAS ROE
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 384
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt32bqwt
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    John Keats
    Book Description:

    This landmark biography of celebrated Romantic poet John Keats explodes entrenched conceptions of him as a delicate, overly sensitive, tragic figure. Instead, Nicholas Roe reveals the real flesh-and-blood poet: a passionate man driven by ambition but prey to doubt, suspicion, and jealousy; sure of his vocation while bitterly resentful of the obstacles that blighted his career; devoured by sexual desire and frustration; and in thrall to alcohol and opium. Through unparalleled original research, Roe arrives at a fascinating reassessment of Keats's entire life, from his early years at Keats's Livery Stables through his harrowing battle with tuberculosis and death at age 25. Zeroing in on crucial turning points, Roe finds in the locations of Keats's poems new keys to the nature of his imaginative quest.

    Roe is the first biographer to provide a full and fresh account of Keats's childhood in the City of London and how it shaped the would-be poet. The mysterious early death of Keats's father, his mother's too-swift remarriage, living in the shadow of the notorious madhouse Bedlam-all these affected Keats far more than has been previously understood. The author also sheds light on Keats's doomed passion for Fanny Brawne, his circle of brilliant friends, hitherto unknown City relatives, and much more. Filled with revelations and daring to ask new questions, this book now stands as the definitive volume on one of the most beloved poets of the English language.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-19015-1
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations and Maps
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xv-xx)
  6. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  7. Maps
    (pp. xxv-xxviii)
  8. Early Years, 1795–1814

    • CHAPTER 1 Birthplaces
      (pp. 3-18)

      Saturday, 14 April 1804.Dies Saturni. Thomas Keates called on his sons at Enfield, dined with friends, then galloped down the long scythe of the City Road back into London. By day this stretch was crowded with barrows, carts and stage-wagons. Past midnight, the turnpike was clear. In the dark and drizzle nobody saw Thomas plunge to the pavement beside Bunhill Fields, smashing his skull and bleeding heavily – a watchman who found him remarked on the amount of blood. There was nothing to be done but staunch his wound and carry him home. Before sunrise, he was dead. For...

    • CHAPTER 2 School
      (pp. 19-35)

      It is August 1803. Thomas, Frances, John and George draw up at a large schoolhouse in Enfield: Clarke’s Academy. The façade is of polished brick from local kilns, moulded into fanciful designs of flowers and pomegranates with cherubs’ heads peeking over niches.¹ Protruding from the roof are three latticed windows. The rooms are airy and spacious, with the boys accommodated in dormitories of six or eight beds. Across a playground with a pear tree is the schoolroom, and at the back a walled garden with fruit trees, a pond surrounded by strawberry beds and a rustic arbour with a seat....

    • CHAPTER 3 Bridge
      (pp. 36-52)

      Midgley John Jennings had vexations too. In the ten years since Camperdown he had served dutifully on the home front. The father of three children, he was embroiled with Chancery accounts and the demands of his post at Chatham. What battle and burns failed to do would now be wrought by stress and overwork. Late in 1807 he fell ill and went home to Huntingdon on four months’ sick leave. It did him little good. March and April brought sleet and snow, and when he petitioned for a further month’s leave his physician noted that his cough was accompanied by...

  9. Guy’s Hospital, 1814–1817

    • CHAPTER 4 Southwark
      (pp. 55-68)

      A thaw in mid-March reopened the roads. Keats, no longer apprenticed to Hammond, was free to move to London – or so his friend Charles Wentworth Dilke recalled in the margins of his copy of Milnes’sLife, Letters, and Literary Remains, of John Keats. Alongside a passage about Keats’s apprenticeship Dilke noted that he ‘did not serve out his time – They quarrelled & Hammond gave up his indentures. This I believe was in 1814.’¹ He made the point again a few pages later: ‘He removed to London before the termination of his apprenticeship. He quarrelled with Hammond who gave up...

    • CHAPTER 5 Bright and Dark
      (pp. 69-81)

      Summer of 1815 brought translations of a different kind. His brothers were acquainted with four sisters, Caroline, Anne, Jane and Helen Mathew, who lived north of the City at Goswell Street. Abbey may have known the girls’ father, a wine merchant, and the family was also acquainted with the hatter Keatses of Cheapside. As we will see, John Archer, business partner of Thomas Mower Keats, was frequently at the Mathews’ home from 1817 onwards.

      Through Caroline and Anne, Keats soon met their lugubrious cousin George Felton Mathew and his sister, Mary Mathew. Now that Keats was seeing less of Cowden...

    • CHAPTER 6 ‘J.K., and Other Communications’
      (pp. 82-96)

      Sunday, 28 April 1816 had the makings of a memorable day. Keats eagerly opened hisExaminer, skimmed Hunt’s poem on Byron’s departure for Italy, an article on the Elgin Marbles, news of a suicidal lover and a notice that Mrs John Dickens had given birth to a daughter. Then, in tiny print beneath a list of bankrupts, his eye lighted on this: ‘J.K., and other Communications, next week’. For seven days Stephens and Mackereth heard about little else. When the next week’sExaminerappeared, Keats quickly scanned its columns. There, at the foot of page 282, was his sonnet ‘To...

    • CHAPTER 7 An Era
      (pp. 97-107)

      Determined to contact Cowden Clarke, in September 1816 Keats began a verse letter to him:

      Oft have you seen a swan superbly frowning,

      And with proud breast his own white shadow crowning;

      He slants his neck beneath the waters bright

      So silently, it seems a beam of light

      Come from the Galaxy.

      (‘To Charles Cowden Clarke’, 1–5)

      The ‘Imitation of Spenser’ had been full of sparkling light and reflections, as a swan ‘oar’d . . . along in majesty’. Now, two years later, that swan ‘slants his neck’ with a single silent thrust ‘beneath the waters bright’ into ‘his...

    • CHAPTER 8 Wild Surmises
      (pp. 108-123)

      ‘That was a red-letter day in the young poet’s life.’ So Cowden Clarke recalled Saturday, 19 October 1816 and it had certainly set Keats forward.¹ Their first Clerkenwell ‘symposium’ of poetry, as Cowden Clarke termed it, came shortly after their visit to Hunt – most likely on the evening of Friday, 25 October. It was occasioned by Cowden Clarke being loaned the folio edition of George Chapman’s Homer. Hunt had recently borrowed this volume from his friend Thomas Alsager, toasting it inThe Examinerin a manner calculated to appeal to Keats: ‘CHAPMAN, whoseHomer’s a fine rough old wine’.²...

    • CHAPTER 9 Saturnalia
      (pp. 124-138)

      Keats’s enthusiasm about Haydon is understandable. He was an established, if controversial, artist and his ‘stedfast genius, toiling gallantly’ impressed. Soon Keats picked up the inflections of Haydon’s voice – ‘I glory in it’, ‘I hope to finish it in one more attack’ – and projected his own future in Haydonian terms. ‘I begin to fix my eye upon one horizon,’ he told Haydon, and that horizon was not the next day’s ward round at Guy’s.¹ During this autumn, encouraged by his brothers and friends, he determined to make his name and living as a poet; as that horizon grew...

    • CHAPTER 10 Lancet
      (pp. 139-158)

      The frosts of early 1817 wrought a silence in Keats too. In the first three months of the year we glimpse him only occasionally, and no letters survive for the nine weeks between 1 January and 9 March. There is little hint that a first book is in preparation. What explains this silence? Had he lost confidence in his forthcoming book? Keats was always vocal about self-doubt and self-criticism, and had been notably productive in recent months. Since September he had written his epistle ‘To Charles Cowden Clarke’, eleven sonnets and two longer poems, ‘I stood tip-toe’ andSleep and...

  10. The Year of Endymion, 1817

    • CHAPTER 11 Strange Journeys
      (pp. 161-172)

      The brothers gathered at the Bell and Crown, Holborn, in good time for Keats’s leave-taking. With box stowed and farewells said, he clambered up to his seat and wrapped himself in a plaid. At four-thirty sharp, the coach clattered along Holborn, weaving west and south through Hyde Park, Knightsbridge and rural Hammersmith.¹ Night fell clear, moonless and chilly, so at the King’s Arms, Bagshot, he paid for an inside seat. As he gazed out his world contracted to a bright hoop cast by the coach lamps. Hurdles and palings. The glitter of a window. Lopped trees. A cow. A donkey....

    • CHAPTER 12 Fellowship
      (pp. 173-182)

      Hunt’s promised review ofPoemswas a puzzle too. When it eventually appeared on 1 June, it said nothing about the book. Instead, having introduced Keats as ‘a personal friend’, ‘a young poet indeed’, Hunt digressed onto the poetic revolution that was establishing a ‘true taste for nature’.¹ WhenThe Examinercontinued this review on 6 July, Keats must have been dismayed to see a discussion of his ‘poetical faults’ and ‘errors’ – mainly inherited from Hunt – filling a column and a half before any ‘beauties’ were noticed. Most of the latter were routine – ‘sensitiveness’, ‘fancy’, ‘imagination’, ‘warm...

    • CHAPTER 13 ‘Z’
      (pp. 183-194)

      Keats had been unwell at Oxford. On returning to Hampstead, his first letter let Bailey know ‘[t]he little Mercury I have taken has corrected the Poison and improved my Health’. To W.M. Rossetti, this spoke for itself.¹ For others, including Keats’s contemporaries, the matter does not appear so straightforward. Once widely prescribed for venereal disease, by 1817 mercury was a less obvious recourse; there had been surprisingly successful cures without it. As Keats may have known, Astley Cooper held that mercury was not always necessary, although in small doses it could alleviate secondary symptoms of syphilis (fever, rash, muscle aches...

    • CHAPTER 14 Immortal Dinners
      (pp. 195-216)

      London was covered with a thick yellow fog, but for Keats December was a month of parties, pantomimes and plays. On Sunday the 14th he was at the Swan with Two Necks in Lad Lane to see George and Tom off to Teignmouth. It would do Tom good to winter there, for the mild air was renowned as a cure for pulmonary complaints.¹ That night Keats dined with Haydon, and would pass nine of the next ten evenings at theatres or with friends. He avoided Hunt, but hisExamineressays on ‘Christmas and Other Old National Merry-Makings’ were fine seasonal...

  11. Roads of the Dead, 1818

    • CHAPTER 15 Dark Passages
      (pp. 219-234)

      Tom seemed to be getting better. George would return to London, and to keep Tom company Keats would join him at Teignmouth. He booked an outside seat on the ‘Royal Mail’ to Exeter for 7.30pm on Wednesday, 4 March. Usually this journey took around twenty-seven hours but, heading westwards, the coach was overwhelmed by a terrific storm: houses were wrecked, rivers flooded, and between Honiton and Exeter sixteen large elms were torn up and flung across the road. Keats escaped ‘being blown over and blown under & trees & houses being toppled’, although travelling outside, cold and wet through, was still dangerous...

    • CHAPTER 16 Walking North
      (pp. 235-262)

      Thirty miles from Tom and Hampstead, the party paused at the Bull Inn, Redbourn. Henry Stephens had set up a medical practice here, and there was just time enough for him and Keats to meet and discover how sharply their lives had diverged.¹ One was settled, respectable, beginning to make a living; the other was a bohemian poet on the highway north, confronting the country surgeon he might himself have become. Their encounter highlighted Keats’s decision to commit himself to poetry, and that ambition would set the tone for the tour ahead. In many ways this extraordinary adventure was an...

    • CHAPTER 17 Sleepless Nights
      (pp. 263-280)

      Sunday, 16 August. Wentworth Place. Maria Dilke began a letter to her father-in-law: ‘John Keats’ brother is extremely ill, and the doctor begged that his brother might be sent for.’ Her husband had written to recall him from Scotland, then Brown’s letter from Inverness had arrived. Keats was unwell too, and already en route for London. ‘How Brown will get on alone I know not,’ Maria continued, ‘as he loses a cheerful, good-tempered, clever companion.’¹

      By his own account Keats landed on Monday, 17 August – high water at London Bridge was at 3.30pm. That evening the coach set him...

  12. Conjunctions, 1819

    • CHAPTER 18 ditto, ditto
      (pp. 283-301)

      ‘Brown detained me at his House.’ So Keats reported to America, two weeks after Tom’s death. Their plan to ‘keep house together’ had advantages: although Keats would have to pay £15 rent quarterly plus day-to-day expenses, he would enjoy Brown’s robust company and escape Bentley’s noisy children.¹ A door at the side of Wentworth Place led into a narrow hallway with Brown’s parlour on the right and Keats’s to the left, accessible only when the front door was shut. Both rooms were light, with high ceilings and large windows. Furnishings included modern Regency chairs, a sofa-bed, a sideboard with books...

    • CHAPTER 19 Ever Indolent
      (pp. 302-326)

      Back from Bedhampton, Keats was at Wentworth Place in the dark snowy days of early February. The intensity of composition had left him drained, and there were unmistakable signs that he was now chronically ill. Rainy Stansted had brought back the sore throat that had troubled him intermittently since autumn 1817, and its debilitating long-term effects were now becoming apparent. The exotic foods Porphyro had prepared to entice Madeline – ‘jellies soother than the creamy curd, / And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon’ (266–7) – also told of Keats’s agonising need to soothe his throat. If one looks for...

    • CHAPTER 20 Hope and Chance
      (pp. 327-350)

      As may’s fine weather fled, Keats was ‘unsetled’ too, returning books and making ‘a conflagration of all old Letters and Memorandums’. Among them, most likely, were letters from Isabella Jones. Unwell, she had left London for Tunbridge – and Keats noticed that she had vanished. If he was making ready to move out of Wentworth Place for the summer, his clearance of papers also signalled a deepening involvement with Fanny Brawne – ‘a beautiful Girl whom I love so much’. At some time during June they had come to an ‘understanding’ and were engaged. Fanny recalled that Keats had ‘wished...

  13. Consumption, 1819–1821

    • CHAPTER 21 Repasts
      (pp. 353-364)

      Even as Keats made progress withThe Fall of Hyperionhis ferment of thought was leading him in other, surprising new directions and by Tuesday, 21 September, the autumn equinox, he had set his poem aside. Hitherto his brilliance as a mimic had enabled him to adapt another poet’s manner to make it his own, but now he felt that his blank verse was contaminated by Milton’s Latin inflections inParadise Lost. Thomas Chatterton was a poet Keats had long associated with autumn and, unlike Milton, Chatterton had written ‘genuine English Idiom in English words’.¹ ‘How beautiful the season is...

    • CHAPTER 22 A Now
      (pp. 365-374)

      Staying quiet at Hampstead, Keats missed Taylor’s dinner to celebrate the success of John Clare’sPoems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery. J.H. Reynolds, Dante’s translator Henry Cary and Clare’s amiable patron Lord Radstock attended this feast, but the twenty-six-year-old ‘Peasant Poet’ – ‘a big boy who has never been used to company’ – was particularly disappointed not to meet Keats.¹ On returning to his Northamptonshire home at Helpstone, Clare penned a letter asking Taylor to pass his ‘sincere Respects to Keats’. On the coach he had read and liked Keats’s first volume andEndymion, and could point out ‘many...

    • CHAPTER 23 Regions of Poetry
      (pp. 375-383)

      Happily, escape routes were appearing. Alerted by John Gisborne to Keats’s dangerous state of health, Shelley had immediately written, inviting him to ‘take up . . . residence’ at Pisa. His letter arrived on Saturday, 12 August, shortly before an unpleasant accident came to light at Mortimer Terrace. Two days earlier, a note from Fanny had been delivered and Marianne Hunt had asked a maid to take it up to Keats’s room. It did not immediately reach him, however. When it was eventually handed over on the Saturday, its seal broken, he could not bear to think that her words...

    • CHAPTER 24 Eternal Road
      (pp. 384-396)

      Tuesday, 31 October 1820. With Keats just turned twenty-five, they went ashore. Miss Cotterell’s brother Charles helped settle them at the Albergo della Villa di Londra on the Via Santa Lucia, a wide, fashionable Neapolitan street between the Palazzo Reale and the Castel dell’Ovo at the harbour entrance. With six storeys and a magnificent view over the bay to Vesuvius, the Villa di Londra was a grand eighteenth-century palazzo favoured by foreign visitors.

      Aware that Keats was suffering from the same complaint as his sister, Charles Cotterell chose his accommodation carefully – the street’s proximity to the sea meant that...

    • CHAPTER 25 Terminalia
      (pp. 397-399)

      Casts were made of Keats’s face, hand and foot, and the city authorities were informed of his death. On Sunday, 25 February 1821 Dr Clark with Dr Luby and an Italian surgeon performed an autopsy. Keats’s lungs were entirely destroyed; they could not conceive how he had lived for the last two months. Any signs that his heart and stomach had been affected were not recorded. His body was then placed in a coffin, with gifts and unopened letters tucked into the winding sheet, to await burial on the morning of Monday the 26th. The burial party started from the...

  14. Abbreviations
    (pp. 400-402)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 403-428)
  16. Index
    (pp. 429-446)