John Keats

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Keats, John

Keats, John, 1795–1821, English poet, b. London. He is considered one of the greatest of English poets.

The son of a livery stable keeper, Keats attended school at Enfield, where he became the friend of Charles Cowden Clarke, the headmaster's son, who encouraged his early learning. Apprenticed to a surgeon (1811), Keats came to know Leigh Hunt and his literary circle, and in 1816 he gave up surgery to write poetry. His first volume of poems appeared in 1817. It included “I stood tip-toe upon a little hill,” “Sleep and Poetry,” and the famous sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman's Homer.”

Endymion, a long poem, was published in 1818. Although faulty in structure, it is nevertheless full of rich imagery and color. Keats returned from a walking tour in the Highlands to find himself attacked in Blackwood's Magazine—an article berated him for belonging to Leigh Hunt's “Cockney school” of poetry—and in the Quarterly Review. The critical assaults of 1818 mark a turning point in Keats's life; he was forced to examine his work more carefully, and as a result the influence of Hunt was diminished. However, these attacks did not contribute to Keats's decline in health and his early death, as Shelley maintained in his elegy “Adonais.”

Keats's passionate love for Fanny Brawne seems to have begun in 1818. Fanny's letters to Keats's sister show that her critics' contention that she was a cruel flirt was not true. Only Keats's failing health prevented their marriage. He had contracted tuberculosis, probably from nursing his brother Tom, who died in 1818. With his friend, the artist Joseph Severn, Keats sailed for Italy shortly after the publication of Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820), which contains most of his important work and is probably the greatest single volume of poetry published in England in the 19th cent. He died in Rome in Feb., 1821, at the age of 25.

In spite of his tragically brief career, Keats is one of the most important English poets. He is also among the most personally appealing. Noble, generous, and sympathetic, he was capable not only of passionate love but also of warm, steadfast friendship. Keats is ranked, with Shelley and Byron, as one of the three great Romantic poets. Such poems as “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “To Autumn,” and “Ode on Melancholy” are unequaled for dignity, melody, and richness of sensuous imagery. All of his poetry is filled with a mysterious and elevating sense of beauty and joy.

Keats's posthumously published pieces include “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” in its way as great an evocation of romantic medievalism as his “The Eve of St. Agnes.” Among his sonnets, familiar ones are “When I have fears that I may cease to be” and “Bright star! would I were as steadfast as thou art.” “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern,” “Fancy,” and “Bards of Passion and of Mirth” are delightful short poems.

Some of Keats's finest work is in the unfinished epic “Hyperion.” In recent years critical attention has focused on Keats's philosophy, which involves not abstract thought but rather absolute receptivity to experience. This attitude is indicated in his celebrated term “negative capability”—“to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thought.”


Keats's letters (ed. by H. E. Rollins, 1958) vividly reveal his character, opinions, and feelings. See his poetical works, ed. and annotated by M. Allott (1970) and ed. by J. Stillinger (1978); his autobiography, ed. by E. V. Weller (1933); biographies by A. Ward (1963), W. J. Bate (1963, repr. 1979), R. Gittings (1968), A. Motion (1998), and N. Roe (2012); account of his last days by J. E. Walsh (2000); D. Gigante, The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George (2011); studies by W. J. Bate (1945), M. Dickstein (1971), D. van Ghent (1983), S. Plumly (2008), and D. Beachy-Quick (2013).

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Keats, John (1795–1821)

(pop culture)

John Keats, British romantic poet, was born in London, the son of Frances Jennings and Thomas Keats. His father, a livery-stable keeper, was killed in 1804 after a fall from a horse. His mother remarried, but it proved an unhappy union and she soon separated. She died in 1810 from tuberculosis. It was as his mother’s condition worsened that Keats, never the scholarly type, began to read widely. He especially liked the Greek myths. After his mother’s death he was apprenticed to a surgeon and in 1814 moved to London to study at the joint school of St. Thomas and Guy’s Hospitals. He passed his examination in 1816 and began a career as a surgeon.

During his years in school in London, poetry came to dominate his leisure time. He was still in his teens when he wrote his first poems, and in 1815 he produced “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” still hailed as one of the finest sonnets in the English language. About this time he met Leigh Hunt, also a poet, who introduced Keats into various literary circles. Keats’s volume of verse was published in 1817. While the book did not do well, he decided to halt his surgical career to seek a quiet existence pursuing his poetry. Through the rest of the year he produced “Endymion,” “Ode to Psyche,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and one of his most enduring efforts “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Through 1819 he worked on “Otho the Great,” “Hyperion,” “The Eve of Saint Agnes,” and “Lamia”.

With “Lamia” he picked up the vampire theme then becoming popular in Western literature. Interestingly enough, he began working on the poem soon after the publication of John Polidori‘s “The Vampyre” (the first piece of vampire fiction in English), in the New Monthly Magazine. At this time, Keats was under some financial strain, and his love affair with Fanny Brawne was having its ups and downs. He also had developed a full-blown case of tuberculosis, a wasting disease that occasioned the periodic spitting up of blood.

Keats’s “Lamia” derived from the ancient account of the lamiai, the Greek vampirelike demons described by Philostratus in his Life of Apollonius. The story told of a lamia attempting to seduce a young man of Corinth. As he was about to marry the lamia, who would have turned on him and killed him, the wise Apollonius intervened. He unmasked her for what she was, and as he pointed out the illusionary environment she had created, its beauty faded away. She, of course, then departed. As Keats did not read Greek, and no English translation of the Life of Apollonius had been published, he had to rely upon Richard Francis Burton‘s version of the story in his Anatomy of Melancholy.

Crucial to Burton’s retelling was his deletion of a crucial sentence in Philostratus’s text, “… she admitted she was a vampire and was fattening up Menippus (Lucius) with pleasure before devouring his body, for it was her habit to feed upon young and beautiful bodies because their blood was pure and strong.” Burton presented a somewhat sanitized lamia, but Keats metaphorically pulled her fangs even farther. To best understand “The Lamia,” one must view the story, as James B. Twitchell and other critics have done, as Keats’s having adopted the vampire theme as a metaphor of human relations seen as the interchange of life-giving energies. In the process, Philostratus’s story is changed considerably. According to Keats, in her thirst for love, the lamia dropped her traditional serpentlike form and moved into Lucius’s human world. Lucius responded by becoming vampiric and attempting to gain some of the lamia‘s former powers. Thus, Keats pictured the lamia using powers of psychic vampirism, drawing on Lucius’s love as her metaphorical life-blood. In return, Lucius also became a vampire, willing to drain all from the lamia to gain new powers. Keats noted that Lucius had “drunk her beauty up.” At this juncture Apollonius appeared. He recognized the lamia and, over Lucius’s protests, drove her away. Without her, Lucius soon died.

Some critics of Keats’s poetry have suggested that an even more unambiguous vampire existed in his poetry. In “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” also composed in 1819, a knight met a lady with whom he became entranced. She fed him exotic foods and told him she loved him. He visited her underground home, where her mood changed to one of sadness. As the knight slept, he saw pale warriors and was told that he was soon to join them. After his awakening, while “palely loitering,” he encountered the narrator of the poem. There the poem ended.

As early as 1948, critic Edwin R. Clapp suggested that the unnamed female, the title character in “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” was best understood as a vampire. Clapp, for example, noted the likeness of the victim of Polidori’s vampire (“There was no color upon her cheek, not even upon her lip.”), with images developed by Keats (“pale were the lips I saw/Pale were the lips I kiss’d …”). Critic James B. Twitchell, picking up on Clapp, suggested that Keats had joined Samuel Taylor Coleridge in expanding upon the lamia myth and liberating it from the past. The lamia became a very real character and the encounter of the male with the female who had no pity, a somewhat universal experience. More detailed analysis of the poem easily led to Freudian interpretations such as the one suggested by Ernest Jones, which tied the vampire-lamia myth to the initiation of adolescent males into the mysteries of sexuality.

Twitchell suggested that the lamia theme subtly reappeared in much of Keats’s poetry, though “The Lamia” and “La Belle Dame sans Merci” were its best examples. Keats, of course, went on to write many more poems, but in 1820, his health took a decided downward turn. He died February 23, 1821, in Rome.


Capp, Edwin R. “La Belle Dame as Vampire.” Philological Quarterly 27, 4 (October 1948): 89–92.
Jones, Ernest. On the Nightmare. 1931. Rept. New York: Liveright, 1971. 374 pp.
Keats, John. The Complete Poetry of John Keats. George R. Elliott, ed. New York: Macmillan Company, 1927. 457 pp.
Twitchell, James B. The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1981. 219 pp.
The Vampire Book, Second Edition © 2011 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Keats, John


Born Oct. 31, 1795, in London; died Feb. 23, 1821, in Rome. English romantic poet.

After the publication of his first collections (in 1817 and later), Keats became the object of savage attacks by conservative critics: his life-affirming poetry sounded a challenge to the bigotry and hypocrisy of bourgeois society. Keats expressed his rejection of the triviality of the bourgeois world by turning to antiquity with its ideal of beauty and harmony (the narrative poem Endymion, 1818). He was caught up in the social enthusiasm of 1818–19; he became a close friend of P. B. Shelley and developed an interest in folklore (he wrote the poem “Robin Hood” in the tradition of R. Burns). In the narrative poem Hyperion (1819, published in 1820) Keats depicted the struggle of the Titans with the Olympian gods in the spirit of J. Milton, alluding allegorically to the revolutionary movement in Europe. The clash of pure feeling with falsehood and egoism is the subject of the short narrative poems “Lamia,” “Isabella,” and “The Eve of St. Agnes.” An outstanding romantic, Keats enriched poetic diction with expressiveness and revived the sonnet form in English literature. The bourgeois critics distort the meaning of Keats’ art by trying to represent him as an extoller of “pure” beauty and a precursor of decadence and a estheticism.


The Poetical Works, 2nd ed. Oxford, 1958.
The Letters of John Keats, 1814–1821, vols. 1–2. Cambridge, 1958.
In Russian translation:
In Khrestomatiia po zarubezhnoi literature XIX v., part 1. Moscow, 1955.
In Marshak, S. Werks, vol. 3. Moscow, 1959.


Elistratova, A. Nasledie angliiskogo romantizma i sovremennost’, Moscow, 1960. Pages 431–93.
D’iakonova, N. “Esteticheskie vzgliady Kitsa.” Voprosy literatury, 1963, no. 8.
Critics on Keats. Edited by J. O’Neill. London [1967].
Twentieth Century Interpretations of Keats’s Odes: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. [1968].
Jones, J. John Keats’s Dream of Truth. London, 1969.
Keats: The Critical Heritage. Edited by G. M. Matthews. London [1971].
MacGillivray, J. R. Keats: A Bibliography. Toronto, 1949.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Keats, John

(1795–1821) English poet died of consumption at 25. [Br. Lit.: Harvey, 443]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Pronominal drift finds a haven in a Lethe of sexual suicides: Having thoroughly deconstructed the authority of that consoling fiction of pure intellectual and group identity, the academic "we," the "Ode on Melancholy" cannot finally pretend that the imaginary distance between its persona and some other "you" or "her" or "him" protects its speaking subject from the annihilation it describes.
What need not end up as such is O'Rourke's unflagging support of a masculine subject-position that allows him to reinscribe the "universal subject" in the "alienated" yet all-assimilating "detachment of the melancholic" (121): "Ode on Melancholy" is able to imagine suicide without hysteria, self-loathing, or any of the usual symptoms of an internally directed sadism, and is also able to describe, with comparable equanimity, a personal destruction brought about by impersonal, inexorable forces [i.e., the Freudian death drive] (114)
I will attempt to undo the hold that the limbo-libido of allegorical life exerts on Keats Criticism by turning to Anselm Haverkamp's "Mourning Becomes Melancholia--A Muse Deconstructed: Keats's Ode on Melancholy." I take this turn for two reasons--One, the article is a theoretically charged engagement with phenomenology, deconstruction, and poststructuralism, problems to which I will return in my conclusion; and two, Haverkamp re-encounters allegory in a manner that enables a rethinking of Keats's conception of allegory as one almost "diametrically opposed" to the mortifying poison of conventional allegoresis that Keats Criticism continues to experience as cure.
The "mortality" O'Rourke evades by palpably simulating suicide-as-sex marks Keats's "Ode on Melancholy" via Burton's "'Anatomy of Melancholy": This character or imprint of mortality takes the place of the former character crucis, which was the imprint of baptism, and leaves the promise of an afterlife to the anatomy of dead letters.
He therefore "hides" himself, Spenser-wise, in an allegorical "shroud" ("Ode on Melancholy" 14).
Wolfson, the editor of a recent Cambridge Companion to Keats (2001), is highly sympathetic to a formalist Keatsian aesthetic, yet she cannot approach the "Ode on Melancholy" with the requisite seriousness.
Bloom's "grisly" and "grim" diction highlights, on the other hand, what critics find so troubling in the "Ode on Melancholy"--namely, that it is possible to discover wakeful anguishes in the "Ode," yet they come to us with the alienated majesty of allegory's Death-World.
(20.) "Ode on Melancholy" is the most overlooked Greater Ode.
(54.) Anselm Haverkamp, "Mourning Becomes Melancholia--A Muse Deconstructed: Keats's Ode on Melancholy," New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation 21.3 (Spring 1990): 693-706 (700; abbreviated as Haverkamp hereafter).