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Keats, John

Although he lived to just 25 years of age, Keats’ reputation as one of the greatest poets in the English language has remained undiminished in the two centuries since his death. He was born in the East End of London in 1795; while his baptismal certificate records the date of his birth as 31st October, literary scholars have been unable to confirm with certainty that Keats was indeed born on this day. Keats and his three brothers became orphans before they left adolescence; Keats’s father, a stable-worker, died after falling off a horse, while his mother succumbed to tuberculosis just six years later. It was tuberculosis that was also to claim the life of Keats’ brother Tom and, eventually, Keats himself.

While his education and training was initially in medicine, Keats was aware from an early age that his true calling was poetry. He began to train as a doctor at Guy’s Hospital in London in 1815 but left his studies just one year later in order to concentrate on his art. While studying, he had published a number of poems that exhibited early promise, including ‘An Imitation of Spenser’, written when he was just 19 years old. Encouraged by his friend Charles Cowden Clarke, who had introduced Keats to Spenser and other canonical English poets, he continued to write until he had enough poems to publish his first collection. However, Poems was a both a critical and commercial failure, drawing the ire of some prominent literary figures, who took issue with Keats’ romanticised view of nature and society. Keats responded to this criticism by finding a more enthusiastic publisher, Taylor and Hessey, who were to help Keats’ poetry find a receptive audience in the years to come.

Tragedy struck the Keats family again in 1818 when Keats’ brother Tom began to suffer from tuberculosis. Keats moved into his brother’s house in Hampstead in an effort to nurse his brother back to health, but in vain: Tom died of the same disease as his mother in December of that year. Around this time Keats also met Fanny Brawne, a young woman from Hampstead who became the great love of Keats’ life. Keats wrote a number of love letters to Fanny during his life, some of which are the most beautiful examples of the form ever written. While Keats and Fanny promised each other that they would marry, they never became formally engaged and their planned marriage was to be prevented by the onset of Keats’ terminal illness.

After the death of his brother, Keats moved to Wentworth House in Hampstead, where he wrote what became known as his ‘1819 Odes’. This period represents Keats’ most fruitful period as an artist and contains some of his best poems, including ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘Ode to Autumn’. By the time that these poems were published in 1820, however, Keats’ health was on the wane. He had been continually troubled by illness throughout his childhood and teenage years, but his contraction of tuberculosis in 1820 resulted in an unprecedented decline in his physical state. On his doctor’s advice, Keats travelled by boat from Gravesend to Rome in the hope that the warmer climate might improve his condition. However, his health continued to decline while in Italy. Knowing that he was nearing death, he decided to sever all contact with Fanny. In 1821, Keats died at the age of 25. He left behind a slender but incredibly influential body of poetry that stands as one of the pinnacles of English Romanticism.
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31st October 1795

Keats was born

Keats was born to Thomas Keats and Francis Jennings in Moorgate, a district of London. While baptism records give his birth date as the 31st October, the exact date of his birth remains unclear.

Keats began school

Keats was sent to a boarding school in Enfield, north London, to begin his education.

Keats’ father died

Thomas Keats, a livery stable worker, died after falling off a horse when Keats was just eight years old.

Keats’ mother died

Francis Jennings died of tuberculosis just six years after her husband. Her death orphaned Keats and his three younger siblings, causing them to move to the house of their grandmother, Alice Jennings.

Wrote his first poem

‘An Imitation of Spenser’ was written when Keats was just 19 years old.

Became a medical student

Keats began his studies as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital in London. However, he was to leave his studies one year later to focus on his poetry.
February 1817

First collection of poems published

Poems was a critical and commercial failure, leading Keats to change publishers. Taylor and Hessey on Fleet Street were enthusiastic about Keats’ artistic potential and paid him an advance to write a second volume of poetry.
June 1818

Keats nursed his brother

After his brother Tom fell ill with tuberculosis, Keats moves into his brother’s home in Hampstead to nurse him through his illness. Tom failed to recover and died in December 1818.
September 1818

Met Fanny Brawne

Keats met Fanny Brawne for the first time while caring for his brother. They developed an intimate relationship over the autumn of 1818 that soon became romantic in nature.
January 1819

Moved to Wentworth House

After his brother’s death, Keats moved to Wentworth House in Hampstead. While living there, he wrote some of his greatest odes including ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’.

Find out more about Keats and the Keats museum at Wentworth Place

June 1819

Became informally engaged to Fanny Brawne

Keats and Fanny Brawne agreed among themselves that they would marry, without an outward proposal by either one. However, their marriage would never take place.
July 1820

Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems published

The final collection of Keats’ poetry to be published within his lifetime was well received by critics and would go on to be considered as one of the greatest poetry collections of all time.
September 1820

Moved to Rome

Suffering from tuberculosis, Keats moved to the warmer Italian climate of Rome on the advice of his doctors. However, the journey from Gravesend took so long that they did not arrive until the winter has set in.
November 1820

Wrote last letter

Keats wrote his last known letter, to his friend Charles Armitage Browne. In it he described his worsening condition and called his life ‘a posthumous existence’.
23rd September 1821

Keats died

Keats died of tuberculosis aged 25. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.