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John Keats
John Keats was born in London, the oldest son of a Cockney stable keeper. His father was killed in a riding accident when the boy was 9; six years later his mother died of tuberculosis. That same year he was taken out of school and apprenticed to a physician. Although he spent some time in London hospitals and qualified to practice as an apothecary, he finally abandoned medicine for literature.

With support from such people as Wordsworth and Lamb, the 21-year-old Keats began his literary career in earnest, full of the exuberance of youth. Suddenly came disappointment and tragedy: one brother left for America, the other died of tuberculosis. The publication of Endymion, his first sustained poetic effort, was met with vicious and unwarranted criticism. His Cockney heritage and medical training were ridiculed. Bad publicity kept his poetry from selling and Keats was soon destitute; in 1818 his suspicion that he had tuberculosis was confirmed. Ill, depressed, Keats fell in love with Fanny Brawne, but knowing he could never marry, and under orders from his physician to give up all work, he left England for the warmer climate of Italy in a last desperate attempt to regain his health. There he died in 1821. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome under the epitaph he himself had composed: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water".

Unlike Wordsworth and Shelley, Keats was not caught up in the zeal for reform that accompanied the French Revolution. Throughout his short creative life he was wary of poetry "that has designs upon us". Instead of using poetry to state ideas, he struggled for an intuitive vision of truth in poetic beauty. Hence the lushness of the imagery in his best poetry, its sustained melodious flow. In the course of his short life, Keats learned to use language with a range and felicity equalled only by the greatest poets.

Contributed by Gifford, Katya
15 March 2002

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