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John Keats- a Life Written in Water

Updated on October 16, 2020
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Chandrashekhar Raut is a student of literature and a freelancer. Literature is his field of writing.

John Keats - a Life Writ in Water

John Keats had prophesied of his "posthumous existence." During his life he had hardly received any praise or admiration. After his death the "heaven wept" for him and he was lifted up to the level of an "eternal star." As Keats had himself acknowledged that his "life was written in the water" because much of the details about his life are not well recorded. This article is a humble endeavour to trace John Keats as a human being.

John Keats

"Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep

He hath awaken from the dream of life"

- From Adonais by P. B. Shelley

His Birth, Early Childhood and Schooling

John Keats was born in a family with no ancestral eminence. His lineage could not be dug deep down further his maternal grandfather, one Mr. John Jennings, owner of a large livery stable called the Swan and Hoop, in Moorfield, London. Keats's father, Thomas Keats, was of Devonshire parentage. He was the head ostler at the stable. With his sensible and well- conduct, he won the heart of Frances Jennings, his employer's daughter. In October 1794, they married at St. George's Church.

John Keats was born on 31st October 1795, as the eldest son of the Keats couple, at the Moorfield place of business. He was followed by four other children - George born in 1797, Tom in 1799, Edward, who born in 1801 and died in infancy, Frances or Fanny, the daughter, born in 1803. John was admitted at the Rev. John Clarke's school at Enfield. The school atmosphere was particularly conducive for children like Keats with a bend towards literature. Here Keats was a popular lad, a boy - fiery, generous, handsome and passionate; vehement both in tears and laughter, tolerable and lovable. From his letters we got a glimpse of his life at Edmonton. On holidays he roamed the meadows, climbed trees, watched the clouds overhead drifting into fantastic figures, sailed homemade boats on the ponds, and becoming acquainted with "the whole tribe of the bushes and the brooks."

“There was a naughty boy

And a naughty boy was he

In spite of might

Of the maid

Nor afraid

Of his granny good

Get up early

And go

By hook or crook

To bring home

The Miller's -Thumb”

The Tragedy Begins

On the gloomy night of 16th April 1804, Thomas Keats fell down from his horse and died. Keats mother hurriedly remarried to one William Rawlings. The children were sent to their grandparents’ house at Edmonton. The second marriage of Fanny Keats soon came to an end, being frustrated she became alcoholic. Next year, in 1805, Keats lost his grandfather. Thus, the responsibility of the children was on the shoulders of the grandmother, Alice Jennings. The grandmother was generous and provided a happy home for the children. Keats had described here as “granny good.” John's mother died in February 1810. After her daughter's death, Mrs Jennings set up a trust and appointed two guardians, Mr Rowland Sandell and Mr Richard Abbey. But the will turned out faulty so it led to legal dispute. The Keats brothers were deprived of their share.

All breathing human passion far above,

That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,

A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

- Keats on human life

As an Apprentice


In 1811, John was withdrawn from the Clarke’s school and apprenticed to Mr Hammond. Keats learned many skills of surgery. He did not let to the dreary practice of surgery to stifle his newly awakened passion for literature. During his leisure he engaged himself to reading and translating. The tenure of the apprentice was fixed to five years, but Keats left it earlier and registered as a student of the hospital of St. Guys in October 1815. Here, he attended the lectures regularly and went through the routine of his medical studies. He took lecture-notes laboriously. He had the habit of scribbling rhymes and filling margins with flowers on these notes. In July 1816 Keats passed the examination and became licensed to practice as a surgeon and apothecary. He seems to be well aware of his own powers and his own greatness. Poetry was to his mind the zenith of all his aspirations.

An Illustration From Endymion

The Making of the Poet


John Keats was not a born-poet, in fact he was born to be a poet! He was self-made poet. It is clear that his intensely sensitive and responsive mind had assimilated the tragic and joyous experiences during his childhood to be transformed later into vivid poetic imagery. To escape loneliness, he felt at Edmonton, he resorted to books or wandered in woods and listen to the “little noiseless noises”. During his medical studies, he continued reading and writing. He studied classic poetry and read Vergil, Ovid, Terence and Horace. Greek mythology specially attracted him. Along with he pursued reading French historian and philosophers. Voltaire was his favorite. Charles Clarke remarked, “he translated and copied an immense quantity” and “devoured” books rather than read them. He also read great English authors – Bacon, Addison, Swift, Locke, Shakespeare, Milton and Pope. Through Charles Clarke, Keats came in close contact with Leigh Hunt, and greatly influenced by his political thoughts. However, his exposure to Spenser was the turning poet. Soon, he borrowed the Fairy Queene to found himself at the fountain head of delight and was enraptured.

Ode to a Nightingale

Click thumbnail to view full-size

His Poetical Career

Keats first known experiment in poetry was the “Imitation of Spenser”- four Spenserian stanzas without any merits of versification. His first printed poem was “O! solitude, if I with thee must dwell.” It was published by Hunt in his paper, Examiner on 5th may 1816. His sonnet, “Written on the day that Mr. Leigh Hunt left prison” was in commemoration of Hunt’s release from prison on 2 (or 3) February 1815. The first published volume of Keats poems came in1817, titled “Poems by John Keats.”

The volume failed to please the readers. Not deterred by the failure, Keats started his ambitious project, Endymion- sprawling over four thousand lines. The poem was finally published in late April 1818. Critics lashed out at it harshly. The Quarterly Review called it “ignominious performance.” The Blackwood’s Magazine added salt to injury by using insulting language. Leaving critics aside, Endymion is in Shelley’s words, “a poem considerably defective. In the autumn of 1818 Keats began his landmark project- Hyperion. For many reasons he left it unfinished. In the summer 1819 he tried to revise it as The Fall of Hyperion. Hyperion stands aloof in majesty and represents Keats genius. The order of great odes- Ode to Psyche, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode to a Grecian Urn, Ode to Melancholy, and Ode to Autumn- is disputable. Yet, is certain that they are the immortal piece of our literature. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is a beautifully suggestive poem in the ballad form which was written in April 1819.In July 1820, Keats next volume- “Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and other poems” was published. The volume made Keats immortal as a genius poet.

Fanny Brawne

A Pining Lover

In 1818 John joined Tom at their lodging at Hampstead to nurse him. Tom was in an advanced stage of consumption. On 7th December 1818 Tom died. Now, John was alone. He left the lodging and settled at Westworth Place with Brown. Here he fell in love with Fanny Browne, a beautiful girl in her nineteen. She was living to next door. Keats loved her passionately. Fanny accepted his love. Their mutual love subdued her mother’s opposition to their engagement. At last they made their engagement but kept it a secret. However, they postponed their marriage because John was unable to manage money required for it. Keats was frustrated because he had not made any significant mark in poetry to claim the hand of Fanny. He was growing jealous considering the contrast between him and Fanny- her radiant health and his failing energy. His sonnet to Fanny begins:

“I cry your mercy – pity – love”

Their love never reached to its conclusion being too near yet could not be united as the lovers described in his Ode on a Grecian Urn:

“Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,

Though winning near the goal….”

Here lies one whose name was writ in water

Bidding Adieu

John himself was catching symptoms of consumption. On persistent complain of sore throat Brown persuaded Keats to consult a doctor. When consulted with Dr. George Darling, a reputed physician from London, Keats was advised to avoid London winter and go to Italy for a warmer weather. Accordingly, On 17 September 1820, Keats accompanied by Joseph Severn embarked on the Maria Crowther for his last journey…!

In Rome, Keats resided at No. 27 Pizza di Spagna. Dr. Clarke examined him and advised some rest. He spent his days by reading and learning Italian language. On the evil day of 23rd February 1821, Keats clung to Severn’s hand and said:

“Lift me up,” he grasped. “I shall die easy. Don’t be frightened! Thank God it has come!” Death had listened his call:

“for many a time

I have been half in love with easeful Death,

Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,

To take into the air my quiet breath;

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,

To cease upon the midnight with no pain,”

By eleven o’clock John had slipped away into the eternal kingdom! Leaving the unnamed tomb in the Protestant Cemetery, bearing the following line:

“Here lies one whose name was writ in water."

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Chandrasekhar Rajendra Raut

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    • RautCR profile imageAUTHOR

      Chandrasekhar Rajendra Raut 

      3 weeks ago from Nagpur

      Thanks a lot for the encouraging comment.

    • Anupam Mitu profile image

      Anupam Mitu 

      3 weeks ago from MUMBAI

      Thank you so much for sharing so much of details of Keats. It looks like you have really made a good search to present this.

      Good work.

    • profile image

      Janhvi Rahul bhavana Raut 

      5 weeks ago

      I like it

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