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Birth and Parentage. -- School Life at Enfield.—Life as Surgeon's
Apprentice at Edmonton. “Awakening to Poetry.—Life as Hospital Student in London (1795–1817].
SCIENCE may one day ascertain the laws of distribution and descent which govern the births of genius, but in the meantime a birth like that of Keats presents to the ordinary mind a striking instance of nature's inscrutability. If we consider the other chief poets of the time, we can commonly recognize either some strain of power in their blood or some strong inspiring influence in the scenery and traditions of their home. Thus we see Scott prepared alike by his origin, associations, and circumstances to be the “minstrel of his clan” and poet of the romance of the border wilds; while the spirit of the Cumbrian hills, and the temper of the generations bred among them, speak naturally through the lips of Wordsworth. Byron seems inspired in literature by demons of the same froward brood that had urged others of his lineage through lives of adventure or of crime. But Keats, with instincts and faculties more purely poetical than any of these, was paradoxically born in a dull and middling walk of English city life; and “if by traduction came his mind”—to quote
A second son,
Dryden with a difference—it was through channels too obscure for us to trace. His father, Thomas Keats, was a west-country lad who came young to London, and while still under twenty held the place of head ostler in a liverystable kept by a Mr. John Jennings in Finsbury. Presently he married his employer's daughter, Frances Jennings; and Mr. Jennings, who was a man of substance, retiring about the same time to live in the country, at Ponder's End, left the management of the business in the hands of his son-in-law. The young couple lived at the stable, at the sign of the Swan-and-Hoop, Finsbury Pavement, facing the then open space of Lower Moorfields. Here their eldest child, the poet John Keats, was born prematurely on either the 29th or 31st of October, 1795. named George, followed on February 28, 1797; a third, Tom, on November 18, 1799; a fourth, Edward, who died in infancy, on April 28, 1801; and on the 3d of June, 1803, a daughter, Frances Mary. In the meantime the family had moved from the stable to a house in Craven Street, City Road, half a mile farther north.'
In the gifts and temperament of Keats we shall find much that seems characteristic of the Celtic rather than the English nature. Whether he really had any of that blood in his veins we cannot tell. His father was a native either of Devon or of Cornwall," and his mother's name, Jennings, is common in, but not peculiar to, Wales. There our evidence ends, and all that we know further of his parents is that they were certainly not quite ordinary people. Thomas Keats was noticed in bis life-time as a man of intelligence and conduct“of so remarkably fine a common sense and native respectability,” writes Cowden Clarke, in whose father's school the poet and bis brothers were
1 See Appendix, p. 219.
brought up," that I perfectly remember the warm terms in which his demeanour used to be canvassed by my parents after he had been to visit his boys.” It is added that he resembled his illustrious son in person and feature, being of small stature and lively energetic countenance, with brown hair and hazel eyes. Of his wife, the poet's mother, we learn more vaguely that she was “tall, of good figure, with large oval face, and sensible deportment;" and again, that she was a lively, clever, impulsive woman, passionately fond of amusement, and supposed to have hastened the birth of her eldest child by some imprudence. Her second son, George, wrote in after life of her and of her family as follows: "My grandfather [Mr. Jennings] was very well off, as his will shows, and but that he was extremely generous and gullible would have been affluent. I have heard my grandmother speak with enthusiasm of bis excellencies, and Mr. Abbey used to say that he never saw a woman of the talents and sense of my grandmother, except my mother." And elsewhere : “My mother I distinctly remember, she resembled John very much in the face, was extremely fond of him, and humoured him in every whim, of which he had not a few, she was a most excellent and affectionate parent, and as I thought a woman of uncommon talents."
The mother's passion for her firstborn son was devotedly returned by him. Once as a young child, when she was ordered to be left quiet during an illness, he is said to have insisted on keeping watch at her door with an old sword, and allowing no one to go in. Haydon, an artist who loved to lay his colours thick, gives this anecdote of the sword a different turn: “He was, when an infant, a most violent and ungovernable child. At five years of age or thereabouts, he once got hold of a naked sword, and shut