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JOHN KEATS was born in Finsbury, London, on either the 29th or the 31st of October, 1795. He died in an apartment overlooking the Piazza di Spagna, Rome, February 23, 1821. Thus his life was a brief span of a few months more than twenty-five years, and as his first acknowledged verses were written in the autumn of 1813, and his last sonnet was composed in the autumn of 1820, his poetical career was seven years long. Within that time he composed the verses included in this volume, yet by far the largest portion may be referred to the three years 1818–1820, and if one distilled the whole, the precious deposit would be but a few hundred lines. For all that, perhaps because of it, and because Keats with his warm human passion wrote what is almost an autobiography in his letters, we are able to get a tolerably clear notion of his early training and associations, and to follow quite closely the development of his. nature after he began to devote himself to poetry.
His father, Thomas Keats, was not a Londoner by birth, but came from the country to the town early, and was head hostler in a livery stable before he was twenty. He married Frances Jennings, the daughter of his master, who thereupon retired from business, leaving it in the hands of his son-in-law. The young couple lived over the stable at first, but when their family increased, they removed to a house in the neighborhood. John Keats was the first born. He had two brothers and a sister who grew to maturity. George Keats was sixteen months his junior ; Thomas was four years younger, and Fanny, who was born in 1803, was a girl of ten when John Keats was making his first serious ventures in poetry.
The little that is known of Keats's parents is yet sufficient to show them persons of generous qualities and lively temperament. They were prosperous in their lives, and meant to better the condition of their children, so they sent the boys to good schools. The father died when John Keats was in his tenth year, and his mother shortly after married a man who appears to have been her husband's successor in business as well as in affections, but the marriage proved an unhappy one; there was a separation, and the stepfather scarcely came into the boy's life to affect him for good or for ill. He was still a school-boy, not yet fifteen, when his mother died, and he grieved for her with the force of a passionate nature that through a short life was to find various modes of expressing its keen sensibility.
As Keats went early to school, the influences which came most forcibly into his boyhood were from his brothers and schoolmates. Tom, the youngest brother, was always frail. George, who was nearer John's age, was like him in spirit and more robust. His recollections of his brothers, written after both Tom and John had died, are frank enough to make the relation undoubtedly truthful:
'I loved him [John] from boyhood, even when he wronged me, for the goodness of his heart and the nobleness of his spirit. Before we left school we quarrelled often, and fought fiercely, and I can safely say and my schoolfellows will bear witness, that John's temper was the cause of all, still we were more attached than brothers ever are. From the time we were boys at school, where we loved, jangled and fought alternately, until we separated in 1818, I in a great measure relieved him by continual sympathy, explanation and inexhaustible spirits and good humor, from many a bitter fit of hypochondriasm. He avoided teasing any one with his miseries but Tom and myself, and often asked our forgiveness; venting and discussing them gave him relief.'
The school which the boys attended was kept by the Rev. John Clarke at Enfield, and a son of Mr. Clarke was Charles Cowden Clarke, the 'ever younghearted' as his happy-natured wife calls him, who was seven or eight years the senior of John Keats, but became his intimate friend and remained such through his life. Clarke's own reminiscence of his friend seems to fill out George Keats's sketch:
'He was a favorite with all. Not the less beloved was he for having a highly pugnacious spirit, which when roused was one of the most picturesque exhibitions off the stage-I ever saw. . . . His passion at times was almost ungovernable; and his brother George, being considerably the taller and stronger, used frequently to hold him down by main force, laughing when John was in one of his moods, and was endeavoring to beat him. It was all, however, a wisp-of-straw conflagration; for he had an intensely tender affection for his brothers, and proved it upon the most trying occasions. He was not merely the favorite of all, like a pet prize-fighter, for his terrier courage; but his highmindedness, his utter unconsciousness of a mean motive, his placability, his generosity, wrought so general a feeling in his behalf that I never heard a word of disapproval from any one, superior or equal, who had known him.'
The reader will look in vain for any signs of a polemic nature in Keats's verse, but it is easy enough to find witness to his moodiness, as in such a sonnet as that beginning:
'Why did I laugh to-night? No voice will tell,'
and of the ungovernable passion there is evidence enough in his later life, though it took then another form. Yet the boyish impulsiveness which had its rude expression in animal spirits turned in youth into a headlong eagerness for books before, during, and after school hours. According to Charles Cowden Clarke he won all the literature prizes of the school, and took upon himself for fun the translation of the entire Æneid into prose. He read voraciously, and the same friend says: In my mind's eye I now see him at supper, sitting back on the form from the table, holding the folio volume of Burnet's History of his Own Time between himself and the table, eating his meal from behind it. This work, and Leigh Hunt's Examiner, which my father took in, and I used to lend to Keats no
doubt laid the foundation of his love of civil and religious liberty.' Still more definite in its relation to his art was the intimate acquaintance he then formed with Tooke's Pantheon and Lemprière's Dictionary.
The death of Keats's mother brought an interruption to his schooling. The grandmother, who was still living, created a trust for the benefit of the Keats children, and committed its care to two guardians, one of whom, Mr. Richard Abbey, was the active trustee, and though the fund seems to have been reasonably sufficient to protect the young people against the ordinary demands for a living, both John and George Keats seem always to have been sorely pinched for means. Mr. Abbey at once removed John Keats from school and had him apprenticed to a surgeon, Mr. Hammond, for a term of five years. Mr. Hammond lived at Edmon
ton, not far from Enfield, and Keats was wont to walk over to the Clarkes' once a week or oftener to see his friends and borrow books.
He was just fifteen when he began thus to equip himself for a place in the world, and for a little more than five years he was in training for the practice of medicine and surgery. His apprenticeship to Mr. Hammond did not last as long as this, for the indentures were cancelled about a year before the term expired, but Keats then went up to London to continue his studies at St. Thomas's and Guy's hospitals. He passed with credit his examination as licentiate at Apothecaries' Hall, July 26, 1815, and received an appointment at Guy's in the March following. It does not appear exactly when he abandoned his profession. It may be said, with some truth, that he never actually abandoned it in intention; he held it in reserve as a possible resort, but it seems doubtful if he ever took up the practice formally outside the walls of the hospital. Once when his friend Charles Cowden Clarke asked him about his attitude toward his profession, he expressed his grave doubt if he should go on with it. The other day,' he said to him, ‘during the lecture, there came a sunbeam into the room, and with it a whole troop of creatures floating in the ray; and I was off with them to Oberon and fairy land.' 'My last operation,' he told another man, was the opening of a man's temporal artery. I did it with the utmost nicety, but reflecting on what passed through my mind at the time, my dexterity seemed a miracle, and I never took up the lancet again.'
It may be assumed that not later than the summer of 1816, when Keats was approaching his majority, he laid aside his instruments, never to resume them. It is not easy to reckon the contribution which these years of study and of brief practice in the medical art made to his intellectual, much less to his poetical development. With his active mind he no doubt appropriated some facts -perhaps we owe to his studies some lines in his verse, as that in 'Isabella,' where in describing the Ceylon diver contributing to the brothers' wealth, he says: —
'For them his ears gush'd blood; '
but it is more probable that, like many another young student, he went through his tasks with sufficient fidelity to secure proper credit, but without any of that devo
tion which is the only real learning by heart.' It is more to the purpose that during the years in which he was forming his mental habits, he was steadied by intellectual exercise while he was obeying instinctively the voice which was calling him more and more loudly.
The actual record of his poetry up to this date of the summer of 1816 is not extensive, but it is indicative of his growing power, of his taste in reading and observation, of his companionship, and most notably of his consciousness of the poetic spirit. Along with a few pieces like the lines To Some Ladies,' which show how little skill he had in making poetry a mere parlor maid, there are poems which show how he was struggling to do what other poets have done, as the lines 'To Hope' and the 'Ode' and 'Hymn to Apollo.' The lines 'To Hope,' with all their formal use of poetic conventions, have an interest from the attempt he makes at using the instrument he most highly valued in expressing his own moods and that youthful fervor which found a suburban Hampden in Leigh Hunt. His friendship with Hunt was in part founded on an admiration for the political hissing which Hunt and his friends kept up, and which was translated by his own independence of spirit into a valiant revolutionary sound, but more on an appreciation of Hunt's good taste in literature, his enjoyment of the Elizabethans and Milton, and his literary temper. Hunt was more of a public figure than Clarke or Reynolds, James Rice, Mathew, or any other of Keats's chosen companions, but the basis of Keats's friendship, apart from his brothers, was a community of literary taste more even than of literary production. It is a pleasure to get such glimpses as we do of this coterie exchanging books, revelling in their discovery of great authors who had been wrapped in the cerecloth of an antique speech, and celebrating their own admiration of these bards that 'gild the lapses of time.' It was not the Examiner that filled Keats's mind, it was Spenser and Milton, Chapman and Chaucer, and when he came away from Hunt's cottage, 'brimful of the friendliness' he there had found, it was of Lycidas and Petrarch and Laura that he sang as he fared on foot in the cool bleak air. In his Epistle to George Felton Mathew,' it is poetry and the brotherhood which springs from poetry that prompt the expression of friendship, and there is no prettier tale in literary friendship than that which shows Keats and Clarke sitting up through the night reading Chapman's Homer, and Keats in the morning sending his friend the well-turned sonnet which has been the key that unlocks Chapman to many readers.
These early verses thus are full of Keats's personal history, for he was living in the land of fancy and was rejoicing in the companionship of lovers of that land; but they are also witnesses to the feeling which he had for nature. It is true the flinging of himself on the grass, after being pent up in the city, is to read some 'debonair and gentle tale of love and languishment,' and a fair summer's eve suggests thoughts of Milton's fate and Sydney's bier; nevertheless, these expressions occur in the constricted sonnet. When Keats allows himself freedom and the rush of spontaneous emotion, as in the lines 'I stood tiptoe upon a little hill,' the reflection of nature in mythology and poetry is merely incidental to the joyous