On this day, poet John Keats, age 24, coughs up blood and realizes he, like his brother Tom, is doomed to die of tuberculosis. Despite the tender care of his fiancÝe, Fanny Brawne, and a journey to Italy in the hopes of improving his condition, he dies in February 1821, only 25 years old. But in that short time, he achieved a remarkable reputation as a leading poet.
Unlike many writers of his day, Keats came from a lower-middle-class background. His father worked at a stable in London and eventually married the owners’ daughter. John was the first of the couple’s five children. At private school, John was high-spirited and boisterous, given to fist fights and roughhousing despite his small stature-even as an adult, he was barely over five feet tall. Keats’ schoolmasters encouraged his interest in reading and later introduced him to poetry and theater.
When John was eight, his father died after falling off a horse, launching a long economic struggle that would keep Keats in poverty throughout his life, despite the large inheritance due him. His mother quickly remarried, and the five Keats children were sent to live with their maternal grandparents. The marriage failed, and their mother soon joined them. However, she died in 1810, and John’s grandparents died by 1814. An unscrupulous guardian kept the Keats children away from their money and apprenticed John to a surgeon in 1811. Keats worked with the surgeon until 1814, then went to work for a hospital in London as a junior apothecary and surgeon in charge of dressing wounds.
In London, Keats pursued his interest in literature while working at the hospital. He became friends with the editor of the Examiner, Leigh Hunt, a successful poet and author who introduced him to other literary figures, including Percy Bysshe Shelley. Although Keats did not write his first poem until age 18, he quickly showed tremendous promise, encouraged by Hunt and his circle. Keats’ work first appeared in the Examiner on this day in 1816, followed by Keats’ first book, Poems (1817). After 1817, Keats devoted himself entirely to poetry, becoming a master of the Romantic sonnet and trying his hand at epic poems like Hyperion.
In 1818, Keats’ brother Tom fell ill with tuberculosis. Another brother’s poor investment left him stranded and penniless in Kentucky. Keats’ economic struggles worsened, and a strenuous walking tour of England’s Lake District damaged his health. The one bright spot in his life was Fanny Brawne, a young woman with whom he fell madly in love. They became engaged, but Keats’ poverty did not allow them to marry. From January to September 1819, Keats produced an outpouring of brilliant work, including poems like “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”