The first published poem by 20-year-old John Keats appears in The Examiner on May 5, in 1816.
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 owner’s daughter. John was the first of the couple’s five children. John was sent to private school, where he was high spirited and boisterous, given to fist fights and roughhousing despite his small stature-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 fell off a horse and died, launching a long economic struggle that would keep Keats in poverty throughout his life, despite a large inheritance that was owed him. His mother quickly remarried, and the five Keats children were sent to live with their maternal grandparents, who owned the stable. The marriage failed, and their mother soon joined them. However, she died in 1810, and John’s grandparents died by 1814. The Keats children were cheated from their money by an unscrupulous guardian who 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.
The year 1818 was a tragic one for Keats. His financial struggles deepened when his brother Tom fell ill with tuberculosis, and another brother’s poor investment left him stranded and penniless in Kentucky. On top of these problems, a strenuous walking tour of England’s Lake District damaged Keats’ 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 such poems as “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” But in early 1820, Keats coughed up blood and realized immediately he had tuberculosis. Although he traveled to Italy hoping the climate might ease his condition, he knew he was fated to die, which he did in February 1821, only 25 years old.