John Keats: Childhood
John Keats was born 31 October 1795 just outside of London. He was the first of five children - four boys and a girl - born to stable keeper Thomas Keats and Frances Jennings Keats. The young family lived fairly comfortably, thanks to Frances' parents, who owned a prosperous livery managed by their son-in-law.
Keats entered school in 1803 at the age of eight. He attended a boys' school in the village of Enfield run by a man named John Clarke. Unlike his later friend and fellow Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was a dreamy, nerdy kid at school, Keats was more of a troublemaker than a brainiac. He was known for his fierce prowess in schoolyard fights. As one student recalled, his classmates expected that he "would become great - but rather in some military capacity than in literature."4
Within a year, however, the Keats' family fortunes changed abruptly. In April 1804 Keats' father Thomas was thrown from his horse, dying of a skull fracture days later. Keats' shattered, grief-stricken mother remarried abruptly just two months later. The marriage did not last. The next year, she took her four surviving children to her mother's house and disappeared, abandoning the family for three and a half years. Ten-year-old John was traumatized. He began suffering from anxiety attacks, the first of many illnesses (some real, some hypochondriac) that would plague him through his short life.
Frances Jennings Keats reappeared at her mother's doorstep in 1809, suffering from rheumatism and tuberculosis. John nursed his mother through her illness, but she died in March 1810. Left with four children to raise on her own, Keats' well-intentioned grandmother signed guardianship of the kids to a man named Richard Abbey. Abbey also became executor of the grandmother's estate when she died in 1814.
Abbey's reasons for taking on guardianship of the Keats children was more self-interested than altruistic. He withheld money from their grandmother's estate, even as the children neared poverty. He had little interest in children, and even less in education. In 1811 he yanked John from his studies at Enfield and apprenticed him to a surgeon, believing that the boy needed to prepare himself for a practical career. Fortunately, a sympathetic administrator at the school named Charles Cowden Clarke had recognized John's potential and arranged to study with him at night.
John Keats received his medical training during a brutal era of medicine. He was sickened by the experience of physically restraining fully-conscious patients during surgeries performed without anesthesia. He had started to write poems in his off-hours, though he kept them mostly to himself.