Study Guide

John Keats

John Keats Introduction

Pity the short, tragic life of poet John Keats. Abandoned, orphaned and impoverished as a child, he was pulled from school and forced into a medical career he didn't want by an unscrupulous guardian. He found the courage to pursue a literary career at the age of 21, but by then his life was already approaching its end. He suffered from bad reviews, then depression, and then tuberculosis, the last of which proved deadly. He died in 1821 at the age of twenty-five, leaving behind a broken-hearted fiancée, a handful of poems and a legacy as one of the great poets of the Romantic age.

Critics were so hard on Keats during his lifetime that his friends believed that he died from the stress of his negative reviews. (An autopsy of his tuberculosis-ravaged lungs debunked that theory.) Yet Keats' reputation has proved to be more enduring than the names of any of his critics. Today, Keats' lines are part of our collective consciousness. "A thing of beauty is a joy forever," - these lines and more come to us courtesy of John Keats. He never achieved old age, but he arrived at immortality.

John Keats Trivia

Keats was no wimp. He was known for his ability to rule in schoolyard fights. As one student recalled, his classmates expected that he "would become great - but rather in some military capacity than in literature."

One of Keats' duties as a medical student in the era before anesthesia was to physically restrain patients on the operating table during surgeries.

The doctor who autopsied Keats said the poet suffered from the worst case of tuberculosis he had ever seen. He couldn't believe Keats had lived as long as he did.

In keeping with his requests, Keats was buried with Fanny Brawne's unopened letters, a lock of her hair and a purse made by his sister.

For years after Keats' death, his fans (including Byron and Shelley) believed that his fatal lung hemorrhage was caused by the stress of his negative reviews.

Fanny Brawne wore the gold engagement ring John Keats gave her until her death in 1865.

Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in 1822, and when his body washed ashore, it was identified by the copy of Keats' Lamia that he carried in his pocket.

John Keats Resources

Books

John Keats, The Complete Poems of John Keats
With his tragic death at 25, Keats did not have time to3 create a large canon of poetry. Instead of quantity, we are left with poems of tremendous quality. Keats wrote images of unparalleled beauty and lines that are some of the most famous in poetry. "A thing of beauty is a joy forever?" "Beauty is truth, truth beauty?" Keats, baby. All Keats.

John Keats, The Letters of John Keats
Thank goodness there were no telephones or text messaging in Keats' time. Had there been, he would never have written his beautiful letters. A devoted correspondent, Keats wrote hundreds of letters to his siblings, friends, and his fiancée Fanny Brawne. His letters to Fanny are some of the most beautiful love letters in history.

Andrew Motion, Keats (1998)
Biographers have often misunderstood John Keats, portraying him either as an overly sensitive soul whose bad reviews literally killed him, or a precocious child. Andrew Motion instead reviews letters and documents to get at the heart of Keats' personality.

Stanley Plumly, Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography (2008)
Keats' life seems almost the stuff of fiction - his biographies are equally dramatic. The poet Stanley Plumly wrote this unconventional biography of Keats. It is a series of essays which taken together form an intimate portrait of the poet.

Ian Gilmour, The Making of the Poets: Byron and Shelley in Their Time (2003)
Keats' friends Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley were the twin stars of English Romanticism. (Had Keats lived longer, his reputation may have stood alongside theirs.) Though Byron's fame overshadowed Shelley's during their lifetimes, today scholars examine the two poets side by side. Both were major contributors to English poetry.

Music

John Webster and Brindaband, John Keats's Sublime Single
We love Brindaband. This indie group records albums inspired by the Romantic poets, like Percy Shelley: Rock Star and John Keats's Sublime Single. This two-track album sets "To Autumn" and "On the Shore" to music.

John McEwen, Keats Preludes
John McEwen was a Scottish composer who passed away in 1948. He composed three pieces for the piano based on Keats' poetry, a trio known as the "Keats Preludes." Have a listen.

Bright Star: Original Soundtrack
The music for this 2009 Keats biopic is meant to evoke the poet's life. With tracks like "Negative Capability," "Bright Star" and "Ode to a Nightingale," the soundtrack lives up to its billing. We recommend listening while gazing dreamily at a photo of Ben Whishaw (or Abbie Cornish, depending on your preferences).

John Mitchell, Ode on a Grecian Urn
The classical American composer John Mitchell has set the text of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" to music. Try our completely unscientific experiment to prove that listening to this arrangement while reading the poem gives you better grades.

The Keats
Sisters Jolene and Sharlene Keats perform as The Keats, a country/folk duo hailing from Canada. The duo cites John Keats as one of their influences, along with Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson.

Images

John Keats
William Hilton's portrait of the poet, found in the National Portrait Gallery.

Sketch of Keats
An 1816 portrait of the poet by Joseph Severn.

Signature
It's, well, Keats' signature.

Ode to a Nightingale
The first page of Keats' manuscript.

Letter to Sister
An 1818 letter Keats wrote to his sister to prepare her for news of their brother's death.

Death Mask
An impression of Keats made immediately after his death at age 25.

Grave
Keats' Grave at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.

Movies & TV

Bright Star (2009)
This film, directed by Jane Campion, looks at the short, beautiful romance of John Keats and Fanny Brawne, the woman he was engaged to when he died. The very beautiful Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish play the young poet and his fiancée.

The Romantics (2006)
This British TV miniseries looks at the lives of the Romantic writers, a group that includes John Keats along with friends like Percy Bysshe Shelley and other literary luminaries. The Romantics were a big, interconnected group, and it's interesting to see how all these guys who end up in your English textbooks related to each other when they were alive.

Keats (1970)
Ian McKellen stars in this made for television biopic of the young poet. It's just McKellen and the camera - trained as a stage actor, McKellen has the chops to pull off a solo performance of the poet.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (2005)
Who knew John Keats wrote horror movies? This horror flick is adapted from Keats' poem of the same name. Director and screenwriter Hidetoshi Oneda crafts a movie about a young knight entranced by a mysterious young woman who soon proves terrifying.

Byron (2003)
Few lives were as drama-filled as that of Keats' contemporary George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, also known as Lord Byron. This made for television biopic sums up the sexual escapades, literary triumphs and shady dealings of this curious creature.

Websites

John-Keats.com
This site serves as kind of an online Keats fan club. It is chock full of letters, poems and facts about the poet. The nifty thing about this website is that it's actually designed to be viewed over your mobile phone. Now you can read Keats' poetry while tapping at your phone and pretending that you're popular.

Presenting John Keats
The University of North Carolina created this website when their acquisition of Keats' works brought the total number of books in their library to six million. It is a great overview of the poets' life, with a concise biography and insightful analysis on Keats' legacy.

English History
A Keats fan named Marilee has maintained this comprehensive website of all things Keats since 1997. It has lots of cool primary documents, like Keats' letters, poems and manuscript pages.

British Library
The British Library's online encyclopedia has a nice multimedia entry on Keats. It contains a brief biography with links to some of his best-known poems and essays analyzing his literary impact.

The Keats-Shelley House
The boarding house in Rome's Piazza di Spagna where John Keats died is now a museum. Today the house is a museum dedicated to the work of the Romantic poets who stayed there. Its website has biographies of the Romantics, including Keats.

Romantic Circles
This website from the University of Maryland is a great introduction to Romantic literature. Many of the Romantic poets lived together, worked together and hooked up with each other. You can't study one without getting caught up in the others.

Video & Audio

Ode to a Nightingale
An animated version of Keats "reading" his poem.

Ode on a Grecian Urn
A reading of Keats' poem.

Keats' Love Letter
An animated version of Keats reading aloud one of his letters to Fanny Brawne.

To Autumn
A reading of Keats' poem, with pretty pictures.

Tip-Toe Upon a Little Hill
Keats' poem recited near his grave at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.

Bright Star Trailer
The trailer for the film about John Keats and Fanny Brawne.

Primary Sources

Poetical Works
The 1884 edition of Keats' complete works - now online!

Ode to a Nightingale
The text of one of Keats' most famous poems.

Ode on a Grecian Urn
The text of one of another classic Keats poem.

Letters to Fanny Brawne
Keats wrote the Best. Love. Letters. Ever.

Another Batch of Love Letters
We can't resist. Here are some more.

Letters from Charles Brown to Joseph Severn
A series of letters illuminating Keats' circle of artist friends.

Keats Rediscovered Letter
A recently discovered letter from Keats, with hyperlinks.

The Life of John Keats
A biography of the poet by his friend Charles Armitage Brown.