John Keats (1795-1821) – A Poet of the Romantic Age (1800-1850)

Updated June 16, 2022

Legendary John Keats (1795-1821) is one of the most prominent Romantic poets. Keats wrote a wide variety of poetry ranging from Sonnets, Spenserian romance to Miltonic epic. He is often referred to as the ‘Escapist’ or ‘Purest Romantic’ for his style and subject matter. The poet is also acknowledged for perfecting the ‘Ode’ poetry through his five great ode poems.

Odes by John Keats includes ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819), ‘Ode on Grecian Urn’, ‘Ode on Melancholy’, Ode to Psyche’ & ‘To Autumn’ (1820). A well-known English poet and critic Swinburne remarked that ‘The Ode to a Nightingale, is one of the final masterpieces of human work in all time and for all ages’. Apart from his Odes, Keats wrote poems on beauty, love, chivalry and adventure, with colorful images and melodic diction.

Keats lived very short life but published around fifty- four poems while he was alive. His first volume of poetry was published in 1817 as ‘Poems”. In his next volume, Keats published an allegory of over four thousand lines under ‘Endymion’ (1818). John published his third and last volume of poems in 1820 that contains ‘Isabella’ or ‘The Pot of Basil’ (1818), ‘Hyperion’ (1818), ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ (1819) and his odes.

A Short Biography of John Keats

Keats was born in London, the son of the well-to-do keeper of livery stable. He was educated at a private school at Enfield, and at the age of fifteen was apprenticed to a surgeon. In 1814 he transferred his residence to London, and followed part of the regular course of instruction prescribed for medical students.

However, Keats inclination for the poetic space was quite visible. The career of a poet became a bright possibility when he made acquaintances with Leigh Hunt (1816). Leigh Hunt was the famous Radical journalist and poet, whose collisions with the government had caused so much commotion and his own imprisonment. Keats was soon intimate with the radical brotherhood that surrounded Leigh Hunt, and thus he became known to Shelley & others.

In 1817, he published his first volume of verse “Poems”, but it attracted little notice, in spite of great influence of Leigh Hunt. By this time, the family tendency to tuberculosis became painfully manifest in him. Therefore, he spent his time in searching for places, including the Isle of Wight and the suburbs of London, where his affliction might be remedied.

While he was staying in London, he became acquainted with Brawne, and afterward was engaged to her for a time. His ailment however, became the worse. The mental and physical distress on account of his medical condition, added to his despair for his love affairs. These all produced a frantic state of mind painfully which finds mentions in Keats letters to the young lady. These letters were foolishly printed in 1878, long after the poet’s death.

His second volume of verse “Endymion”, published in 1818, was brutally assailed by The Quarterly Review and by Blackwood’s Magazine. These Tory Journals probably struck at him because of his friendship with the radical Leigh Hunt. In 1820, he was compelled to seek warmer skies, and died in Rome, at the age of twenty-five.

Poetry of John Keats

When he was about seventeen years old, Keats became acquainted with the works of Spenser, and thus proved to be the turning-point in his life. The mannerisms of the Elizabeth immediately captivated him, and he resolved to imitate him. His earliest attempt at verse is his Imitation of Spenser (1813), written when he was eighteen.

This and some other short pieces were published together in his Poems (1817), his first volume of verse. This book contains little of any outstanding merit, except for some of its sonnets, which include the superb “on First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”. The poems, which include Sleep and Poetry and I Stood Tip-Toe Up on a Little Hill, show the influence of Spenser and, more immediately, of Leigh Hunt, to whom the volume was dedicated.

Of a different quality was his next volume, called Endymion (1818). Probably based partly on Drayton’s The Man in the Moon and Fletcher’s “The Faithful Shepherdess”, this remarkable poem of Endymion professes to tell the story of the lovely youth who was kissed by the moon-goddess on the summit of Mount Latmos.

Keats develops this simple myth into an intricate and flowery and rather obscure allegory of over four thousands lines. The work is clearly immature, and flawed with any weaknesses both of taste and of construction. But, many of the passages are most beautiful, and the poem shows the tender budding of the Keatsian style- a rich and suggestive beauty obtained by richly ornamented diction.

Keats wrote marvelous amount of poetry both in magnitude and in quality. His third and last volume, published in 1820 just before he left England. This volume follows- Isabella, or The Pot of Basil (1818), is a tale that deals with the murder of lady’s lover by her two wicked brothers. Hyperion (1818), Keats took the epic theme of the primeval struggle between the older race of such as Saturn and Hyperion, and the younger divinities, such as Apollo.

Then, he wrote “The Eve of St Agnes” (1819). It is regarded by others as his finest narrative poem. It is a tale of the elopement of two lovers. The poem is full of beauties of description, imagery, and colour. In the same year was written The Eve of Saint Mark.

Together with the longer poems are many shorter pieces of the supreme beauty. The great odes- “To a Nightingale”, “On a Grecian Urn”, To Psyche”, ”On Melancholy”, “To Autumn”– were nearly written in 1819. Among the other shorter poems La Belle dame Sans Merci, a kind of lyrical ballad, is considered to be one of the choicest in the language.

The sonnets of Keats such as ‘On first looking into Chapman’s Homer’, ‘Bright Star’, and ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’ are counted amongst those of Shakespeare’s.

Features of Keats’s Poetry

Characteristics of John Keats’ Poetry are obvious and emanate from his able imagination and mental faculty. His style became a benchmark for poetry and within short span of his life time Keats successfully made a dent in literary space. Prominent characteristics of Keats’s poetry posses following dimensions:

Love for Greek and Medieval Literature

Keats is also referred to as an ‘Escapist’ for his frequent reminiscences of ancient Greek and Middle Ages. He wants ‘to fade far away, dissolve and quite forget.. the weariness the fever and the fert’ of real life.

John Keats’ poems like ‘Endymion’, ‘Hyperion’ and ‘lamia’ are all classical in theme and romantic in style. Some other poems such as ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, ‘Isabella’ & ‘La Belle dame Sans Merci’ are medieval in origin. “Ode to an Grecian Urn is among the masterpiece poems, which is a naked example of John Keats’ love for Greeks through romantic poetry.

Thus, Keats picked up subjects that took him away from the harshness of present times and became “a poet of legend and myth, of romance and Chivalric tale”.

Choice of Subject

His choice of subject differs from that of most of the other major romantic poets. His love of nature is intense and is constantly to be seen in the imagery of his poems. Despite all this, it involves none of the mystical worship of the “mighty being” which we have seen in Wordsworth.

He has none of the satirical bent of Bent, and little of the prophetic vein of Shelley; rather is he the poet of legend and myth, of romance and chivalric tale. He had no knowledge of Greek and little of Greece, but captured the charm spirit of Greece very skillfully. None of the contemporaries was moved by the spirit of Greece as did Keats.

Love for Beauty and Nature

Keats one remarked that “A thing of beauty is a joy forever’. The poetry of Keats is characterized by vivid, sensual imagery. Nature in Keats’s poems comes as a charming setting in its full beauty and colour. And thus, in each of his poems, one can find the poet’s desire for true beauty and effortless pictorial richness. His philosophy of poetry can be understood in his own words ‘if poetry comes not as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all”.


Regarding imagination, Keats once wrote to Shelley, “My Imagination is a Monastery and I am its Monk”. Like all Romantic poets, Keats regarded imagination as an extremely important asset for writing good poetry. But his imagination was supported with ‘negative capability”.

Keats considered imagination to be a way to be able to discover one’s heart’s perception in order to be ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”. Hence, in Keats’s world of imagination, the remote, the mysterious also finds its place. Keats ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ is a poem that deals with  a world of supernatural mystery.

Style of Composing

Style of John Keats is much distinctively his own. And, it has had a great effect on later English Poets, most notably on Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites. The most striking feature of his work is the speed with which he learned his crafty, and evolved from the imitator of Leigh Hunt, Spenser, Shakespeare, or Milton to the artist with a style of his own. His early verse was rich in melodic beauty and full of colour and the images of the senses (particularly touch).

John Keats as a Romantic Poet

Although, Keats began as an imitator of Leigh Hunt, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton but in a very short span of time, his art of poetry was such that could challenge the best poets of all times.

Keats’s restraint & poise over the form, his delicate sensibilities and purer taste for choices language, set Keats apart from other romantic poets. It, however, also reveals his profound passion for poetry. John Keats is often regarded as the “Escapist” or “Pure Romantic Poet” for his style and subject matter.

Keats wrote many poems on beauty, love, chivalry and adventure, with colourful images and melodic diction. It showcases the inclination of Keats towards nature, imagination, beauty etc. Romantic poetry has many factors, some of them are; (a) Escapism, (b) Quest for beauty, (c) Love of past, (d) Quest for nature (e) Supernatural elements etc.

So, it depends upon the romantic poets which ingredient they chose or prefer. Some poets prefer Nature, some incline to escapism, and others believe in supernatural elements.

It has been recorded that during his own time, John Keats was not considered as a great poet. His contemporaries criticized him for “incongruous ideas” and “Uncouth Language”. But in later years, Keats became known as one of the greatest lyric poets with a rich, powerful, & poetic style.

Middleton Murry calls Keats “a true romantic’ for his effort to reconcile reality and his world of imagination into one beautiful world. The poet’s work establishes him as one of the most iconic romantic poets. Keats’s style had a great effect on English poets who came after him, most notably Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites.

Concluding Words on Life & Works of John Keats

John Keats as records put was a legend of Romanticism. He was imitator of Leigh Hunt, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton in the early years. However, soon he carved a different NICHE for himself. Uniqueness of his works was a challenge for poets of his age.

Earlies poems of Keats show the influence of Spenser’s style and of Leigh Hunt. The ‘richly ornamented diction’ and description of beauty in this allegory showcase the quintessential Keatsian style.

John Keats Lived very short life but managed to write 54 poems during his life time. Despite being trained for medicine his sheer inclination & aptitude for the poetry is inspiration for generations to come.

Beyond Life & Works of John Keats Under Literature

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