John Keats was born in London, the oldest of four children, on October 31, 1795. His father, who was a livery-stable keeper, died when Keats was eight years old, and his mother died six years later. At age 15, he was apprenticed to an apothecary-surgeon. In 1815 he began studying medicine but soon gave up that career in favor of writing poetry. The critic Douglas Bush has said that, if one poet could be recalled to life to complete his career, the almost universal choice would be Keats, who now is regarded as one of the three or four supreme masters of the English language. His early work is badly flawed in both technique and critical judgment, but, from his casually written but brilliant letters, one can trace the development of a genius who, through fierce determination in the face of great odds, fashioned himself into an incomparable artist. In his tragically brief career, cut short at age 25 by tuberculosis, Keats constantly experimented, often with dazzling success, and always with steady progress over previous efforts. The unfinished Hyperion is the only English poem after Paradise Lost that is worthy to be called an epic, and it is breathtakingly superior to his early Endymion (1818), written just a few years before. Isabella is a fine narrative poem, but The Eve of St. Agnes (1819), written soon after, is peerless. In Lamia (1819) Keats revived the couplet form, long thought to be dead, in a gorgeous, romantic story. Above all it was in his development of the ode that Keats's supreme achievement lies. In just a few months, he wrote the odes "On a Grecian Urn" (1819), "To a Nightingale" (1819), "To Melancholy" (1819), and the marvelously serene "To Autumn" (1819). Keats is the only romantic poet whose reputation has steadily grown through all changes in critical fashion. Once patronized as a poet of beautiful images but no intellectual content, Keats is now appreciated for his powerful mind, profound grasp of poetic principles, and ceaseless quest for new forms and techniques. For many readers, old and young, Keats is a heroic figure. John Keats died in Rome on February 23, 1821 and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome. His last request was to be placed under a tombstone bearing no name or date, only the words, "Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water."
Jack Stillinger is Professor of English and a permanent member of the Center for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois.