Though he became the epitome of the young, beautiful, doomed poet of late English Romanticism, Keats struck everyone who knew him with his tremendous energy, his robust good humour and his zest for living. The son of a stables manager from the East End of London, he was built rather like a flyweight boxer: short, stocky, with disproportionate broad shoulders and a strong, open face with a powerful, bony nose. Sensuous and highly intelligent, a lover of good claret and good company, he said poetry should be ‘felt on the pulses’.
Apprenticed for four years to an apothecary, he applied in 1815 to study surgery at Guy’s Hospital, where he walked the wards and attended medical lectures, while reading widely in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English literature.
In 1816 he had the good fortune to meet Leigh Hunt, who published his sonnet ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ in The Examiner.
Valuable friendships with Hazlitt, B.R. Haydon, Lamb, the young poet John Hamilton Reynolds and Shelley (not altogether easy) quickly followed and helped Keats’s work to develop with astonishing speed and confidence. He published a first volume of Poems in 1817 and his first extended work, Endymion, in 1818.
Though scathingly attacked in Blackwood’s Magazine, as the adolescent member of the ‘Cockney School’, he went on undaunted with his verse-epic Hyperion. During these hectic and exciting years he wrote a series of superb letters on poetry, many to his brothers George and Tom and his sister Fanny, which contain his most influential ideas: imagination as ‘Negative Capability’ (partly drawn from Coleridge), art as ‘disinterested’, style as ‘fine excess’ and life as ‘a vale of Soul-making’.
When Tom died of consumption, Keats moved to his friend Charles Armitage Brown’s house on the edge of Hampstead Heath; their next-door neighbour was the eighteen-year-old Fanny Brawne with whom he fell passionately in love.
In the twelve months from September 1818, Keats produced an outpouring of major poetry which is unmatched in English: ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, ‘Ode on Melancholy’, ‘Ode to Psyche ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, ‘La Belle Dame sanse Merci’ (again partly inspired by Coleridge), ‘Lamia’ and the quintessential poem of Keatsian ripeness, ‘To Autumn. They were all published in July 1820 and Keats’s future seemed assured.