Keats200 - Early Life

2021 marks the bicentenary of the death of Romantic poet John Keats. This online exhibition by Keats House, Hampstead celebrates his life and works for the #Keats200 bicentenary programme.

Early life: ‘a poet born, not manufactured’

‘Keats was not in childhood attached to books. His penchant was for fighting… He was a boy whom any one from his extraordinary vivacity & personal beauty might easily have fancied would become great – but rather in some military capacity than in literature.’      

          Edward Holmes to R.M. Milnes, 9 December 1846.

John Keats was born in Moorgate, right on the edge of the expanding city of London. His father worked at an inn and his mother was the inn keeper’s daughter. John was the eldest child, followed by brothers George, Tom, and Edward (who died young), and finally a sister called Frances.  

While the family weren’t wealthy, they could afford to send their sons to a good school. They chose John Clarke’s School in Enfield, which awarded prizes for good work instead of punishing children. This more liberal education encouraged Keats to change from a boy known for fighting to one who loved literature and poetry.

John Clarke’s school, Enfield.E.G. Hill, pen and ink drawing. 1900s. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation, K/PH/01/033.
John Clarke’s school, Enfield. E.G. Hill, pen and ink drawing. 1900s.
Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation, K/PH/01/033.

When he was eight, his father died in a riding accident while returning from visiting him at school. Within months his mother remarried, leaving her children with their grandparents. She returned five years later suffering from consumption, a common and fatal illness. Keats nursed his mother and began to study hard, believing this could help her. She died soon after leaving them as orphans.

The Keats children were given legal guardians by their grandmother but they were unable to access their inheritance. At the age of 14, Keats left school to train in medicine.

      … you first taught me all the sweets of song: The grand, the sweet, the terse, the free, the fine; What swell’d with pathos, and what right divine: Spenserian vowels that elope with ease, And float along like birds o’er summer seas; Miltonian storms, and more…From ‘To Charles Cowden Clarke’, 1816

Find out more

Each day until 23 February, marking 200 years since Keats's death, we will share a new story related to periods in his life.

Introduction to Keats and Keats200

Early life

Medical Training

Wentworth Place

Fanny Brawne

Poems of 1819

Critical Responses

Keats and Consumption

Death and Legacy

The Keats200 bicentenary is a celebration of Keats’s life, works and legacy, beginning in December 2018 through to February 2021 and beyond. It is led by three major partners – Keats House, Hampstead, The Keats Foundation and the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association – and is open to all individuals and organisations who have an interest in Keats or poetry. The bicentenary of Keats’s most productive years as a poet, and the period when he found inspiration, friendship and love, is an exciting opportunity to (re)discover and enjoy his works as well as engage with poetry and its ongoing relevance to us all today.

Find out more about #Keats200 by following Keats House on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.