‘I felt rather lonely this morning so I went and unbox’d a Shakespeare – “There’s my Comfort..." '
- John Keats misquoting Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' in a letter to his brothers George and Tom, 15 April 1817.
Keats was inspired by Shakespeare throughout his life.
He probably first encountered Shakespeare’s works at John Clarke’s Academy in Enfield, which he attended from 1803 to 1810. It was while he was studying there that he developed his love of reading poetry, which he shared with his brothers, sister and friends.
Keats’s first collection, ‘Poems’ was published by C. & J. Ollier in March 1817. The title page was illustrated with an engraving of his hero, Shakespeare, demonstrating his influence on the young author.
Just a month later, Keats travelled to the Isle of Wight to work on his new poem ‘Endymion’. He discovered a portrait of Shakespeare in his lodgings and moved the picture into his room, to hang over his books. When he left, his landlady gave him the print to keep.
In October 1817, Keats and his friend Benjamin Bailey made a literary pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. They both signed the visitor book and Keats listed his place of abode as ‘everywhere’.
In April 1817, the Keats brothers moved to Hampstead, living in lodgings in Well Walk. The youngest brother, Tom, was suffering from consumption (now known as tuberculosis) and was nursed by his older brothers, John and George. As John read Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ in October 1818, he underlined the words ‘poore Tom’.
Following the death of Tom on 1 December 1818, Keats moved into Wentworth Place, now Keats House, Hampstead. He rented two small rooms from his friend Charles Brown - a bedroom and a parlour in which to write. He hung the portrait of Shakespeare, his ‘Presider’, in his study and imagined the Bard watching over him as he made difficult decisions about life, love and poetry.
The influence of Shakespeare can be seen in Keats’s odes of 1819. Drawing on his close reading of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, Keats developed his themes of love, beauty, mortality and nature, which are common to the work of both poets.
For Keats, the loss of his father in an accident, followed by the death of his mother and young brother to illness, as well as his love for Fanny Brawne, lent an intensity to his reading of Shakespeare’s works. This emerged in his own writing about the transience of spring, human beauty and life.
Keats’s 1819 poem ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, explores the way a love scene on a Greek vase freezes a transient moment in time:
‘Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu...’
Shakespeare explores the same feeling in Sonnet 18:
‘Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date...’
During his journey to Italy in autumn 1820, Keats took his volume of Shakespeare’s poems with him. It had been given to Keats by John Hamilton Reynolds. In it he copied out his own poem, ‘Bright Star’, which is famously associated with Fanny Brawne. Keats positioned it opposite Shakespeare’s ‘A Lover’s Complaint’, a poem about an abandoned young woman.
After Keats’s death in Rome in February 1821, the book passed to his friend Joseph Severn, who had travelled and stayed with Keats until the end. It was a book which they had both enjoyed reading together and is now part of the Keats House collections.
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.