Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology

Mapping Keats’s Progress
A Critical Chronology

  • 1794: Keats’s parents marry, Oct
  • 1795: Keats born, Finsbury, 31 Oct, Swan and Hoop Livery Stables, 24 Moorfields Pavement Row, London
  • 1797: brother George born, 28 Feb
  • 1799: brother Tom born, 18 Nov
  • 1801: brother Edward born, 28 April (dies Dec 1802)
  • 1802: maternal grandparents retire, Keats’s father takes over their business
  • 1803: sister Fanny born, 3 June; with George, boards at school in Enfield, run by Rev. John Clarke; does well at school, winning some prizes (he leaves Clarke’s academy 1811)
  • 1804: father (age 30) dies in midnight riding accident, 16 April; mother hastily remarries, 27 June; children live with maternal grandparents
  • 1805: maternal grandfather dies, leaving considerable funds; children move to Edmonton with maternal grandmother
  • 1809: mother ill, Keats devoted to her care
  • 1810: mother dies of tuberculosis, March; guardians Abbey and Sandall appointed for the Keats children, July (Sandall passes away 1816)
  • 1811: leaves Clarke’s Enfield school; works on prose translation of Virgil’s The Aeneid; takes up apothecary apprenticeship, Edmonton, with Thomas Hammond
  • 1813-1815: trains as surgeon at Guy’s and St. Thomas’
  • 1814: first evidence of Keats writing poetry, perhaps spurred by reading Spencer with Charles Cowden Clarke (son of Rev. John Clarke); notable poems: Imitation of Spenser and On Peace; poem: Keats writes poem expressing his feeling, As from the darkening gloom a silver dove; poem: To Lord Byron; death of maternal grandmother, December
  • 1815: begins to write more poetry; poem: Written on the Day That Mr. Hunt Left Prison.; February; poem: Ode to Apollo; buys Wordsworth’s 2-volume collection of poems; registers to become student at Guy’s Hospital, October; as medical student, lives St. Thomas’s Street, London, October; begins to write poetry about wanting to write enduring poetry

15 October 1815: Keats Begins Medical Studies; But a Poet he will Be

Guy’s Hospital, London

Click the map to see a larger version.true
Click the map to see a larger version.

At the very beginning of October 1815, Keats is registered at Guy’s Hospital as a medical student for a year-long course of studies. Guy’s at the time is affiliated with St Thomas’s Hospital; between them, they were the leading teaching hospitals in London, and they were particularly known for their expertise in surgery.

Guy’s Hospital
Guy’s Hospital

By the end of October, Keats is selected from a huge range of students as a dresser to surgeons (possibly for the next position available), which would have afforded him a small refund on his tuition. By March 1816, Keats is officially a dresser, assigned to work for a year with a surgeon (in Keats’s case, it was with the rather reckless—and somewhat deaf—William Lucas Junior). This would credential him with Royal College of Surgeons. Previous to this, in 1811, Keats is apprenticed—indentured—for five years to a surgeon, Thomas Hammond, at the fee of 200 guineas. This is cut short by a few years for uncertain reasons, but possibly related to Keats’s unhappiness with his master.

There is also a sense that Keats’s does not really like the idea of performing surgery, with worries about what harm he might accidentally do—surgery at the beginning of the nineteenth century was brutal and bloody, and not for the feint of heart. What remains uncertain, then, is the degree of Keats’s commitment to the medical profession. If surgery concerns puts him off, why might he accept the dressership? If he has not show some sign of dedication, how might he have been selected for the much sought-after dressership? Nothing suggests that, as a medical student, Keats was anything but very good.

Surrounded by other students, and living in the middle of town, Keats no doubt learns much about London’s varied inner life in the varied inner city, though in a poem likely written during the period—the sonnet To Solitude—he imaginatively transports himself from the jumbled heap / Of murky buildings to wax upon the bliss of Nature—a Wordsworthian-inspired sentiment, no doubt, and something of a common Romantic trope. (We generally know the poem as O Solitude.) Noteworthy is that this autumn Keats purchases the two-volume Poems by William Wordsworth, published earlier in the year; it will, however, take a few years for Keats to absorb and, crucially, critically assess the nature and qualities of Wordsworth’s poetry. We have to imagine Keats writing poetry while, at the same time, and with conflicted purposes, studying for his medical exams.

By July 1816, Keats completes his medical exams, qualifying him to practice. In December 1816, he is listed as a certified apothecary. To the horror of the family trustee, Richard Abbey, Keats almost immediately decides to give up medicine for poetry, though Keats, it seems, might have continued some work as a surgical dresser into until early March 1817, but his decision is fixed. A poet he will be. Falling into and embraced by a kind of progressive artistic circle based around poet, critic, and celebrity journalist Leigh Hunt in late 1816 almost certainly plays a role in Keats’s poetic aspirations. Thus the year-long course of studies that begins in October 1815 wanes exactly a year later when he is introduced to Hunt. At various difficult moments in his later life as a poet (translation: having no success as a poet), Keats nevertheless has passing thoughts of returning to the medical profession; and no doubt Keats’s experience with the precarious physicality of medical profession works its way into his views and philosophy, as well as into his poetry.

The statue of Keats at Guy’s Hospital, by Stuart Williamson, unveiled October
        2007
The statue of Keats at Guy’s Hospital, by Stuart Williamson, unveiled October 2007
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O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell

  • O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
  • Let it not be among the jumbled heap
  • Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,—
  • Nature’s observatory—whence the dell,
  • Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
  • May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
  • ’Mongst boughs pavillion’d, where the deer’s swift leap
  • Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.
  • But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
  • Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
  • Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d,
  • Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
  • Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
  • When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.
🗙

Imitation of Spenser

  • Now Morning from her orient chamber came,
  • And her first footsteps touch’d a verdant hill;
  • Crowning its lawny crest with amber flame,
  • Silv’ring the untainted gushes of its rill;
  • Which, pure from mossy beds, did down distill,
  • And after parting beds of simple flowers,
  • By many streams a little lake did fill,
  • Which round its marge reflected woven bowers,
  • And, in its middle space, a sky that never lowers.
  • There the king-fisher saw his plumage bright
  • Vieing with fish of brilliant dye below;
  • Whose silken fins, and golden scales light
  • Cast upward, through the waves, a ruby glow:
  • There saw the swan his neck of arched snow,
  • And oar’d himself along with majesty;
  • Sparkled his jetty eyes; his feet did show
  • Beneath the waves like Afric’s ebony,
  • And on his back a fay reclined voluptuously.
  • Ah! could I tell the wonders of an isle
  • That in that fairest lake had placed been,
  • I could e’en Dido of her grief beguile;
  • Or rob from aged Lear his bitter teen:
  • For sure so fair a place was never seen,
  • Of all that ever charm’d romantic eye:
  • It seem’d an emerald in the silver sheen
  • Of the bright waters; or as when on high,
  • Through clouds of fleecy white, laughs the coerulean sky.
  • And all around it dipp’d luxuriously
  • Slopings of verdure through the glassy tide,
  • Which, as it were in gentle amity,
  • Rippled delighted up the flowery side;
  • As if to glean the ruddy tears, it tried,
  • Which fell profusely from the rose-tree stem!
  • Haply it was the workings of its pride,
  • In strife to throw upon the shore a gem
  • Outvieing all the buds in Flora’s diadem.
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On Peace

  • O Peace! and dost thou with thy presence bless
  • The dwellings of this war-surrounded isle;
  • Soothing with placid brow our late distress,
  • Making the triple kingdom brightly smile?
  • Joyful I hail thy presence; and I hail
  • The sweet companions that await on thee;
  • Complete my joy — let not my first wish fail,
  • Let the sweet mountain nymph thy favourite be,
  • With England’s happiness proclaim Europa’s liberty.
  • O Europe! let not sceptred tyrants see
  • That thou must shelter in thy former state;
  • Keep thy chains burst, and boldly say thou art free;
  • Give thy kings law — leave not uncurbed the great;
  • So with the horrors past thou’lt win thy happier fate!
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As from the darkening gloom a silver dove

  • As from the darkening gloom a silver dove
  • Upsoars, and darts into the eastern light,
  • On pinions that nought moves but pure delight;
  • So fled thy soul into the realms above,
  • Regions of peace and everlasting love;
  • Where happy spirits, crown’d with circlets bright
  • Of starry beam, and gloriously bedight,
  • Taste the high joy none but the blest can prove.
  • There thou or joinest the immortal quire
  • In melodies that even heaven fair
  • Fill with superior bliss, or, at desire
  • Of the omnipotent Father, cleavest the air,
  • On holy message sent. — What pleasures higher?
  • Wherefore does any grief our joy impair?
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To Lord Byron

  • Byron, how sweetly sad thy melody!
  • Attuning still the soul to tenderness,
  • As if soft Pity, with unusual stress
  • Had touch’d her plaintive lute; and thou, being by,
  • Hadst caught the tones, nor suffer’d them to die.
  • O’ershading sorrow doth not make thee less
  • Delightful: thou thy griefs dost dress
  • With a bright halo, shining beamily;
  • As when a cloud the golden moon doth veil,
  • Its sides are ting’d with a resplendent glow,
  • Through the dark robe oft amber rays prevail,
  • And like fair veins in sable marble flow.
  • Still warble, dying swan, —still tell the tale,
  • The enchanting tale —the tale of pleasing woe.
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Written on the Day That Mr. Leigh Hunt Left Prison

  • What though, for showing truth to flatter’d state,
  • Kind Hunt was shut in prison, yet has he,
  • In his immortal spirit, been as free
  • As the sky-searching lark, and as elate.
  • Minion of grandeur! think you he did wait?
  • Think you he nought but prison walls did see,
  • Till, so unwilling, thou unturn’dst the key?
  • Ah, no! far happier, nobler was his fate!
  • In Spenser’s halls he strayed, and bowers fair,
  • Culling enchanted flowers; and he flew
  • With daring Milton through the fields of air:
  • To regions of his own his genius true
  • Took happy flights. Who shall his fame impair
  • When thou art dead, and all thy wretched crew?
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Ode to Apollo

  • 1
  • In thy western halls of gold
  • When thou sittest in thy state,
  • Bards, that erst sublimely told
  • Heroic deeds, and sang of fate,
  • With fervour seize their adamantine lyres,
  • Whose chords are solid rays, and twinkle radiant fires.
  • 2
  • There Homer with his nervous arms
  • Strikes the twanging harp of war,
  • And even the western splendour warms,
  • While the trumpets sound afar;
  • But, what creates the most intense surprise,
  • His soul looks out through renovated eyes.
  • 3
  • Then, through thy temple wide, melodious swells
  • The sweet majestic tone of Maro’s lyre;
  • The soul delighted on each accent dwells, —
  • Enraptured dwells, — not daring to respire,
  • The while he tells of grief around a funeral pyre.
  • 4
  • ’Tis awful silence then again:
  • Expectant stand the spheres;
  • Breathless the laurell’d peers,
  • Nor move, till ends the lofty strain,
  • Nor move till Milton’s tuneful thunders cease,
  • And leave once more the ravish’d heavens in peace.
  • 5
  • Thou biddest Shakspeare wave his hand,
  • And quickly forward spring
  • The Passions — a terrific band —
  • And each vibrates the string
  • That with its tyrant temper best accords,
  • While from their master’s lips pour forth the inspiring words.
  • 6
  • A silver trumpet Spenser blows,
  • And, as its martial notes to silence flee,
  • From a virgin chorus flows
  • A hymn in praise of spotless chastity.
  • ’Tis still! wild warblings from the Aeolian lyre
  • Enchantment softly breathe, and tremblingly expire.
  • 7
  • Next thy Tasso’s ardent numbers
  • Float along the pleased air,
  • Calling youth from idle slumbers,
  • Rousing them from pleasure’s lair: —
  • Then o’er the strings his fingers gently move,
  • And melt the soul to pity and to love.
  • 8
  • But when thou joinest with the Nine,
  • And all the powers of song combine,
  • We listen here on earth:
  • The dying tones that fill the air,
  • And charm the ear of evening fair,
  • From thee, great God of Bards, receive their heavenly birth.