With less than six months to live, 24-year-old John Keats sets off for Italy on this day in 1820, hoping the climate will improve his tuberculosis.
Keats had produced an outpouring of brilliant poetry in 1819, including classics like “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” His productivity and talent are still astonishing today considering that he came from a lower-class family, lacked the educational and financial advantages of other writers of his age, and did not try his hand at poetry until he turned 18.
Keats’ parents ran a London stable, earning enough to send John, the eldest of five children, to private school. Keats was boisterous and high-spirited, but his schoolmasters discovered a keen interest in reading and introduced him to poetry and theater. When John was eight, his father died, launching a long economic struggle that would keep Keats in poverty throughout his life, despite a large inheritance that was owed him. Eventually, Keats’ unscrupulous guardian, who kept the money from him, apprenticed Keats to a surgeon. Keats worked with the surgeon from 1811 until 1814, then went to work for a hospital in London as a junior apothecary and surgeon in charge of dressing wounds.
In London, Keats pursued his interest in literature while working at the hospital. He became friends with the editor of the Examiner, Leigh Hunt, a successful poet and author who introduced him to other literary figures, including Percy Bysshe Shelley. Although Keats did not write his first poem until age 18, he quickly showed tremendous promise, encouraged by Hunt and his circle. Keats’ work first appeared in the Examiner in 1816, followed by his first book, Poems (1817). After 1817, Keats devoted himself entirely to poetry, becoming a master of the Romantic sonnet and trying his hand at epic poems like Hyperion.
In 1818, Keats’ financial struggles deepened when his brother Tom fell ill with tuberculosis and another brother’s poor investments left him penniless. Meanwhile, a strenuous walking tour of England’s Lake District damaged Keats’ health. The one bright spot in his life was Fanny Brawne, his fiancee. Sadly, Keats’ poverty did not allow them to marry. He developed tuberculosis in 1820, traveled to Italy hoping to improve his condition, and died there in February 1821.