Of all the great poets of the early nineteenth century—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Byron, Shelley, Keats—John Keats was the last born and the first to die. The length of his life was not one-third that of Wordsworth, who was born twenty-five years before him and outlived him by twenty-nine. Yet before his tragic death at twenty-six Keats had produced a body of poetry of such extraordinary power and promise that the world has sometimes been tempted, in its regret for what he might have done had he lived, to lose sight of the superlative merit of what he actually accomplished.
The three years of his poetic career, during which he published three small volumes of poetry, show a development at the same time rapid and steady, and a gradual but complete abandonment of almost every fault and weakness. It would probably be impossible, in the history of literature, to find such another instance of the ‘growth of a poet’s mind’.
The last of these three volumes, which is here reprinted, was published in 1820, when it ‘had good success among the literary people and . . . a moderate sale’. It contains the flower of his poetic production and is perhaps, altogether, one of the most marvellous volumes ever issued from the press.
But in spite of the maturity of Keats’s work when he was twenty-five, he had been in no sense a precocious child. Born in 1795 in the city of London, the son of a livery-stable keeper, he was brought up amid surroundings and influences by no means calculated to awaken poetic genius.
He was the eldest of five—four boys, one of whom died in infancy, and a girl younger than all; and he and his brothers George and Tom were educated at a private school at Enfield. Here John was at first distinguished more for fighting than for study, whilst his bright, brave, generous nature made him popular with masters and boys.