John Keats: Contemporary Descriptions

Many gifted biographers have struggled to bring John Keats alive upon the printed page. This page, however, collects the words of his contemporaries, the people who knew Keats best. Their memories were sometimes faulty or contradictory; they could not even agree on the color of his hair. Yet these recollections provide valuable insight into Keats’s character, – his love of life, his extraordinary talent, his kindness and generosity.

“The point to be chiefly insisted on is that he was not literary”

Edward Holmes attended Enfield school with Keats and his younger brothers, George and Tom. His memories of Keats are quite at odds with the conventional image of the poet. Fond of fights and pranks, popular with his schoolfellows, Keats seemed destined for a great military career. As Holmes points out, “his love of books and poetry manifested itself chiefly about a year before he left school.”

“Keats was in childhood not attached to books. His penchant was for fighting. He would fight any one–morning, noon, and night, his brother among the rest. It was meat and drink to him. Jennings their sailor relation was always in the thoughts of the brothers, and they determined to keep up the family reputation for courage; George in a passive manner; John and Tom more fiercely. The favourites of John were few; after they were known to fight readily he seemed to prefer them for a sort of grotesque and buffoon humour. I recollect at this moment his delight at the extraordinary gesticulations and pranks of a boy named Wade who was celebrated for this. . . . He was a boy whom any one from his extraordinary vivacity and personal beauty might easily fancy would become great – but rather in some military capacity than in literature. You will remark that this taste came out rather suddenly and unexpectedly. Some books of his I remember reading were Robinson Crusoe and something about Montezuma and the Incas of Peru. He must have read Shakespeare as he thought that ‘no one would care to read Macbeth alone in a house at two o’clock in the morning.’ This seems to me a boyish trait of the poet. His sensibility was as remarkable as his indifference to be thought well of by the master as a ‘good boy’ and to his tasks in general. . . . He was in every way the creature of passion. . . . The point to be chiefly insisted on is that he was not literary–his love of books and poetry manifested itself chiefly about a year before he left school. In all active exercises he excelled. The generosity and daring of his character with the extreme beauty and animation of his face made I remember an impression on me–and being some years his junior I was obliged to woo his friendship-in which I succeeded, but not till I had fought several battles. This violence and vehemence–this pugnacity and generosity of disposition–in passions of tears or outrageous fits of laughter –always in extremes–will help to paint Keats in his boyhood. Associated as they were with an extraordinary beauty of person and expression, these qualities captivated the boys, and no one was more popular.”


John Keats

John Keats

A poet “born, not manufactured”
Keats deeply admired the great Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). His first poem was a tribute entitled “Imitation of Spenser” and he placed Spenser’s portrait on the title page of his first published volume of poetry. Keats’s friend Charles Cowden Clarke described the poet’s first encounter with Spenser in 1811, when Keats was just 16 years old:

“It were difficult at this lapse of time, to note the spark that fired the train of his poetical tendencies; but he must have given unmistakable tokens of his mental bent; otherwise, at that early stage of his career, I never could have read to him the “Epithalamium” of Spenser; and this I remember having done, and in that hallowed old arbour, the scene of many bland and graceful associations – the substances having passed away. At that time he may have been sixteen years old; and at that period of life he certainly appreciated the general beauty of the composition, and felt the more passionate passages; for his features and exclamations were ecstatic…. like a true poet, too – a poet “born, not manufactured,” a poet in grain, he especially singled out epithets, for that felicity and power in which Spenser is so eminent.”

Keats’s admiration of Spenser lessened as he matured and developed his own voice.

“He was of too sensitive a nature”
One of Keats’s closest friends was John Hamilton Reynolds. He described the poet’s character in a preface to a collection of Keats’s poetry:

“He, who is gone, was one of the very kindest friends I possessed, and yet he was not kinder perhaps to me, than to others. His intense mind and powerful feelings would, I truly believe, have done the world some service, had his life been spared – but he was of too sensitive a nature – and thus he was destroyed!”

With this opinion, Reynolds was merely repeating the popular misconception that unkind reviews destroyed Keats.

Keats attended medical school with Henry Stephens; they were also briefly roommates. Stephens later became famous as the inventor of blue-black ink. Contacted by Keats’s first biographer, Richard Monckton Milnes, Stephens provided insight into Keats’s personality and lifestyle while he studied medicine. He also discusses Keats’s reputation among his fellow students. This account includes the famous ‘trinity’ doggerel:

“Whether it was in the latter part of the year 1815 or the early part of the year 1816 that my acquaintance with John Keats commenced I cannot say. We were both students at the united hospitals of St Thomas’s and Guy’s, and we had apartments in a house in St Thomas’s Street, kept by a decent respectable woman of the name of Mitchell I think. [After naming his other fellow students, the witness goes on]–John Keats being alone, and to avoid the expense of having a sitting room to himself, asked to join us, which we readily acceded to. We were therefore constant companions, and the following is what I recollect of his previous history from conversation with him. Of his parentage I know nothing, for upon that subject I never remember his speaking, I think he was an orphan. He had been apprenticed to a Mr Hammond surgeon of Southgate from whence he came on the completion of his time to the hospitals. His passion, if I may so call it, for poetry was soon manifested. He attended lectures and went through the usual routine but he had no desire to excel in that pursuit. . . . He was called by his fellow students ‘little Keats,’ being at his full growth no more than five feet high. . . . In a room, he was always at the window, peering into space, so that the windowseat was spoken of by his comrades as Keats’s place. . . . In the lecture room he seemed to sit apart and to be absorbed in something else, as if the subject suggested thoughts to him which were not practically connected with it. He was often in the subject and out of it, in a dreamy way.

He never attached much consequence to his own studies in medicine, and indeed looked upon the medical career as the career by which to live in a workaday world, without being certain that he could keep up the strain of it. He nevertheless had a consciousness of his own powers, and even of his own greatness, though it might never be recognised. . . . Poetry was to his mind the zenith of all his aspirations: the only thing worthy the attention of superior minds: so he thought: all other pursuits were mean and tame. He had no idea of fame or greatness but as it was connected with the pursuits of poetry, or the attainment of poetical excellence. The greatest men in the world were the poets and to rank among them was the chief object of his ambition. It may readily be imagined that this feeling was accompanied with a good deal of pride and conceit, and that amongst mere medical students he would walk and talk as one of the Gods might be supposed to do when mingling with mortals. This pride exposed him, as may be readily imagined, to occasional ridicule, and some mortification.

Having a taste and liking for poetry myself, though at that time but little cultivated, he regarded me as something a little superior to the rest, and would gratify himself frequently by shewing me some lines of his writing, or some new idea which he had struck out. We had frequent conversation on the merits of particular poets, but our tastes did not agree. He was a great admirer of Spenser, his Faerie Queene was a great favourite with him. Byron was also in favour, Pope he maintained was no poet, only a versifier. He was fond of imagery, the most trifling similes appeared to please him. Sometimes I ventured to show him some lines which I had written, but I always had the mortification of hearing them condemned, indeed he seemed to think it presumption in me to attempt to tread along the same pathway as himself at however humble a distance.

He had two brothers, who visited him frequently, and they worshipped him. They seemed to think their brother John was to be exalted, and to exalt the family name. I remember a student from St Bartholomew’s Hospital who came often to see him, as they had formerly been intimate, but though old friends they did not cordially agree. Newmarsh or Newmarch (I forget which was his name) was a classical scholar, as was Keats, and therefore they scanned freely the respective merits of the Poets of Greece and Rome. Whenever Keats showed Newmarch any of his poetry it was sure to be ridiculed and severely handled.

Newmarch was a light-hearted and merry fellow, but I thought he was rather too fond of mortifying Keats, but more particularly his brothers, as their praise of their brother John amounted almost to idolatry, and Newmarch and they frequently quarrelled. Whilst attending lectures he would sit and instead of copying out the lecture, would often scribble some doggrel rhymes among the notes of Lecture, particularly if he got hold of another student’s syllabus. In my syllabus of chemical lectures he scribbled many lines on the paper cover. This cover has been long torn off, except one small piece on which is the following fragment of doggrel rhyme:–

Give me women, wine and snuff
Until I cry out, ‘hold!’ enough’
You may do so, sans objection
Until the day of resurrection.

This is all that remains, and is the only piece of his writing which is now in my possession. He was gentlemanly in his manners and when he condescended to talk upon other subjects he was agreeable and intelligent. He was quick and apt at learning, when he chose to give his attention to any subject. He was a steady quiet and well behaved person, never inclined to pursuits of a low or vicious character.”

When Stephens originally recounted this story to Milnes, he omitted the references to women. Contrary to the impression this story gives, Keats did take notes during lectures. He also passed his Apothecary licensing exam on the first try; Stephens did not.

Richard Monckton Milnes wrote the first biography of Keats but it was not popular with all of the poet’s friends. In the work, Milnes describes Keats giving “a severe drubbing” to a butcher who had been beating a little boy. Charles Cowden Clarke remembered the incident differently:

“…not accurate. He [the butcher] was torturing a kitten. Keats told it to me. They fought for nearly an hour. And the fellow was bled, or carried home.”

This incident occurred while Keats was ill with tuberculosis, thus confirming his robust constitution. Keats’s physical strength and stout figure were the main reasons his friends believed he wasn’t tubercular.
Clarke disliked the portrait of Keats which emerged from Milnes’s biography – the image of a weak spirit crushed by an unsympathetic world. He remembered Keats quite differently, as a man of passion, courage, and humor. Clarke was also offended by the preface to Shelley’s Adonais, in which Shelley wrote that Keats attempted suicide after reading a bad review of his poems. Near this passage Clarke wrote an emphatic “No! No! No!”

Clarke was also present when Keats was inspired to write “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” in 1816. The two men spent an evening reading George Chapman’s superb translation of the Iliad and Odyssey. Clarke described the evening thus:

“A beautiful copy of the folio edition of Chapman’s translation of Homer had been lent me…. and to work we went, turning to some of the “famousest” passages, as we had scrappily known them in Pope’s version…. Chapman supplied us with many an after-treat; but it was in the teeming wonderment of this his first introduction, that, when I came down to breakfast the next morning, I found upon my table a letter with no other enclosure than his famous sonnet, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” We had parted, as I have already said, at day-spring, yet he contrived that I should receive the poem from a distance of, may be, two miles by ten o’clock.”

This anonymous eulogy was written five months after Keats’s death. It discusses Keats’s character as well as the vicious early reviews of his poetry. For my part, I never knew Keats considered visiting South America:


I find by the Daily Papers that the young Poet, John Keats is dead. I shall feel gratified if you will allow a few remarks from his School-fellow and Friend a place in your paper.

It appears that Mr. Keats died of decline at Rome, whither he had retired to repair the inroads which the rupturing of a blood vessel had made upon his constitution. It is not impossible that his premature death may have been brought on by his performing the office of nurse to a younger brother, who also died of a decline; for his attention to the invalid was so anxious and unwearied, that his friends could see distinctly that his own health had suffered in the exertion. This may have been one cause, but I do not believe it was the sole cause. It will be remembered that Keats received some rough and brutal usage from the Reviews about two years since; particularly from the Quarterly, and from a Northern one; which, in the opinion of every gentlemanly and feeling mind, has rendered itself infamous from its coarse pandarism to the depraved appetites of gossips and scandal-mongers. To what extent the treatment he received from those writers operated upon his mind, I cannot say: for Keats had a noble–a proud –and an undaunted heart; but he was very young, only one and twenty. He had all the enthusiasm of the youthful poet burning in him–he thought to take the great world by the hand, and hold its attention while he unburthened the overflowings of an aspiring and ardent imagination; and his beautiful recasting of “The Pot of Basil” proves that he would have done so had he lived. But his ardour was met by the torpedo touch of one, whose “Blood is very snow-broth”; and the exuberant fancies of a young and almost ungovernable fancy were dragged forward by another, and exhibited in gross and wanton caricature. It is truly painful to see the yearnings of an eager and trusting mind thus held up to the fiend-like laugh of a brutal mob, upon the pikes and bayonets of literary mercenaries. If it will be any gratification to Mr. Gifford to know how much he contributed to the discomfort of a generous mind, I can so far satisfy it by informing him that Keats has lain awake through the whole night talking with sensitive bitterness of the unfair treatment he had experienced; and with becoming scorn of the information which was afterwards suggested to him: “That as it was considered he had been rather roughly handled, his future productions should be reviewed with less harshness.” So much for the integrity and impartiality of criticism! This charge would no doubt be denied with high and flouncing indignation; but he told me he had been given to understand as much, and I believe him. If the object of this hint was to induce the young Poet to quit the society of those whom he had chosen for his friends, and who had helped him in pushing off his boat from shore, it shows how little his character was known to his assailants. He had a “little body,” but he too had a “mighty heart,” as any one of them would have discovered, had the same impertinences been offered to him personally which were put forth in their anonymous scandal-rolls. Keats’s great crime was his having dedicated his first production to Mr. Leigh Hunt. He should have cowered under the wings of Mr. Croker, and he would have been fostered into “a pretty chicken.”

I remember his first introduction to Mr. Hunt, and the pleasure each seemed to derive from the interview. I remember with admiration all that Gentleman’s friendship and disinterestedness towards him–disinterestedness which would surprise those only who do not know him. I remember, too, his first introduction to Mr. Haydon; and when in the course of conversation that great artist asked him, “if he did not love his country,” how the blood rushed to his cheeks and the tears to his eyes, at his energetic reply. His love of freedom was ardent and grand. He once said, that if he should live a few years, he would go over to South America, and write a Poem on Liberty, and now he lies in the land where liberty once flourished, and where it is regenerating.

I hope his friends and admirers (for he had both, and warm ones) will raise a monument to his memory on the classical spot where he died; and that Canova, the Roman, will contribute that respect so amply in his power to the memory of the young Englishman, who possessed a kindred mind with, and who restamped the loveliest of all the stories of his great countryman Boccaccio.

And now farewel[l], noble spirit! You have forsaken us, and taken the long and dark journey towards “that bourne from whence no traveller returns”; but you have left a memorial of your genius which “posterity will not willingly let die.” You have plunged into the gulf, but your golden sandals remain. The storm of life has over-blown, and, “the rest is silence.”

Fear no more the heat of the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.
* * * *
Quiet consummation have,
And renowned by thy Grave.


Morning Chronicle, July 27th, 1821″

Some critics / biographers believe the anonymous “Y” was Charles Cowden Clarke.

From volume 2 of R.H. Horne’s 1844 work “New Spirit of the Age”:

“When somebody expressed his surprise to Shelley, that Keats, who was not very conversant with the Greek language, could write so finely and classically of their gods and goddesses, Shelley replied ‘He was a Greek.'”

This was the highest sort of praise from Shelley, who wrote to Leigh Hunt’s wife Marianne of his desire to help Keats: “I am aware indeed that I am nourishing a rival who will far surpass me and this is an additional motive & will be an added pleasure.”