John Keats, 1818

From Writer’s Almanac:

Today is the anniversary of the end of one of the last truly happy periods in the life of John Keats. It was on this day in 1818 that Keats finished a long walking tour through Northern England, Ireland, and Scotland. John Keats was 23 years old. He’d planned to become a surgeon, but he realized his real vocation was poetry, and in the spring of 1818, he published his first major long poem, Endymion. And then he set out on a hike through the countryside with his friend Charles Brown. Wordsworth had been inspired by walking around England, so Keats decided to do the same that summer.

Keats was a London boy. He had never seen the mountains. He had never seen a waterfall. He wrote letters back to his brother about the wonderful things that he saw, but gradually on his hike he realized he was no Wordsworth, that he did not want to write about scenery. He was more interested in the people whom he saw along the way. He was fascinated by the peasants who walked barefoot on the roads, carrying their shoes and stockings so they would look nice when they got to town. He once saw an old woman being carried along the road in a kind of a cage like a dog kennel, smoking a pipe.

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He came back to London and learned that the reviews of Endymion were coming in, and critics had written ferocious attacks against him. He was crushed. And his brother had come down with a serious case of tuberculosis. His brother died in December, and by the end of that year, John Keats had contracted tuberculosis himself. He would die three years later, in 1821. It was in those last three years of his life that he wrote most of his greatest poems — including the six great odes that he is known for — all written in Keats’s amazing year: 1819.

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