Sir Sidney Colvin deserves praise for the noble architecture of the temple he has built in honour of Keats. His great book, John Keats: His Life and Poetry; His Friends, Critics, and After-fame, is not only a temple, indeed, but a museum. Sir Sidney has brought together here the whole of Keats’s world, or at least all the relics of his world that the last of a band of great collectors has been able to recover; and in the result we can accompany Keats through the glad and sad and mad and bad hours of his short and marvellous life as we have never been able to do before under the guidance of a single biographer. We are still left in the dark, it is true, as to Keats’s race and descent. Whether Keats’s father came to London from Cornwall or not, Sir Sidney has not been able to decide on the rather shaky evidence that has been put forward. If it should hereafter turn out that Keats was a Cornishman at one remove, Matthew Arnold’s conjecture as to the “Celtic element” in him, as in other English poets, may revive in the general esteem.
In the present state of our knowledge, however, we must be content to accept Keats as a Londoner without ancestors beyond the father who was head-ostler at the sign of the “Swan and Hoop,” Finsbury Pavement, and married his master’s daughter. It was at the stable at the “Swan and Hoop”—not a public-house, by the way, but a livery-stable—that Keats was prematurely born at the end of October 1795. He was scarcely nine years old when his father was killed by a fall from a horse. He was only fourteen when his mother (who had re-married unhappily and then been separated from her husband) died, a victim of chronic rheumatism and consumption. It is from his mother that Keats seems to have inherited his impetuous and passionate nature. There is the evidence of a certain wholesale tea-dealer—the respectability of whose trade may have inclined him to censoriousness—to the effect that, both as girl and woman, she “was a person of unbridled temperament, and that in her later years she fell into loose ways, and was no credit to the family.” That she had other qualities besides those mentioned by the tea-dealer is shown by the passionate affection that existed between her and her son John. “Once as a young child, when she was ordered to be kept quiet during an illness, he is said to have insisted on keeping watch at her door with an old sword, and allowing no one to go in.” As she lay dying, “he sat up whole nights with her in a great chair, would suffer nobody to give her medicine, or even cook her food, but himself, and read novels to her in her intervals of ease.” The Keats children were fortunately not left penniless. Their grandfather, the proprietor of the livery-stable, had bequeathed a fortune of L13,000, a little of which was spent on sending Keats to a good school till the age of sixteen, and afterwards enabled him to attend Guy’s Hospital as a medical student.