The Schooldays of John Keats

by Edwin Watts Chubb

In the village of Enfield, in Middlesex, ten miles on the North Road from London, my father, John Clarke, says Charles Cowden Clarke in The Gentleman's Magazine, kept a school. The house had been built by a West India merchant in the latter end of the seventeenth or beginning of the eighteenth century. It was of the better character of the domestic architecture of that period, the whole front being of the purest red brick, wrought by means of molds into rich designs of flowers and pomegranates, with heads of cherubim over niches in the center of the building. The elegance of the design and the perfect finish of the structure were such as to procure its protection when a branch railway was brought from the Ware and Cambridge line to Enfield....

Here it was that John Keats all but commenced, and did complete, his school education. He was born on the twenty-ninth of October, 1795, and he was one of the little fellows who had not wholly emerged from the child's costume upon being placed under my father's care. It will be readily conceived that it is difficult to recall from the "dark backward and abysm" of seventy-odd years the general acts of perhaps the youngest individual in a corporation of between seventy and eighty youngsters; and very little more of Keats's child-life can I remember than that he had a brisk, winning face, and was a favorite with all, particularly my mother....

Keats's father was the principal servant at the Swan and Hoop stables—a man of so remarkably fine a common-sense, and native respectability, that I perfectly remember the warm terms in which his demeanor used to be canvassed by my parents after he had been to visit his boys. John was the only one resembling him in person and feature, with brown hair and dark hazel eyes. The father was killed by a fall from his horse in returning from a visit to the school. This detail may be deemed requisite when we see in the last memoir of the poet the statement that "John Keats was born on the twenty-ninth of October, 1795, in the upper rank of the middle class." His two brothers—George, older, and Thomas, younger than himself—were like the mother, who was tall, of good figure, with large oval face and sensible deportment. The last of the family was a sister—Fanny, I think, much younger than all,—and I hope still living (in 1874)—of whom I remember, when once walking in the garden with her brothers, my mother speaking of her with much fondness for her pretty and simple manners....

In the early part of his school-life John gave no extraordinary indications of intellectual character; but it was remembered of him afterwards, that there was ever present a determined and steady spirit in all his undertakings: I never knew it misdirected in his required pursuit of study. He was a most orderly scholar. The future ramifications of that noble genius were then closely shut in the seed, which was greedily drinking in the moisture which made it afterwards burst forth so kindly into luxuriance and beauty.

My father was in the habit, at each half-year's vacation, of bestowing prizes upon those pupils who had performed the greatest quantity of voluntary work; and such was Keats's indefatigable energy for the last two or three successive half-years of his remaining at school, that, upon each occasion he took the first prize by a considerable distance. He was at work before the first school hour began, and that was at seven o'clock, almost all the intervening times of recreation were so devoted, and during the afternoon holidays, when all were at play, he would be in the school—almost the only one—at his Latin or French translation, and so unconscious and regardless was he of the consequences of so close and persevering an application that he never would have taken the necessary exercise had he not been sometimes driven out for the purpose by one of his masters.

It has just been said that he was a favorite with all. Not the less beloved was he for having a highly pugnacious spirit, which, when roused, was one of the most picturesque exhibitions—off the stage—I ever saw. One of the transports of that marvelous actor, Edmund Kean—whom, by the way, he idolized—was its nearest resemblance; and the two were not very dissimilar in face and figure. Upon one occasion, when an usher, on account of some impertinent behavior, had boxed his brother Tom's ears, John rushed up, put himself in the received posture of offense, and, it was said, struck the usher—who could, so to say, have put him into his pocket. His passion at times was almost ungovernable, and his brother George, being considerably the taller and stronger, used frequently to hold him down by main force, laughing when John was in "one of his moods," and was endeavoring to beat him. It was all, however, a wisp-of-straw conflagration, for he had an intensely tender affection for his brothers and proved it upon the most trying occasions. He was not merely the "favorite of all," like a pet prize-fighter, for his terrier courage; but his high-mindedness, his utter unconsciousness of a mean motive, his placability, his generosity, wrought so general a feeling in his behalf, that I never heard a word of disapproval from any one, superior or equal, who had known him.

In the latter part of the time—perhaps eighteen months—that he remained at school, he occupied the hours during meals in reading. Thus, his whole time was engrossed. He had a tolerably retentive memory, and the quantity that he read was surprising. He must in those last months have exhausted the school library, which consisted principally of abridgments of all the voyages and travels of any note; Mavor's collection, also his Universal History; Robertson's histories of Scotland, America, and Charles the Fifth; all Miss Edgeworth's productions, together with many other works equally well calculated for youth. The books, however, that were his constantly recurring sources of attraction were Tooke's Pantheon, Lemprière's Classical Dictionary, which he appeared to learn, and Spence's Polymetis. This was the store whence he acquired his intimacy with the Greek mythology; here was he "suckled in that creed outworn;" for his amount of classical attainment extended no farther than the Æneid, with which epic, indeed, he was so fascinated that before leaving school he had voluntarily translated in writing a considerable portion. And yet I remember that at that early age—mayhap under fourteen—notwithstanding, and through all its incidental attractiveness, he hazarded the opinion to me (and the expression riveted my surprise), that there was feebleness in the structure of the work. He must have gone through all the better publications in the school library, for he asked me to lend him some of my books, and, in my "mind's eye" I now see him at supper (we had our meals in the school-room), sitting back on the form, from the table, holding the folio volume of Burnet's History of His Own Time between himself and the table, eating his meal from beyond it. This work, and Leigh Hunt's Examiner—which my father took in, and I used to lend to Keats—no doubt laid the foundation of his love of civil and religious liberty. He once told me, smiling, that one of his guardians, being informed what books I had lent him to read, declared that if he had fifty children he would not send one of them to that school. Bless his patriot head!

When he left Enfield at fourteen years of age, he was apprenticed to Mr. Thomas Hammond, a medical man, residing in Church Street, Edmonton, and exactly two miles from Enfield. This arrangement evidently gave him satisfaction, and I fear it was the most placid period of his painful life; for now, with the exception of the duty he had to perform in the surgery—by no means an onerous one—his whole leisure hours were employed in indulging his passion for reading and translating. During his apprenticeship he finished the Æneid.

The distance between our residences being so short, I gladly encouraged his inclination to come over when he could claim a leisure hour; and in consequence I saw him about five or six times a month on my own leisure afternoons. He rarely came empty-handed; either he had a book to read, or brought one to be exchanged. When the weather permitted, we always sat in an arbor at the end of a spacious garden, and—in Boswellian dialect—"we had a good talk." ...