La Belle Dame Sans Merci | Study Guide

John Keats

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John Keats | Biography


Early Life and Education

John Keats was born to Frances Jennings Keats and Thomas Keats in London on October 31, 1795. John was followed by four more children, George (1797–1841), Tom (1799–1818), Edward (1801–02), and Frances Mary, known as Fanny (1803–89). The family appeared to be close and happy.

At age eight Keats began attending Enfield Academy. Within the year, his father was in an accident, and he died on April 15, 1804. Up until his father's death, Keats had been outgoing and cheerful. Over the next couple of months, Frances relocated the children to her mother's home and married a man named William Rawlings. When the marriage failed, Frances lost the family's horse stables, fondly called the Swan and Hoop. The stables not only provided for the family, but her father had owned them before she married Thomas Keats, who had taken them over in 1802. Frances left her family in 1805, and Keats and his siblings lived in Edmonton, Middlesex, with their grandmother. Keats continued his education at Enfield, which was only two miles away. Keats's mother returned in 1808 or 1809, but she was sick with tuberculosis. The disease had just killed her brother a few months earlier. Keats cared for his mother during her illness, cooking her meals and reading to her. She died in March 1810.

Keats's maternal grandmother, Alice Whalley Jennings, who was then in her mid-70s, named Richard Abbey and John Nowland Sandell as guardians of the four children. Keats was 14 at the time.

For the next year, John Keats, still at Enfield, was close friends with the headmaster's son, Charles Cowden Clarke, as well as with the headmaster, John Clarke. The influence of these friendships is found not only in the academic passion Keats developed, but also in his interest in reform and liberty. Keats's association with the Clarkes also granted him access to a great variety of literature. Through their library, he gained access to Greek mythology, history, and travel writing. At this time—at age 15—he also worked on learning French. He translated a vast portion of the Aeneid, an epic poem in Latin, written by ancient Roman poet Virgil between 30 and 19 BCE.

In 1811 Abbey, a wealthy tea merchant, removed Keats from Enfield Academy and placed him as an apprentice with a surgeon, Thomas Hammond. Information on this part of Keats's life is scant. He studied anatomy and medicine, which would have included training to set bones, tend wounds, and the like. It was not a career requiring a university degree.

Keats began visiting the Clarkes during this time. According to Charles Cowden Clarke, Keats borrowed Ovid's Metamorphoses (c. 8 CE), John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), and Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1596). After a presumed quarrel with Hammond, Keats left his apprenticeship and moved to London in October 1815. There he completed a six-month study at Guy's Hospital. By this time Keats had already begun writing poetry. By 1816 he was a licensed apothecary, or medical provider; however, he did not use the license. Instead he chose to focus on his writing.

Notably, the Keatses' guardian, Richard Abbey, would withhold the Keats children's funds from this point until 1833, when Fanny Keats pursued a legal resolution. Between this time and John Keats's death, the funds withheld for John Keats were in the range of £2,000. At the time, between £50 and £200 per year would have been a comfortable living.

Writing and Publishing

In or around 1815, John Keats met Leigh Hunt (1784–1859), a newspaper editor at the politically radical Examiner. Because Hunt had been imprisoned for his political opinions from 1813 to 1815, Keats's association with Hunt was a political act, revolutionary and likely to attract negativity from conservative critics. Keats sent a poem, through Cowden Clarke, to Hunt upon Hunt's release from prison in 1815. Hunt would be the first publisher of Keats's work. In 1816 the Examiner published two of Keats's sonnets: "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" and "O Solitude."

Hunt was also instrumental in another way. He introduced Keats to several Romantic literary figures, including Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822). Their influence led to the publication of Keats's first volume of poetry, Poems by John Keats (1817). Although Shelley reputedly liked Keats a great deal, Keats had a less positive opinion of Shelley. Consequently, when Shelley suggested Keats create a larger body of work before publishing further, Keats ignored the advice. In 1818 Keats published Endymion, a 4,000-line text inspired by Greek mythology. Critics, especially those at Blackwood's Magazine and Quarterly Review, savaged Endymion in their influential reviews. Shelley would later charge negative reviews with hastening Keats's early death.

Keats continued to write, study literature, and publish. He also continued to join in the literary and intellectual society he'd found. Notably, although he met and shared meals with William Wordsworth (1770–1850), Keats took issue with the poet's arrogance. In 1818 Keats embarked on a walking tour of the English Lake District and Scotland with his friend Charles Brown. Although at the time Keats expected this to be the start of his travels, he returned home to find his brother Tom sick with tuberculosis. Their brother George had already moved to the United States, so Tom's care was left to him. Keats continued writing even as he looked after Tom, from August until Tom's death on December 1, 1818.

Love and Tuberculosis

Keats met the love of his life, Fanny Brawne (1800–65), in 1818, the same year he contracted tuberculosis. On December 1, the day Tom Keats died, Keats went to live with his friend Charles Dilke. Fanny's family had rented half of the Dilkes' house the summer before. The Brawnes visited the Dilke family while Keats was staying with them, and through the Dilkes he came to know and love Fanny Brawne. Within four weeks of Tom's death, Keats and Fanny expressed their mutual love. They became engaged 10 months later, although they never married.

During this time Keats was still writing. In 1819 he penned his famous "La Belle Dame sans Merci," as well as "The Eve of St. Agnes" and the odes ("Ode to Psyche," "Ode to a Nightingale," and others). Although "La Belle Dame sans Merci" was written in April 1819, it was not published until 1820 in a slightly altered form. The next volume of his work, the last during his life, was published in mid-1820. This collection was greeted with positive reviews.

Unfortunately, by this time Keats was suffering from the tuberculosis that would kill him early the following year. He coughed up blood in February 1820, alerting him to his impending death. He continued to suffer from tuberculosis as well as depression about the end of his life. This resulted in an attempt to part with Fanny. However, Fanny and her mother nursed him for a month, after which he made plans to go to Italy for his health. The final stage of his relationship with Fanny was conducted solely through letters during this separation. He departed England in November with a friend, the painter Joseph Severn (1793–1879).

Death and Legacy

Although he planned to marry Fanny upon his return from Rome, Keats died in Italy on February 23, 1821. He was 25 at the time of his passing. Despite living such a short amount of time, Keats made a remarkable variety of contributions to literature. He is canonically remembered as a second-generation Romantic poet. In addition to his poems, he left behind numerous letters detailing his career, life, and philosophical thoughts.

One of the contributions scholars have gained from Keats is the idea of "negative capability." This idea is highlighted in a letter he wrote in 1817 after a conversation with his friends Charles Dilke and Charles Brown. In this letter Keats describes being struck by the idea of negative capability, or the state "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." What Keats means here is that embracing the negative, or the absence of certain knowledge, is important. To Keats, this quality is essential to the great minds of literature, such as Shakespeare. As a contrast, he uses the example of fellow Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), who was "incapable of remaining content with half knowledge." In Keats's view, the things a person does not have can also define them, just as much as the things they do have. Keats argues there is potential in mystery and there is power in passivity toward it. He adds to this idea in a letter to Richard Woodhouse in 1818, suggesting the importance of passivity in "poetical Character." This "poetical Character" is "everything and nothing ... it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated."

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