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Keats, John

Category: Poet


John Keats (1795 –1821) was an English poet.

When Keats died at 25, he had been writing poetry seriously for only about six years, from 1814 until the summer of 1820; and publishing for only four. In his lifetime, sales of Keats's three volumes of poetry probably amounted to only 200 copies.

His early attempts at poetry were unremarkable, but in the creative outpouring of the last years of his short life, he was able to express an inner intensity for which he has been lauded ever since his death. Keats was convinced that he had made no mark in his lifetime.  When he was dying, he wrote to his lover, Fanny Brawne:

"I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have lov'd the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember'd."

And of course he was totally wrong.  But we now need to look at what provided him with so much inspiration in the latter years of his life.

First the positive things.  We can see from the quote above the first influence in his work – Beauty, Art and music.   He also obtained great inspiration from nature – so Communing with nature.  A friend  wrote,

In the spring of 1819, a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feelings on the song of our nightingale.

John Keats Listening to the Nightingale on Hampstead Heath

The poems "Fancy" and "Bards of passion and of mirth" were inspired by the garden of his home Wentworth Place.

But now for the negative.

His  poems were not generally well-received by critics during his life, and some of the criticism launched at him was truly nasty and vitriolic. One of his finest poems  Endymion, - a work that he termed "a trial of my Powers of Imagination" - was damned by the critics. A particularly harsh review by John Wilson Croker appeared in the April 1818 edition of The Quarterly Review and  John Gibson Lockhart described Endymion as "imperturbable drivelling idiocy". With biting sarcasm, Lockhart advised, "It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet". 

 His publishers described "St Agnes" as having a "sense of pettish disgust" and "a 'Don Juan' style of mingling up sentiment and sneering" concluding it was "a poem unfit for ladies".

What we see here is a combination of  Victorian prudishness and jealous snobbery aimed at “upstart young writers deemed uncouth for their lack of education, non-formal rhyming and low diction" and  “They had not attended public school and were not from the upper classes”.  Richard Woodhouse, whose support and friendship made all the difference to Keats’s life noted that Keats could be "wayward, trembling, easily daunted".  The criticism he had to endure gave rise to Byron's comment that Keats was ultimately "snuffed out by an article", suggesting that he never truly got over these vicious attacks.  So here we have Humiliation to add to the list.

J W Waterhouse's painting La Belle Dame sans merci
inspired by Keats poem

Keats died of tuberculosis and he was exposed to TB from a very early age.  In April 1804, when Keats was eight, his father died. In March 1810, when Keats was 14, his mother died of tuberculosis, leaving the children in the custody of their grandmother. Both his brothers Tom and George died of TB, Tom in 1818.  Both John and George nursed their brother Tom, when he was dying from tuberculosis, for which there was no effective treatment, so John was exposed to the disease and could have had it or caught it at this stage.  On the Isle of Mull, for example,  Keats caught a bad cold and "was too thin and fevered to proceed on the journey”.  He took laudunum for the pain.

But the winter of 1818–19,  marked the beginning of his annus mirabilis in which Keats wrote his most mature work.

In 1819, Keats wrote The Eve of St. Agnes, "La Belle Dame sans Merci", Hyperion, Lamia and Otho.  He went on to write Isabella,  and Other Poems all  eventually published in 1820. Each received greater acclaim than had Endymion or Poems, all would come to be recognised as some of the most important poetic works ever published.

I do not believe it was the TB that contributed to this sudden burst of creativity.  So we need to go back to the positive,  What other events inspired him?


Isbella Jones

Firstly his friendship with Isabella Jones from May 1817. She was described as beautiful, talented and widely read.  Throughout their friendship Keats never hesitates to own his sexual attraction to her, although they seem to enjoy circling each other rather than offering commitment. He writes that he "frequented her rooms" in the winter of 1818–19, and in his letters to George says that he "warmed with her" and "kissed her".  Notice how this coincides with his greatest works.  The lyric Hush, Hush! ["o sweet Isabel"] was about her, and that the first version of "Bright Star" may have originally been for her.

But a greater love also came along.  Letters and drafts of poems suggest that Keats first met Frances (Fanny) Brawne between September and November 1818. Fanny was just 18-years old and John was 23.  During November 1818 she “developed an intimacy” with Keats.

A portrait miniature (left) and a photograph of Fanny Brawne.

On 3 April 1819, Brawne and her widowed mother moved into the other half of  Wentworth Place where Keats was living, and Keats and Brawne were able to see each other every day. And from that moment  "All his desires were concentrated on Fanny".  His choice of poetry as a living made him very unsuitable marriage material with ‘no prospects’ and little financial security and this may have meant his love for Isabella Jones stood little hope of ever being fulfilled, whereas Fanny was closer to his situation.  Keats endured great conflict knowing his expectations as a struggling poet in increasingly hard straits would preclude marriage to Brawne. Their love remained unconsummated; jealousy for his 'star' began to gnaw at him. Darkness, disease and depression surrounded him, reflected in poems such as The Eve of St. Agnes and "La Belle Dame sans Merci" where love and death both stalk.

 "I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks;" he wrote to her, "...your loveliness, and the hour of my death".

In one of his many hundreds of notes and letters, Keats wrote to Brawne on 13 October 1819:


My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you – I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again – my Life seems to stop there – I see no further. You have absorb'd me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving – I should be exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you ... I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion – I have shudder'd at it – I shudder no more – I could be martyr'd for my Religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you.

This is unrequited love.

By 1820 , tuberculosis took hold and he was advised by his doctors to move to a warmer climate. In September of that year, Keats left for Rome knowing he would probably never see Brawne again. After leaving he felt unable to write to her or read her letters, although he did correspond with her mother.

What follows is harrowing – death by doctor.  [I know the feeling, except Belgium has better doctors than the UK, so I am still here].

During 1820,  Keats suffered two lung haemorrhages. He lost large amounts of blood and was bled by the attending physician. Once in Rome, he was put on a starvation diet of an anchovy and a piece of bread a day, hoping to reduce the blood flow to his stomach. The physician again bled the poet.  He was in great great pain.

Sue Brown [biographer]
They could have used opium in small doses, and Keats had asked Severn to buy a bottle of opium when they were setting off on their voyage [to Rome]. ….. He tried to get the bottle from Severn on the voyage but Severn wouldn't let him have it. Then in Rome he tried again ... Severn was in such a quandary he didn't know what to do, so in the end he went to the doctor who took it away. As a result Keats went through dreadful agonies with nothing to ease the pain at all.

Cruel, too cruel.

On 10 December, Severn returned from an early walk and woke Keats. Immediately, the poet began to cough and then vomit blood, about two cupfuls. Clark [the doctor]  was summoned and promptly bled him.

Keats was delirious for the rest of the day, until a violent haemorrhage and bleeding weakened him into calm. Over the next nine days he suffered five severe haemorrhages and continued bleedings by Clark. The doctor visited constantly and put him on a strict diet, mostly fish. Keats begged for food. He again begged Severn for the laudanum, but he was refused.

 Keats by Benjamin Haydon - plaster cast of life mask (1816).

The first months of 1821 marked a slow and steady decline into the final stage of tuberculosis. Keats was coughing up blood and covered in sweat. Severn nursed him devotedly and observed in a letter how Keats would sometimes cry upon waking to find himself still alive.

John Keats died in Rome on 23 February 1821 and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome.

 It took a month for the news of his death to reach London, after which Brawne stayed in mourning for six years.

In my view it wasn’t TB that provided us with some of the most beautiful poetry in the English language, though it may have been a contributory factor, it was love – mostly unrequited love and beauty art and music as well as communing with nature.  There may have been  a bit of help from the laudanum


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