The Romantic poet John Keats, whose short but remarkable career and early death from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five have made him one of the most known and best loved poets of all time, holidayed in Margate on two occasions in the summer and early autumn of 1816 and again in the summer of 1817. Although both trips to Margate lasted only a few weeks, they mark two crucial turning points in Keats’s career.
Keats’s first stay in Margate in the summer of 1816 was motivated by a desire to escape the hot, muggy London summer, and the confines of his lodgings in St Thomas Street, near Guy’s Hospital and London Bridge, where he was undertaking his medical training in order to become a surgeon. The seaside resort of Margate, by contrast, promised fresh sea air. Keats stayed in Margate with his younger brother, Tom. In his biography, Keats (1997), Andrew Motion speculates that the pair probably stayed in rooms overlooking Hawley Square, a Georgian Square in the centre of the old town.
Early nineteenth-century Margate was a fashionable seaside resort for visitors, mainly travelling from London. These visitors could enjoy the first bathing-machines to have been introduced in the country, as well as a rich cultural scene, which encompassed the Assembly Rooms, three libraries and a theatre. One of these libraries, Bettison’s Library (demolished in the 1920s), a grand building with a renowned periodical collection, was located on Hawley Square itself, as was the Theatre Royal (built in 1787 and still operating) only steps away from where Keats was likely residing.
The first stay in Margate in 1816 was a productive one for Keats. He wrote several poems, including two addressed to his brother George. In the first, a sonnet, Keats ponders “the wonders of the sky and sea” describing “[t]he ocean with its vastness, its blue green, / Its ships, its rocks, its caves, its hopes, its fears— / Its voice mysterious” inspired by walks along the Margate coast.
Keats’s other Margate poems from this time meditate on the process of writing poetry itself, and imagine what it would be like to become a famous and admired poet.
A year later, having resolved to abandon his medical career and become a full-time poet, Keats returned to Margate in order to make progress on his extended narrative poem, Endymion (first published 1818), an ambitious new work about a mortal shepherd who falls in love with a moon goddess, and his first long poem to make use of mythical sources. This trip, however, was more fraught than the first. This time the sea proved to be both an inspiration and a mirror for his internal restlessness. Keats complains twice in a letter to his friend Leigh Hunt that he misses trees and calls Margate a “treeless affair”. In another letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon, he quotes lines from Shakespeare’s King Lear to illustrate that he feels the unfinished Endymion is already a failure: “truth is I have been in such a state of Mind as to read over my Lines and hate them. I am one that ‘gathers Samphire, dreadful trade’—the Cliff of Poesy towers above me.” Yet Keats’s letters from his time in Margate also demonstrate a developing sense of his identity as a poet, and a renewed determination. In one he writes, presciently: “These last two days, however, I have felt more confident—I have asked myself so often why I should be a poet more than other men, seeing how great a thing it is,—how great things are to be gained by it, what a thing to be in the mouth of Fame.”
Barker, Nigel, et al. Margate’s Seaside Heritage. English Heritage, 2007. https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/margates-seaside-heritage/margates-seaside-heritage/
Keats, John. John Keats: The Complete Poems. Edited by John Barnard. London: Penguin Classics, 1977.
Keats, John. Letters of John Keats to His Family and Friends. Edited by Sidney Colvin. Project Gutenberg, 1925.
Motion, Andrew. Keats. London: Faber, 1997.