On 17 September 1820, a struggling young painter named Joseph Severn sailed from England as companion to John Keats. They arrived in Rome on 15 November. The trip was supposed to cure Keats’s lingering illness. The poet suspected it was tuberculosis; his friends and several doctors disagreed. They urged convalescence in a warm climate. Instead, Keats died just three months after his arrival.
Joseph Severn found himself in a most difficult situation. He had left England against his father’s wishes; he had no money; worst of all, he had no idea of the severity of Keats’s condition. Yet Severn rose to the challenge and became a devoted nurse. His troubles were noted and understood by Keats himself, and Severn was later thanked for his devotion by Percy Shelley in the preface to ‘Adonais’.
While in Rome, Severn wrote numerous letters about Keats to their mutual friends in England. These remarkable letters are the definitive account of the poet’s final months. Many of us have read selections from them in biographies of Keats. At this site, you can read them in their entirety:
JOSEPH SEVERN TO CHARLES BROWN:
ROME. 14, 17 Dec 1820
Keats’s relapse – Severn’s duties – Dr Clark’s attentions – Keats is bled, begs Severn for food – Severn’s estrangement from his family
JOSEPH SEVERN TO JOHN TAYLOR:
ROME. 24 Dec 1820
Keats’s mental state – Keats tells Severn that if he lives, he could not write another line – Keats talks of his friends and family – books – Severn’s religious faith – Dr Clark diagnoses consumption – money troubles
JOSEPH SEVERN TO MRS SAMUEL BRAWNE:
ROME. 11 Jan 1821
new hope for Keats’s recovery – Keats’s ‘calmness and quietude’ – Severn’s daily routine – Severn’s affection for Keats – ‘the barbarism of these Italians’
JOSEPH SEVERN TO WILLIAM HASLAM:
ROME. 15 Jan 1821
Keats’s concern for Severn – Severn’s loss of hope – money troubles – Keats seeks solace, finds none – Keats’s physical condition