John Keats was born on 31 October 1795, the first of Frances Jennings and Thomas Keats’s five children, one of whom died in infancy. His parents had been wed for barely a year when John was born. His maternal grandparents, John and Alice Jennings, were well-off and, upon his parents’ marriage, had entrusted the management of their livery business to Thomas. These stables, called the ‘Swan and Hoop’, were located in north London and provided horses for hire to adjacent neighborhoods.
Thomas and Frances lived at the stables through the births of their first three children. George was born on 28 February 1797 and Thomas on 18 November 1799. After their births, the young couple felt successful enough to move to a separate house on Craven Street, about a half-mile from the business. Here, on 28 April 1801, their son Edward was born; he died shortly thereafter. And on 3 June 1803, the last of their children and only daughter, Frances Mary, was born.
Details of Keats’s early life are scarce. During the last few years of his life, letters allow one to track him virtually week-to-week but his childhood and adolescence are another matter. Indeed, virtually all the information known is in the form of reminisces, many taken years after Keats had died. Understandably, one must view these memories with some skepticism. Whether discussing Keats’s physical appearance (his brother George said he resembled their mother while a family friend said it was the father) or his pastimes, these sources often contradict one another.
Keats’s father, Thomas Keats, died on Sunday, 15 April 1804, while returning home from visiting John and George at Enfield school. It was believed his horse slipped on the cobblestones and threw him to the ground. Suffering a skull fracture, he lived for a few hours after being found by a night watchman. Barely two months later, on 27 June 1804, Frances Jennings remarried. Grief-stricken and unable to conduct the livery business herself, she wed a minor bank clerk named William Rawlings. Rawlings was a fortune-hunter and the marriage was a failure. The children were immediately sent to live with their grandmother and, a few years later, their mother joined them. She had left Rawlings and, with him, the stables she had inherited from her former husband. From this time on, her health declined precipitously.
The upheaval in the children’s lives continued. On 8 March 1805, their grandfather died and the financial turmoil which haunted Keats’s life began. For John Jennings, a kindly and generous man, was also gullible; he had hired a land surveyor, not a lawyer, to draft his will and the result was an ill-written and vague document. Mr. Jennings’s real wishes were obscured and open to interpretation. The specifics of the case are far too detailed for this generalized sketch, but are available in any biography of Keats. There is also a book called The Keats Inheritance which can be found in any good university library. It is worth mentioning here simply because Keats’s entire adult life was spent struggling with money.
The fight over shares in the estate began shortly after Jennings’s death and ended long after John Keats’s death. Their grandmother, now almost seventy, was left with half the income she and her husband had lived on. To practice economy, she moved to a smaller home and attempted to save what she could. In her own will, she appointed Richard Abbey trustee and guardian of her grandchildren. This appointment was to have tragic consequences for all the Keats children, but most especially John.
Mrs. Jennings’s new home was close to Enfield, where the youngest son Tom was sent to join his brothers at school. At Enfield, the Keats brothers were well-liked and popular. John caught the attention of his schoolfellows; their reminisces stress his bravery and generosity to others. They also mentioned his sensitivity, a trait which did not prevent him from engaging in fights. As schoolfellow Edward Holmes remembered, “The generosity & daring of his character – in passions of tears or outrageous fits of laughter always in extremes will help to paint Keats in his boyhood.” But Holmes, who later became a well-known music critic, stressed that Keats “was a boy whom any one might easily have fancied would become great – but rather in some military capacity than in literature.” Simply put, there was little in John’s character which would indicate a great future in poetry.
The money problems which began with his grandfather’s death were exacerbated by his mother’s death in mid-March of 1810 and his grandmother’s death in December of 1814. Keats, as the eldest child, was old enough to try and help his mother through her illness; her death impressed itself upon him deeply. His grandmother, whose home had been his for nearly a decade, was also sorely missed. Richard Abbey now became the primary ‘adult’ influence in Keats’s life. Abbey withdrew John and George from school and apprenticed John to an apothecary/surgeon named Dr. Hammond. Keats displayed great aptitude for the difficult job though his enthusiasm waned as his interest in poetry grew. For the next three years, he studied medicine. He also wrote his first poem in 1814, a few months before his grandmother died.
Abbey was executor of her estate and thus guardian of her grandchildren. He took Keats’s younger sister Fanny into his home. Using the vague wording of John Jennings’ will as at pretext, he often withheld money from the children. He did this despite his legal obligations, largely because he believed they would waste the money and become destitute. The actual amount of the inheritance was also never made clear. And so the Keats children struggled for money while Abbey wrangled with the inheritance, whether through malice or disinterest. The psychological and physical effects of this poverty were profound.
Abbey’s own conservative austerity made him unsympathetic to the children. He had a low opinion of their temperaments and maturity. This opinion was formed by the behavior of their mother during her marriage and estrangement from Rawlings. There had been rumors of Frances wandering the streets in disarray and living in sin with various men. Abbey wanted the Keats sons to achieve success in respectable, stable careers, hence his desire for John to become an apothecary. Like most Englishmen, he did not consider poetry, particularly as practiced by a middle-class boy, to be a good career choice. Poetry was the provenance of the noble and wealthy who possessed the leisure and education to indulge in wordplay. John Keats could not afford such a lifestyle. This attitude was pervasive enough to influence early reviews of Keats’s poetry as influential magazines such as Blackwood’s called him ‘ignorant and unsettled’, a ‘pretender’ to a poetic career.
On 1 October 1815, Keats entered Guy’s Hospital for more formal training. Henry Stephens, a classmate and later the inventor of blue-black ink, described the would-be poet:
Whilst attending lectures, he [Keats] would sit & instead of Copying out the lecture, would often scribble some doggerel rhymes, among the Notes of Lecture, particularly if he got hold of another Student’s Syllabus – In my Syllabus of Chemical Lectures he scribbled many lines on the paper cover, This cover has been long torn off, except one small piece on which is the following fragment of Doggerel rhyme
Give me women, wine and snuff
Until I cry out “hold, enough!”
You may do so sans objection
Till the day of resurrection;
For, bless my beard, they aye shall be
My beloved Trinity.
Stephens’s sensibility made him excise the reference to women and the last two lines when he told this story to Keats’s first biographer, RM Milnes.
In March 1816, Keats became a dresser, applying bandages and, in the summer, a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries. But the most momentous event was the publication of his first poem in The Examiner. There was little critical reception, but Keats was attracting new friends who shared his literary tastes, among them Leigh Hunt, Benjamin Haydon and John Reynolds. Hunt was the earliest and most enthusiastic supporter of Keats. As a critic on the fringes of the literary establishment, he did all he could to champion his friend’s career. Oddly, Keats came to be critical of Hunt’s personal and professional affairs, which was a rare lapse in his usually generous nature. In December, Hunt quoted Keats in his famous ‘Young Poets’ article. He had already given him the nickname ‘Junkets’, from Keats’s Cockney pronunciation of his own name.
By this time, Keats had decided to end his medical training. He had no illusions of the difficulty of a poetic career but he was determined to follow his dream. He was already borrowing as many books as possible from various friends, and became an ardent admirer of Spenser and Shakespeare. This devotion to reading, which had begun after his father’s death and remained throughout his life, inspired his most famous poem of 1816, On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer:
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific–and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise–
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
The following year, 1817, was even more momentous for Keats. While living with his brothers George and Tom in Cheapside, he continued to write poetry; his first volume, Poems, was published by C and J Ollier on 3 March. In a friendly spirit, he gave a copy to Abbey, who told him when they next met, “Well, John, I have read your book, & it reminds me of the Quaker’s Horse which was hard to catch, & good for nothing when he was caught – So, Your Book is hard to understand & good for nothing when it is understood.” Years later, when relating the story, Abbey implied the comment had been humorous but Keats had taken it to heart: “Do you know, I don’t think he ever forgave me for uttering this Opinion.” The book sold very badly and Keats soon left for another publisher, Taylor and Hessey.
It was around this time that the Keats brothers decided to move to the healthier area of north London, settling in Hampstead. Both George and Tom had been employed by Abbey but left their jobs before the move. In Hampstead, the brothers made numerous friends, most notably Charles Wentworth Dilke and his wife Maria. George Keats’s departure from Abbey’s business also marked the beginning of various schemes to make money, one of which required some of John’s inheritance. The next year, he would marry and move to America.
In April 1817, shortly after giving Abbey his first book, Keats embarked on a four-month tour through Carisbrooke, Canterbury, Hastings, etc He also wrote the first books of Endymion and other compositions. The unaccustomed solitude and intense work affected Keats deeply. For the first time in his life, he was able to focus completely on his poetry and realize both the extent of his own ambition and ability. Touching upon his own native genius reassured him that the decision to risk all for a literary career was indeed worthwhile; however, the solitude affected him enough to send him back to the reassuring comfort of Tom’s companionship. His friend, the painter Haydon, would encourage Keats to seek as much solitude as possible while writing. However much he personally needed the support of his brothers, it could not help his poetic development. But the lonely, grinding work of creation, of writing and editing new lines, was difficult. The early losses of his parents and grandparents had undeniably fostered the strong bond between the Keats children; only death would break it. Despite Haydon’s kind advice, the brothers would stay together until George’s emigration and Tom’s death. Keats could not help but become overly involved in his brothers’ lives, often to the sacrifice of his writing and peace of mind.
The trip had another salutary affect upon Keats’s life. During his travels, he first met Joseph Severn, the young painter who would eventually nurse him during his final illness in Rome. Severn was immediately struck by Keats’s genius, which seemed to manifest itself in his ability to literally feel the poetic essence of all things. Haydon confirmed Severn’s impression: “The humming of the bee, the sight of a flower, the glitter of the sun, seemed to make his nature tremble!” This was a very Wordsworthian attribute, as Keats surely understood. He admired much of Wordsworth’s work, but his own love of Elizabethan wordplay gave his poetry an extravagance and sensuality which Wordsworth lacked.
Keats also met Benjamin Bailey and Charles Brown. In September, Keats stayed with his new friend Bailey at Oxford and wrote the third book of Endymion; the fourth book would be completed in late November. Bailey was easily the wealthiest of Keats’s new friends and his lodgings were comfortable and cheerful. They were also full of the books which Keats loved. His writing progressed largely because of Bailey’s own work schedule. Bailey would begin his studies directly after breakfast and Keats would also take up his pen. Later in the afternoon, he would read his work to Bailey and they would talk and go for long walks. Like Severn, Bailey genuinely admired Keats. His open appreciation encouraged the shy poet’s work and conversation. Keats rarely spoke of personal matters to anyone but, while in Oxford, he opened up to Bailey. His young friend did not gain a favorable impression of George or Tom, who were at the time having a far too expensive holiday in Paris, complete with a visit to an infamous brother and gaming house. Bailey also learned that Abbey was discouraging Fanny from meeting with her brothers. In response, Keats continued to write his sister, reassuring her that she was both his “only sister” and “dearest friend.”
This time in Oxford allowed Bailey to offer insights into Keats’s character which are free of condescension or exaggeration: “The errors of Keats’s character, – and they were as transparent as a weed in a pure and lucent stream of water, – resulted from his education; rather from his want of education. But like the Thames waters, when taken out to sea, he had the rare quality of purifying himself;….” He was also aware of Keats’s innately generous nature; the poet “allowed for people’s faults more than any man I ever knew.”
Their readings together also confirmed Bailey’s understanding that, though his own education was more vast, Keats’s power of insight was infinitely greater. Destined for a career in the Church and intensely studying theology, Bailey engaged Keats sin many religious talks. The poet was a skeptical believer, but always open to new ideas. The time at Oxford was allowing him to think deeply and consistently about his poetic instincts. He also began to closely study his earlier verse, attempting to create his own philosophy of poetry.
The impact of the month in Oxford on Keats’s development as a man and poet was immense. It marked a new understanding of his desires and purpose, and a new dedication to a literary career. But when he returned to London at the start of the Oxford Michaelmas term on 5 October, it was with noticeable regret. George and Tom had also returned to their cramped rooms. Keats enjoyed his brothers’ companionship, but the long hours of work he had done in Oxford could not be replicated here. The noise and lack of privacy made poetry nearly impossible. At first, he took long walks around the neighborhood, visiting Haydon and Hunt. His old friends were quarreling, with Hunt criticizing Haydon’s paintings and Keats’s Endymion. “I am quite disgusted with literary Men,” Keats wrote to the sympathetic Bailey.
But there was another problem as well, a mysterious one which exacerbated his impatient and frustrated mood. Some biographers believe that Keats had contracted a venereal disease while in Oxford. He was particularly ill at Hampstead in October, and treated himself with mercury, writing to Bailey, “The little Mercury I have taken has corrected the Poison and improved my Health.” The infection lasted for two months, for he mentioned it again to Bailey in late November. There was also a letter in late October in which Keats joked about some sort of sexual experience. In this letter, he also remarks upon inquiries about his health; several friends had supposed he was suffering the pangs of romantic love, but he assured Bailey it was quite the opposite. This issue is discussed at length in Robert Gittings’ biography of Keats. The poet’s sexual experience has always frustrated biographers, but the bawdy contents of several letters and poems suggests that Keats had some experience.
(It is the use of mercury which biographers have used to support the theory of venereal disease. As Keats had occasion to know from the lectures at St Guy’s, mercury was used to treat syphilis and gonorrhea. However, it was also used to treat common respiratory illnesses. Since Keats spent the latter days of October indoors completing Endymion, it is possible he merely had a cold. It’s impossible to know the truth of the matter; for opposing views, read Robert Gittings’s biograpy and Walter Wells’s medical study.)
The forced rest of October allowed him to continue, though with interruption, the development of his philosophy. He could now read and critique even his great heroes Wordsworth and Coleridge; his contemporaries Shelley and Byron were also studied. Keats was now confident enough of his own abilities to judge their innate worth. He felt himself to be charting a new path, while growing increasingly frustrated with the constraints of Endymion. Taken as a whole, the work is inconsistent and often frustrating, but there are passages of great beauty and power. Reading it, we can witness the young poet (and remember, Keats was about to turn just 22) struggling to find his natural voice, finding it, and then developing its consistency.
But in the final months of 1817, even as he recovered from his mysterious illness, he had a more pressing cause for worry – his brother Tom was ill, and becoming more so, in a ghastly repeat of their mother’s death. Tom’s illness would come to occupy his brother’s thoughts for most of the next year. In December 1817, there was a welcome distraction – the chance to meet his great hero Wordsworth. Haydon arranged the meeting and later famously described it:
“I said he has just finished an exquisite ode to Pan – and as he had not a copy I begged Keats to repeat it – which he did in his usual half chant, (most touching) walking up & down the room – when he had done I felt really, as if I had heard a young Apollo – Wordsworth drily said –
‘a Very pretty piece of Paganism’ –
This was unfeeling, & unworthy of his high Genius to a young Worshipper like Keats – & Keats felt it deeply – so that if Keats has said any thing severe about our Friend; it was because he was wounded – and though he dined with Wordsworth after at my table – he never forgave him.”
The above description is quite famous but there is reason to doubt its accuracy. Haydon first told the story decades later; his journals at the time make no mention of it. Also, Keats’s attitude towards Wordsworth did not noticeably change. It is clear from other accounts that some exchange occurred between the two poets, but it seemed more to amuse Keats than offend him. He was now confident enough of his own abilities to recognize Wordsworth’s less attractive traits.
In mid-December, George and Tom traveled to Teignmouth for Tom’s health. The tuberculosis that had killed their mother was not yet suspected in the youngest Keats; but he was ill and seemed to grow worse as the weeks passed. Keats spent the next two months revising and copying Endymion and attending lectures by the great critic William Hazlitt. Endymion was published in late spring by Taylor and Hessey. His brother’s declining health brought Keats to Teignmouth in March, and he spent the next two months there, nursing Tom while writing Isabella, or the Pot of Basil. Bailey invited him to Oxford again; he had read Endymion several times and was impressed enough to write a glowing review for a local paper. But Tom’s condition prevented the trip.
Meanwhile, George was planning his wedding to Georgiana Wylie and their emigration to America. Of his inheritance of £1700, he would leave £500 behind; this was to pay his outstanding debts and give his brothers extra money. It was also repayment of various loans Keats had made him over the years. George married on 28 May 1818, with Keats signing the register as witness. Three weeks later, George and his new wife left England.
For the first time in their young lives, the brothers were split apart. Keats felt the separation keenly. Their orphaned upbringing had made them extraordinarily close and now George was gone, Fanny was locked away with Abbey’s family, and poor Tom was dying, as Keats finally admitted to himself. They had originally hoped for a recovery, perhaps spurred by a trip to the warm climates of Portugal or Italy, but the plans came to naught. He wrote in a maudlin mood to Bailey: “I have two Brothers, one is driven by the ‘burden of Society’ to America, the other, with an exquisite love of Life, is in a lingering state. I have a Sister too and may not follow them, either to America or to the Grave.”
Keats’s affection for Georgiana gave him some consolation; just twenty years old upon leaving England, she had already impressed him with her kind, warm-hearted nature and appreciation of his work. Also, Tom had made plans to return to London and allow their landlady Mrs. Bentley to nurse him at Well Walk. This would allow Keats the opportunity to travel with Charles Brown, whose acquaintance he had made in the fateful summer of 1817. They toured the Lake District for several weeks, and then did an extensive walking tour of Scotland. It was a wonderful trip for the poet. Not only was he distracted from his personal problems, but he and Brown became close friends. And the beautiful landscapes he encountered inspired his writing. He described them in a lengthy letter to Tom: “….[T]hey make one forget the divisions of life; age, youth, poverty and riches; and refine one’s sensual vision into a sort of north star which can never cease to be open lidded and steadfast over the wonders of the great Power. ….I never forget my stature so completely. I live in the eye; and my imagination, surpassed, is at rest. ….I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever.”
These were indeed prophetic words, foreshadowing his incredible accomplishments of 1819. This trip, like his tour of 1817 and subsequent month in Oxford, marked the next stage of Keats’s life. Brown would become a major figure, both friend and supporter to the poet.
In mid-July, Keats wrote a long letter to Bailey which should be noted since it contains the poet’s oft-quoted remarks about women. Keats had been dismissive of the fairer sex in an earlier letter, which upset Bailey; now he was reflective, seeking to understand his own contradictory feelings. His current reading of Burns and Dante had also affected him. And he understood his own character well enough to tell Bailey, “I carry all matters to an extreme.” Regarding women:
“Is it not extraordinary? When among Men I have no evil thoughts, no malice, no spleen – I can listen and from every one I can learn – my hands are in my pockets I am free from all suspicion and comfortable. When I am among Women I have evil thoughts, malice, spleen – I cannot speak or be silent – I am full of Suspicions and therefore listen to no thing – I am in a hurry to be gone – You must be charitable and put all this perversity to my being disappointed since Boyhood – ….I must absolutely get over this, – but how? The only way is to find the root of the evil, and so cure it.”
This attitude has been much discussed by biographers and critics, but seems understandable enough. As a shy young man with limited experience of women as well as a lingering defensiveness regarding his height (Keats was about five feet tall), his feelings were necessarily conflicted.
A few days after completing this letter, the rigors of the tour finally caught up with him. He caught a severe cold which turned into acute tonsillitis. He saw a doctor at Inverness on 6 August who advised him to return to London. Keats did so, and the ten day sale from Cromarty to London, with its enforced rest, restored some of his health. But bad news had arrived in Scotland for him. Tom’s doctor had asked the Dilkes to send for Keats; his brother’s condition was now dire. Brown wrote back that Keats was already on his way home. He arrived in London unaware and cheerful, meeting Severn in the city and then traveling back to Hampstead. His first stop was the Dilke household, where he made a great impression on Mrs. Dilke; Keats was “as brown and as shabby as you can imagine; scarcely any shoes left, his jacket all torn at the back, a fur cap, a great plaid, and his knapsack. I cannot tell you what he looked like.” They told him about Tom’s condition and he immediately left for Well Walk.
Nursing Tom was now his main task, but his own sore throat soon returned. Keats began to take larger doses of mercury under the advice of Tom’s doctor. They feared his ulcerated throat might turn out to be a syphilitic ulcer; doctors mistakenly believed there was a connection between gonorrhea and syphilis. The mercury had its own side effects, including nervousness, sore gums, and a bad toothache. Keats discontinued the medicine in late September. He spent several weeks in near seclusion, venturing to London once to ask Abbey to allow Fanny to visit Tom. When not brooding over his brother’s too brief life, he could consider the cruel reviews of Poems and Endymion which had appeared in the press.
The influential Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine had published a scathing criticism of the ‘Cockney School of Poetry’, into which they lumped both Hunt and Keats. Keats did not appreciate the link; his own development had taken him far from Hunt’s aesthetic. But he was not destroyed by the review, as later writers would imply.
The review itself made numerous references to his humble middle-class origins and apothecary training. Blackwood’s would return to this snide characterization continuously. And it was all because of Bailey’s misguided loyalty. At a dinner party with John Lockhart of Blackwood’s, who published reviews under the anonymous ‘Z.’, Bailey heard Lockhart comment that Keats shared Hunt’s poetry and politics. In their long talks and letters, Keats had confessed his fear of exactly this criticism to Bailey, and now Bailey jumped to his friend’s defense. Attempting to distinguish the two men, he discussed Keats’s life, giving Lockhart ammunition for his attack. Realizing his blunder, Bailey asked Lockhart to keep the information to himself, which the critic did. After all, the review did not appear under his name.
Blackwood’s review was by far the worst; other reviewers were content to simply discuss the poetry itself. It was of too new a type for immediate popularity, but some acknowledged Keats’s obvious talent, merely criticizing the path he had chosen. For Keats himself, the works reviewed had long since been abandoned in an aesthetic sense. They were the products of his youth, his idealistic experimentation, his first attempts at poetry; he had already left them behind.
He was also leaving behind another part of his youth, the close companionship and support of his brothers. George was gone to America and Tom was dying. Keats could no longer define himself as an older brother and rely upon their encouragement. He would soon be completely alone. He would also compose some of the most beautiful poetry ever written.
As if Keats’s return home was not traumatic enough, with Tom’s illness and his own emotional and physical stress, another event occurred which had a profound impact upon the poet. He met Charles Brown’s former tenants, the Brawne family. Brown and the Dilke family each owned half of a double house in Hampstead called Wentworth Place. Brown rented out his half when he left on annual vacations, as he had with Keats that summer; when he returned, the Brawnes moved to Elm Cottage, a brief walk away. But while they had lived at Wentworth Place, they had become close friends with Keats’s friends, the kindly Dilke family. The Dilkes had spoken often of Keats, praising him in the highest terms. And so when the Brawne family finally met the esteemed young Mr Keats, they were prepared to like him.
Mrs Brawne was widowed; she lived with her 18 year old daughter Fanny, 14 year old son Sam and 9 year old daughter Margaret. The teenaged Fanny was not considered beautiful, but she was spirited and kind. She was also a realist and immensely practical, perhaps as a result of her family’s straitened circumstances. She took great care with her appearance and enjoyed flirting with young admirers. As Hampstead was close to an army barracks, there were numerous military dances throughout the year. Fanny was a popular participant; when they first met, Keats was struck by her coquettish sense of fun, and it later pricked his jealousy too often for comfort. “My greatest torment since I have known you has been the fear of you being a little inclined to the Cressid,” he would tell her later, referring to Chaucer’s infamous flirt.
They met at the Dilkes’ home, as Fanny later recalled, and “[Keats’s] conversation was in the highest degree interesting and his spirits good, excepting at moments when anxiety regarding his brother’s health dejected them.” Indeed, Keats, whatever his first impressions of young Miss Brawne, was too caught up with his younger brother’s decline to ponder any attraction. By the end of November, with Tom close to death, Keats spent nearly every waking moment at Tom’s bedside. The little rooms at Well Walk, once the scene of close companionship for the brothers, were now haunted with disappointment, despair and grief. When Tom died on 1 December, Keats was worn and numb. The memories of Tom’s terrible, lingering illness would never leave him; Keats was too sensitive and brooding to ever forget them.
But he at least had a welcome distraction in Fanny Brawne. Eager to escape Well Walk, he gladly accepted Brown’s invitation to share Wentworth Place with him. This was not charity on Brown’s part; Keats paid him the normal rate for lodging. Since the Dilkes’ were now next door, Keats visited with more frequency; and each time, the brown-haired, blue-eyed Fanny made a greater impression. She both confused and exasperated Keats, and therein lay her attraction. He simply could not understand her. In mid-December, two weeks after Tom’s death, he wrote a long letter to George and Georgiana in America. Its contents spanned a fortnight and Fanny is notably mentioned: “Mrs Brawne who took Brown’s house for the summer still resides in Hampstead. She is a very nice woman and her daughter senior is I think beautiful, elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable and strange. We have a little tiff now and then – and she behaves a little better, or I must have sheered off.” And later the poet gives a more vivid description:
“Shall I give you Miss Brawne? She is about my height with a fine style of countenance of the lengthened sort – she wants sentiment in every feature – she manages to make her hair look well – her nostrils are fine though a little painful – her mouth is bad and good – her Profile is better than her full-face which indeed is not full but pale and thin without showing any bone – her shape is very graceful and so are her movements – Her arms are good her hands badish – her feet tolerable…. She is not seventeen – but she is ignorant – monstrous in her behavior flying out in all directions, calling people such names that I was forced lately to make use of the term Minx – this I think not from any innate vice but from a penchant she has for acting stylishly. I am however tired of such style and shall decline any more of it.”
And, for a time, it seems he did try to dismiss Fanny from his mind. She rates only a passing mention in a mid-February letter to George (he and Fanny have an occasional ‘chat and a tiff’). Poetry had once more become a consuming passion. But it would only be a matter of time before both Fanny and poetry occupied positions of equal importance in his life.
Fanny was no poet, nor did she aspire to the title. But as their acquaintance grew and deepened, she developed a keen appreciation and respect for Keats’s work. Whether she enjoyed it because it was written by the young man she loved, or because she recognized its greatness, we do not know; but her encouragement – and that of his friends – was welcome. (And it may be that Keats preferred Fanny’s decidedly non-poetic conversation. He had, after all, commented, “I have met with women who I really think would like to be married to a Poem and to be given away by a Novel.” If Fanny loved him, she loved him as John Keats alone and that won his gratitude.)
Throughout the winter of 1819, Keats worked for hours at his desk. In January, The Eve of St Agnes was completed and, a month later, The Eve of St Mark. He also worked on the ambitious Hyperion until early spring; he would leave it deliberately unfinished.
On 3 April 1819, he was suddenly forced into even closer quarters with the baffling Miss Brawne. The Dilkes decided to move to the city center and rented their half of Wentworth Place to Mrs Brawne and her children. Fanny was now a next door neighbor and her presence came close to intoxicating Keats. From April onward, their romance blossomed. Keats would interrupt his serious poetry to write quick sonnets to Fanny, including the famous Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art. Most of these works dwell upon her physical charms, but they also celebrate the enjoyment and abandon he found in her company. It was inevitable that his first love affair would consume him. Once he allowed love to take hold, Keats dedicated himself to it with his trademark intensity. In turn, he was given new impetus, – new inspiration, – new insight into his own emotions and the world itself. His poetry began to reflect this new maturity and power.
The original manuscript image of the ‘Bright star!’ sonnet
In late April, he began composing one of his best-loved works, La Belle Dame Sans Merci. The story of an enchantress and the knight she lures to his doom, it is an evocative and beautiful work, justly celebrated. But even it gives no hint of the great works to come; Keats himself considered it mere light verse and, in a letter to George, dismissed it with a joke. Then, in the space of a few weeks, he composed three of the most beautiful works of poetry ever written – Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on Melancholy. The story of the composition of Ode to a Nightingale, as well as an image of Keats’s original draft, can be read at the Keats: Manuscripts page.
These works have been subject to much critical analysis, but the fact remains that – their technical merit aside – they are, quite simply, beautiful. They remain the ultimate expression of Keats’s genius and secured his reputation as a great poet. But this vindication of his early promise did not result in immediate acclaim. There was no fanfare, or even immediate publication. Instead, there were more long hours at work, stolen moments with Fanny, and Brown’s cheerful company. Mrs Brawne had by now realized the serious course of Keats and Fanny’s relationship; she could not have been very pleased. Keats was a kind and intelligent young man, but he was poor and his chosen career offered little hope of success. But her own good nature could not prevent a love match. She grew fond of the poet and later nursed him through his illness.
But Brown was not happy about the relationship. He disliked Fanny, perhaps out of jealousy because she consumed much of Keats’s time and thought. Perhaps, too, he understood the depth of Keats’s feelings and Fanny’s casual, flirtatious attitude with other men (Brown included) indicated a far more shallow attachment on her part. He did not encourage their courtship and, amongst the poet’s friends (with the exception of the Dilkes), Fanny was viewed somewhat askance. They noticed her teasing behavior and the depression and jealousy it aroused in Keats. Distracted by such antics, how could Keats write?
For his part, Keats was not unaware of their friendly concern but knew himself too well to be bothered. He had confessed his extreme nature to Bailey over two years past and had come to relish it; it provided the force for his poetry (“the excellence of every Art is its intensity,” he once wrote.)
He continued writing, completing the Ode on Indolence probably in early June. Its epigraph is from Matthew 6:28, in which Jesus urges his followers not to be anxious: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.” And its inspiration was found in a letter he had begun to George and Georgiana in mid-March. He had written:
“This morning I am in a sort of temper indolent and supremely careless…. Neither Poetry, nor Ambition, nor Love have any alertness of countenance as they pass by me: they seem rather like three figures on a greek vase – a Man and two women – whom no one but myself could distinguish in their disguisement. This is the only happiness; and is a rare instance of advantage in the body overpowering the Mind.”
The Ode to Psyche was completed next. When summer finally arrived, Keats had gone through a period of sustained achievement. He also became unofficially engaged to Fanny. But mid-summer brought the potential for a new tragedy. He experienced the first signs of tuberculosis, the disease which had already claimed his mother and younger brother and would eventually kill him.
Living with his good friend Charles Brown, and with his new love next door, Keats had reason to believe the tragedies of the past were safely behind him. His poetry had matured with stunning force; the risky rejection of a medical career could soon be justified, even to the skeptical Abbey. And though his first volume had earned bad reviews from the mainstream press, he had high hopes for his next collection. The pressing problem of money could not be forgotten, of course; it drove him to Shanklin in the Isle of Wight for the summer. This holiday in cheap lodgings saved money but it also allowed Keats uninterrupted time to write.
He worked on part one of Lamia and Otho the Great, a play which Brown encouraged as a way for he and Keats to enter the playwriting business. It was their hope that plays might be more profitable than poetry. Keats enjoyed visiting the theater with his friends and especially admired the great English actor Edmund Kean. He was willing to try his hand at drama. Unfortunately, Otho was never completed. As for Lamia, it is a beautiful work, and starkly embodies Keats’s comment to Woodhouse: ‘Women love to be forced to do a thing, by a fine fellow.’ The poem is a realistic depiction of love as a violent and destructive force, often contradictory and inexplicable. The treatment of sexuality is also striking. For those later shocked by the intensity of Keats’s love letters to Fanny Brawne, Lamia reveals a poet reveling in the complexities of love.
In August, Keats left the Isle of Wight for Winchester. Here he wrote the second part of Lamia and the beautiful ode To Autumn. The latter remains one of his most famous works:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, –
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breat whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
Keats also began The Fall of Hyperion; however, he became unsatisfied with the concept and abandoned the work. The momentous year 1820 would end as it had begun, in thrall to the story of Hyperion. Reading the two works now, one realizes the enormous growth of Keats’s talent in a single year.
It is important to remember that he was just twenty-three years old, and already composing at a rapid pace while further developing his poetic philosophy. His love of the extravagant wordplay of the Elizabethans was now tempered by his own maturity. Personal grief and worry had made him older than his years. But he also possessed an innate love of life, the Wordsworthian celebration of the natural world which Haydon had noted. Keats was now able to draw these disparate influences together and create his own unique philosophy. In him, the school of life, with all its troubles and triumphs, had an apt pupil. Rarely has a poet so beautifully captured the natural world in all its glory.
Yet this ability to translate an affinity for nature into lasting art is not Keats’s only claim to greatness. The natural world of human emotion was also fertile ground for his imagination; indeed, he claimed all of Creation as his playing-field. It is both touching and awe-inspiring to take stock of his ambition – and to realize how often, against impossible odds, he claimed victory. In our own time as well, it is useful to note that Keats never attended a creative writing class nor a poetry seminar; he was never taught how to write poetry, just as his hero Shakespeare never attended a playwriting course. The word ‘genius’ is used very casually these days, but it is a precious and rare commodity. Keats possessed it, that spark of intuition and imagination which made his work immortal.
But the adulation of later generations was not Keats’s concern in the autumn of 1819. He returned to Hampstead in October and was soon officially engaged to Fanny Brawne. Their meeting after his three months’ absence overwhelmed Keats; ‘you dazzled me’, he wrote to Fanny. She was still a tease and deliberately stoked his jealousy. The poet remained torn between his work and his love. The holiday peace which had aided his poetry disappeared the moment he saw Fanny. Marriage was now their only option.
The prospect of marriage brought fresh scrutiny of his financial woes. He had to make money from writing; even a small success would be welcome. He met with his publishers again in November and plans were made for another book of poems. Keats also borrowed numerous works of sixteenth-century history from Taylor to research the Earl of Leicester. Brown’s earlier push towards playwriting for profit had helped spark a new ambition in Keats. Now he planned to write a play about Elizabeth I’s true love, and the choice of Shakespeare’s time was perhaps deliberate. Above all else, Keats admired Shakespeare’s universality, his realism, the ability to create high drama from human emotion rather than outlandish deeds. He now intended to become a playwright like his idol, using the years of poetry as a school of sorts, preparation for the real achievements which lay ahead. He wrote to Taylor that he hoped to finish soon, ‘if God should spare me.’
In January, his brother George returned from America to borrow more money from Keats, who could ill afford it. He came to an agreement with Abbey over the final settlement of his grandmother’s estate; the end result was very little, and Keats gave most of it to George. There was a new distance between the brothers. Though younger, George was married and settling into his own business while Keats could not afford to marry Fanny. ‘George out not to have done this,’ Keats remarked to Fanny about the loan, ‘he should have reflected that I wish to marry myself – but I suppose having a family to provide for makes a man selfish.’ To Brown he was more bitter: ‘Brown, he ought not to have asked me.’ George himself told his brother, ‘You, John, have so many friends, they will be sure to take care of you!’ Keats was careful to keep his own troubles secret, not wishing to add to George’s worries. His letters to George and Georgiana, both before and after George’s January 1820 visit to England, are wonderful documents – engaging, witty, profound, but rarely does Keats admit to any depression and worry. His protective instinct towards his siblings would never disappear.
THE FINAL YEAR
The trauma of Keats’s boyhood prepared him for the anxieties which marked the last year of his life. The fact that much anxiety was of a financial nature, and thus completely unnecessary (since his inheritance was actually greater than Abbey revealed), is sadly ironic. But the problems and distractions which would have destroyed a lesser poet merely spurred Keats on, driven by his ambition and the stark need for success. In February 1820, however, this drive was checked by something more ominous than poverty.
The next month began badly, with a portent of worse to come. Brown’s maid told him that Keats was taking laudanum; when confronted, Keats promised to stop. But while Brown believed Keats took it ‘to keep up his spirits’, the truth was that he used it as a normal pain-killer. The occasional sore throat and cough which had troubled him was still dismissed as a mere cold; but a new tightness in his chest had begun. And on 3 February, Keats had his first lung hemorrhage. The story of this tragic event was later recalled by Charles Brown, who never forgot it. Keats had gown into the city to visit friends and returned at 11 o’clock; it was cheapest to ride outside the stagecoach, which he did, but he lacked a warm coat and the night was bitterly cold and windy. He arrived at Brown’s house in a sort of fever. His friend immediately realized Keats was ill and sent him upstairs to bed. Brown then brought him a glass of spirits; as he entered the room, he heard Keats cough. It was just a slight cough, but Keats said: ‘That is blood from my mouth.’ There was a drop of blood upon his bedsheet. He said to Brown, ‘Bring me the candle, Brown, and let me see this blood.’ Both men looked upon it for a moment; then Keats looked up at his friend calmly and said, ‘I know the color of that blood; it is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that color. That drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die.’
Brown never forgot those words, nor the otherworldly calm with which Keats spoke. His friend’s apothecary training and nursing of Tom revealed the illness for what it was; there could be no doubt, no comforting pretence.
Later that evening there was a second hemorrhage, far greater and more dangerous than the first. This was typical of tubercular patients and the second bleeding was often fatal. Keats could not help but cough violently; the cough, in turn, enlarged the area of bleeding and the spread of blood into his mouth was so sudden and thick that he thought he would die then. He said to Brown, ‘This is unfortunate.’ Luckily, he survived the bleeding and was able to rest at Brown’s home for the next several weeks.
The illness could not help but remind him of the responsibilities he still bore. He wrote a batch of letters to his younger sister Fanny, still a ward in Abbey’s home. George had not even visited Fanny while in England, but Keats thought of her often. Now that he was ill and reflective, he felt guilty for not visiting her more. ‘You have no one in the world besides me who would sacrifice any thing for you – I feel myself the only Protector you have,’ he wrote to her. He kept both she and Fanny Brawne apprised of his illness, though he was careful to be cheerful and light-hearted. He was being treated by the surgeon GR Rodd, whom Brown had summoned that fateful night. Rodd prescribed a light diet and bleeding. Keats noted the weakness caused by the bleeding, but followed orders.
At this point, he feared the worst but tried to believe the best. It had been an unusually cold winter; many of his friends had fallen ill. Perhaps there was a possibility he would recover. But the weakness which had settled into him was too pervasive and heavy; it laid upon him. Within a week, he could only manage a quarter of an hour in the garden. And his medical training countered any optimism; he had bled so heavily that first night that his lungs must be damaged. It was realistically impossible to believe otherwise.
There was no hope for it and so he wrote to Fanny Brawne, telling her she was free to break their engagement. Of course, she did not and Keats could not deny his relief: ‘How hurt I should have been had you ever acceded to what is, notwithstanding, very reasonable!’
Still, they were advised by friends and the doctor to keep their visits to a minimum. Keats was to avoid any heightened emotion, any upset, and Fanny might be susceptible to his illness. Also, Brown disliked Fanny and was always possessive of Keats. He now nursed him diligently, and did his best to keep the poet calm and Fanny safely next door.
Keats wrote to his friend James Rice, who had also experienced serious illness:
“How astonishingly does the chance of leaving the world impress a sense of its natural beauties on us. Like poor Falstaff, though I do not babble, I think of green fields. I muse with the greatest affection on every flower I have known from my infancy – their shapes and colours are as new to me as if I had just created them with a superhuman fancy -…. It is because they are connected with the most thoughtless and happiest moments of our Lives.'”
And in an undated note from the same period, he mused: ‘”If I should die”, said I to myself, “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.”‘
There was new impetus for poetry, then, including a gift from BW Procter, whom Hunt had compared to Keats. And Taylor pushed him to select and revise poems for the press. Keats turned to the task with some of his old enthusiasm. But this proved to be too much for his precarious health. The contrast between the powerful writing of a mere few months before with his now weakened and helpless state depressed him. It could not be otherwise. His ill health, the endless fever and weakness, could not be ignored. And Brown’s dislike of Fanny was now open and unavoidable. Part of this stemmed from Brown’s own scandalous behavior; his housemaid was pregnant with his child. He did not want female visitors to his home. But Fanny, who quickly realized the situation, was determined to visit Keats. She did so as often as possible and, against the advice of even her mother, sent him a brief note every night.
The emotional situation would have been difficult even for someone in perfect health. But on 6 March, Keats had a new and dangerous symptom. That night, he experienced violent palpitations of the heart. Rodd recommended a specialist, Dr Robert Bree, who declared Keats to be suffering from a primarily hysterical illness. He did not dismiss the earlier bleeding, but believed it was caused by anxiety. Brown wrote in relief to Taylor that ‘there is no pulmonary affection, no organic defect whatever, – the disease is on his mind.’
Whether Keats believed this is unclear. He had close experience with tubercular patients and extensive medical knowledge of his own. But he could not help but wonder if Bree was correct. Certainly it was a more optimistic diagnosis than he expected. And Bree removed him from the starvation diet, prescribing wine and meat to build strength. He also gave Keats sedatives for his anxiety, primarily opium. This helped ease the pain and tightness of his chest.
A normal diet and pain medication gave Keats back some of his old strength. He was able to work on the volume of poems for Taylor and passed some two months of relative peace. His letters to Fanny Brawne were more confident and playful. He was even able to attend an exhibit of Haydon’s work in Piccadilly, walking over eight miles there and back..
Brown typically rented out his home during the summer when rents were highest. He was especially eager to do so that summer; the impending birth of his child and support for its mother put a strain on his finances. He cast about for somewhere for Keats to stay, but it was Leigh Hunt who came to the rescue. Hunt’s wife was also a consumptive; it is probable that he understood the seriousness of Keats’s condition. But he also realized that everyone, including Keats, had committed to pretending that Keats was not truly ill, and rest and emotional tranquility would cure him. Hunt’s own financial problems had driven him just outside Hampstead, and he arranged for Keats to live just a few doors away. The rent was much cheaper than in Hampstead proper but still within a mile of Fanny’s home. It was also still close to town, so that Keats could continue to advise Taylor and Hessey on his book. Hunt promised to keep close watch upon his friend. And Brown, despite his own troubles, lent Keats £50 for summer expenses; he borrowed the money from his lawyer. He also paid moving expenses and the first weeks’ rent. All of this was on top of forgiving Keats’s household expenses for the last several weeks at his home. Brown then left for Scotland, with Keats accompanying him to Gravesend. They never met again.
The new lodgings had one unbearable defect for Keats – they lacked Fanny Brawne. She was just a mile away, but it might as well have been ten miles. She could not visit his lodgings without a chaperone, and they could not meet at Hunt’s noisy home. During his illness at Hampstead, even when apart, he could still glimpse her occasionally, going about her errands. And they had met quite often and exchanged notes. Now she was too far away to glimpse or hear. Her mother came to check on him, but we have no evidence that Fanny came. Keats himself returned to Wentworth Place just once, to pick up letters for Brown. The strain of seeing Fanny and then parting was too great. He wondered ceaselessly if her feelings had changed, if she still loved him; this emotional distress was exacerbated by his physical decline. And his long-standing distrust of women, his disdain for their flirtatious and teasing behavior, reawakened old suspicions. He now played the role of jealous lover.
His mood darkened so that even occasional visits to town went badly. The young artist Joseph Severn paid the most visits to Keats. But their walks on the Heath grew short as Keats’s depression lingered. At the end of May, he learned of Fanny’s unchaperoned visit to the Dilke home for a party and dance. He could not bear it, and wrote accusatory letters to her. Fanny responded with lively good sense and Keats was soon contrite. “Do not believe me such a vulgar fellow,” he wrote to her. “I will be as patient in illness and as believing in Love as I am able.” But this new resolve could not hold; his own nature worked against it.
He spent June correcting the proofs of his new book. It was a cause to be happy, but as he wrote to Brown, “My book is coming out with very low hopes, though not spirits on my part.” In mid-June he visited the city and was invited to a dinner with Wordsworth. Keats did not dare risk the night air, but he would have been pleased to hear Wordsworth’s praise. Keats was “a youth of promise too great for the sorry company he keeps”, the older poet remarked. On 22 June, a letter arrived from his sister Fanny; there was a new problem with the Abbeys. Keats prepared to visit but, on the way to the town coach, a new fit of bleeding occurred. Dr Bree was wrong after all. This was not a nervous condition, but a real and serious physical problem. With a mouth full of blood, he returned to his rooms. He later went to Hunt’s home but told them nothing. He returned home that night to a replay of the February bleeding; he had a second and far more dangerous hemorrhage. Keats’s landlady summoned Hunt and Keats was moved to the Hunt household at 13 Mortimer Terrace. Dr George Darling was summoned to his bedside. Darling believed Keats was consumptive, and he prescribed the same light diet and blood-letting as Rodd. Bree’s treatment, despite its false emphasis upon Keats’s emotional health, had at least allowed him solid meals and no bleeding. He had regained some of his old strength. But now regular bleeding and scanty diet took their toll anew.
Hunt attempted to lift his spirits but it was hopeless. His household was too noisy and troublesome. The poet’s despondency found echo in his beloved Shakespeare; as he wrote to Fanny:
“Shakespeare always sums up matters in the most sovereign manner. Hamlet’s heart was full of such Misery as mine is when he said to Ophelia ‘Go to a Nunnery, go go!’ Indeed I should like to give up the matter at once – I should like to die. I am sickened at the brute world which you are smiling with.”
His thoughts dwelt constantly upon thwarted love, at happiness snatched away just as it came near:
“If my health would bear it, I could write a Poem which I have in my head, which would be a consolation for people in such a situation as mine. I would show some one in Love as I am, with a person living in such Liberty as you do.”
But despondency could be alleviated by something which Keats neither expected nor dared to dream – positive critical reviews of his new book. The book was printed in the last week of June 1820 and was a far greater success than his earlier work; indeed, its reception was as positive as any poet could wish. Even Blackwood’s was somewhat impressed. Taylor had recognized Keats’s genius, writing to his father, ‘Next week Keats’s new Volume of Poems will be published, and if it does not sell well, I think nothing will ever sell again – I am sure of this that for poetic Genius there is not his equal living, & I would compare him against any one with either Milton or Shakespeare for Beauties.’ His friends were equally voluble in praise, but it was the outside reviews which mattered most. After all, Keats needed to impress more than his small circle of companions.
He knew of the strong sales, writing, ‘My book has had a good success among literary people, and, I believe, has a moderate sale.’ But his ill health prevented any real celebration. Recognition and praise for his poetry was a sweet torment. He was seriously ill, possibly dying, at the moment of triumph.
His friends had long suggested a trip to Italy to recover his health. At first, it had been viewed as a chance to calm his spirits and allow needed rest. But now it was recognized as a last chance at recovery. Such trips to warmer climates were common for tubercular patients.
An experience at Hunt’s drove Keats back to Hampstead, but in a most heartbreaking way. A letter from Fanny Brawne was mistakenly opened before being given to Keats. He was immediately and irrationally upset; he cried for hours and told a shocked Hunt that his heart was breaking. His battle with the world had finally broken his spirit. Keats left for Hampstead, walking along Well Walk and past the rooms where Tom had died. He was glimpsed at the end of the street, sobbing into his handkerchief. Finally, he arrived at the Brawnes’ rented rooms at Wentworth Place. He was so ill, exhausted and emaciated that Mrs Brawne flouted society and admitted him. He would spend the next month there and later say it was the happiest time of his life.
That weekend he sent an apology to Hunt and notes to his sister and Taylor. He asked his publisher for any information about a trip to Italy, its cost and when boats sailed; he also sent Taylor a will of sorts, leaving all his things to Taylor and Brown. In this way, he hoped to settle his debts with both men.
Taylor was generous as always, and more than eager to help Keats. He researched the matter and found that Rome was the best place for medical care. A kind Scottish doctor, James Clark, practiced there and Taylor could write ahead to secure his services. Clark already owned Endymion and the 1820 volume of poems. He knew of and admired Keats.
The success of the last volume of poems allowed Taylor to advance money for the trip. He visited Keats on Friday, 18 August and they discussed matters. Keats both dreaded and anticipated the trip. He did not dare believe he would return. The parting from Fanny, with whom he now lived, would be heartbreaking.
He wrote to Brown, asking his closest friend to accompany him to Rome. Some biographers have implied that Brown refused, remaining in Scotland until it was too late to accompany Keats. In truth, he left Scotland early and hurried back to London only to discover his friend already departed. Whether he wrote to Keats to accept his offer or tell him of his acceptance, we do not know.
The journey was made more pressing by the end of August. Keats had another severe hemorrhage and was now confined to bed, nursed diligently by Fanny. Haydon visited and found his friend ‘to be going out of the world with a contempt for this and no hopes of the other.’ The ironic fulfillment of his poetic and romantic dreams – success at last, and the chance to marry Fanny – consumed him. Happiness could be his at last, if not for this inherited illness. Memories of Tom’s lingering end fought with the desire to stay near Fanny. In the end, he could only take his friends’ advice and the final hope of a recovery in Italy.
But who would accompany him? Brown had not returned. His other friends had ready excuses; Hunt, Haslam, and Dilke had families and Haydon was busy. On 12 September, Severn was approached. The young painter had always admired Keats. He had just won the Academy Gold Medal which would allow for a traveling fellowship. A season in Rome could benefit Keats’s health and Severn’s painting. With the enthusiastic and impulsive kindness which marked his character, Severn accepted the charge. Though young and inexperienced in life, he proved to be an admirable nurse for the ailing poet.
The final goodbye to Fanny can only be surmised. But it is clear from surviving letters that she and Keats had fallen even more deeply in love during that last month. The task of nursing him could have destroyed her affection, but instead it was deepened and strengthened. They exchanged gifts; she included a journal and paper so he could write to her and lined his traveling cap with silk. She also gave him an oval marble which she used to cool her hands while sewing; it could also be used by a fevered patient. This marble, which Fanny herself had clasped so often, would rarely leave Keats’s hands in Rome. He did not write to her – he dared not – nor would he open her letters; the pain was too near. But he held the marble constantly.
They sailed on 17 September. Severn had not grasped the seriousness of Keats’s illness; he believed the trip to Rome was a chance for recovery. They shared quarters with two women, with a screen dividing the beds. One of the women, eighteen year old Miss Cotterell, was the classic consumptive, wasted, weak, and glassy-eyed, pale but with a feverish blush on her cheeks and racked by a brutal cough. In contrast, Keats was still not officially diagnosed and often seemed the picture of health. It was only a week or so into the voyage that Severn began to suspect the truth. For all of his outward signs of bonhomie, the poet grew feverish during the night, coughed hard and brought up blood. Perhaps most disturbing to the gregarious and cheerful Severn, Keats’s physical anguish was consuming him mentally. He often stood by himself, staring silently over the dark water. As Severn wrote, ‘He was often so distraught, with moreover so sad a look in his eyes, sometimes a starved, haunting expression that it bewildered me.’
The kind-hearted Severn was torn. He regarded Keats with something approaching awe, well aware of the younger man’s talent – aware, too, that a few London friends thought he may become a rival to Shakespeare. But during the voyage Severn found Keats withdrawn and difficult to reach. The silence reminded Severn of the lack of true friendship between the men. Yet the silence was better than Keats’s sudden and unexpected outpouring of feeling when they arrived at Naples. Suddenly, Severn became aware of another reason for Keats’s mental anguish – it wasn’t simply his ill health, it was also an ill-fated love affair with a young woman in London named Fanny Brawne. Severn knew of Fanny and Keats’s flirtations with her, but he did not know that she and Keats were engaged. The engagement was known only to Fanny’s mother, who had helped nurse the poet in London.
The first night in Naples (also Keats’s birthday) found both Severn and Keats writing letters home. Severn interrupted his, to their mutual friend William Haslam, when Keats wished to talk again. There are oblique references in Severn’s letter of Keats’s ‘heavy grief’, but nothing more. The conversation soothed Keats but gave Severn fresh cause for concern. Keats’s own state of mind can be further guessed by reading his letter from that evening, to Charles Brown. “I am afraid to write to her – to receive a letter from her – to see her hand writing would break my heart – even to hear of her any how, to see her name written would be more than I could bear,” he told his friend. His “imagination” was “horridly vivid about her – I see her – I hear her….”
It is clear Keats was thinking only of Fanny Brawne, and she was undoubtedly the focus of his conversation with Severn.
These confessions made Severn believe that the poet’s problems were caused as much by love as physical disease. This opinion was already shared by Keats’s friends and doctor, and indeed the poet himself came to believe it. In the text of the letter to Brown, Keats had written:”‘My dear Brown, I should have had her when I was in health, and I should have remained well”. He also believed his younger brother Tom had died as much from a broken heart as consumption. The power of love in Keats’s universe was thus life-altering, and life-threatening. This belief gave Severn some optimism since heartache was not as alarming as consumption. But he was disturbed by the intensity of Keats’s feelings and their affect upon his health.
They were entertained at Naples by Miss Cotterell’s brother, a city banker. The passengers waited under quarantine before they would be allowed to travel further; the kindly Mr Cotterell shared the quarantine. Later, he took them about the city and gave a farewell dinner party. Their visas arrived from the British Legaton on 6 November and from the Papal Consul General the next day; they left for Rome on the 8th. With an effort at economy, they hired a small carriage and stayed at poor inns along the way. It took a week to cover the 140 miles. Severn often walked alongside the carriage so that Keats could rest inside. He gathered armfuls of wildflowers from the roadside, filling the carriage with their bright colors and scents for the poet. They finally arrived in Rome on 15 November.
Their first stop was at Dr James Clark’s office in the Piazza di Spagna. By coincidence, Clark was writing to Naples for word of his patient. He took an instant liking to Keats, but thought Severn an immature companion. Severn’s light-hearted kindness often made others suspect a lack of practicality, an inability to cope with anything serious. His care of Keats soon proved otherwise.
Clark had arranged for rooms beside the staircase which led to the Church of the Trinita dei Monti, what is now called the Spanish Steps. It was a well-known boarding house. Keats and Severn would share the second floor, which was well-furnished; its only drawback was that it opened directly into the landlady’s rooms on the mezzanine floor. There were three rooms – a large sitting-room which overlooked the piazza, a smaller bedroom with one window overlooking the piazza and the other the steps, and a tiny room in the back which Severn used for painting.
Joseph Severn’s letters from Rome are the definitive account of Keats’s final months.
Please click here to read a selection.
Keats and Severn both fell instantly under Rome’s spell. The constant crowd below their windows, the hub of the market and mingle of foreign voices, were lively distractions for the poet. At night, he fell asleep listening to Bernini’s fountain outside. Clark’s diagnosis was at first optimistic. He noticed that Keats had trouble with digestion; he also noted his heightened emotions. A firm believer in healthy food and fresh air, Clark prescribed both to Keats. He encouraged the poet to take short walks around the neighborhood; Keats did so and soon met other English visitors. These gentle distractions proved helpful. But his illness had progressed far more than Clark suspected. The trip to Rome could not offer Keats physical health, but it could give him some measure of calm, a respite from the anguish and worries of England.
That Keats did secure some calm can be proven in the last letter he wrote, to Charles Brown on 30 November:
My dear Brown,
‘Tis the most difficult thing in the world to me to write a letter. My stomach continues so bad, that I feel it worse on opening any book – yet I am much better than I was in Quarantine. Then I am afraid to encounter the proing and conning of any thing interesting to me in England. I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence. God knows how it would have been – but it appears to me – however, I will not speak of that subject. I must have been at Bedhampton nearly at the time you were writing to me from Chichester – how unfortunate – and to pass on the river too! There was my star predominant! I cannot answer any thing in your letter, which followed me from Naples to Rome, because I am afraid to look it over again. I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any hand writing of a friend I love so much as I do you. Yet I ride the little horse, – and, at my worst, even in Quarantine, summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life. There is one thought enough to kill me – I have been well, healthy, alert &c, walking with her – and now – the knowledge of contrast, feeling for light and shade, all that information (primitive sense) necessary for a poem are great enemies to the recovery of the stomach. There, you rogue, I put you to the torture, – but you must bring your philosophy to bear – as I do mine, really – or how should I be able to live? Dr Clarke is very attentive to me; he says, there is very little matter with my lungs, but my stomach, he says, is very bad. I am well disappointed in hearing good news from George, – for it runs in my head we shall all die young. I have not written to **** yet, which he must think very neglectful; being anxious to send him a good account of my health, I have delayed it from week to week. If I recover, I will do all in my power to correct the mistakes made during sickness; and if I should not, all my faults will be forgiven. I shall write to **** tomorrow, or next day. I will write to **** in the middle of next week. Severn is very well, though he leads so dull a life with me. Remember me to all friends, and tell **** I should not have left London without taking leave of him, but from being so low in body and mind. Write to George as soon as you receive this, and tell him how I am, as far as you can guess; – and also a note to my sister – who walks about my imagination like a ghost – she is so like Tom. I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.
God bless you!
note: the asteriks mark names which were omitted by the copyist.
The calm acceptance of this letter was a reflection of his new spirit. But it is also worth noting Keats’s profound description of poetry; ‘the knowledge of contrast, feeling for light and shade, all that information (primitive sense) necessary for a poem’ – this description has never been equaled. Poetry could not be forgotten, but he was all too aware that beginning another poem, so tempting to do when confronted with the new experience of Rome, would shatter his fragile calm. This was yet another aspect of the final tragedy – his poetic impulse was stirred and he was forced to deny it. Severn later remarked that this was his friend’s greatest pain. Soon enough, Keats could not ‘bear any books’ either, for they were painful reminders of immortality. Severn would occasionally read to him (Keats requested Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying for ‘some faith – some hope – something to rest on now’) but the poet would not read himself, nor write to anyone.
This new calm impressed both Severn and Clarke; the doctor remarked that Keats was ‘too noble an animal to be allowed to sink.’ But there was little to do for him now. There were occasional flashes of his old humor and wit. Their dinners were purchased from a nearby restaurant and always badly cooked. One day, with a mischievous smile at Severn, Keats took the dishes and proceeded to empty them out the sitting-room window. ‘Now you’ll see, we’ll have a decent dinner.’ Barely half an hour passed before a new – and delicious – dinner was delivered. Afterwards, their meals were prompt and edible.
But 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 was summoned and promptly bled him. The loss of blood dizzied and confused Keats. When Clark had left, he left his bed to stumble around the rooms, telling Severn, ‘This day shall be my last.’ His companion feared suicide and immediately hid all the sharp objects he could find as well as the laudanum Clarke prescribed. Keats remained delirious for the rest of the day, until finally another violent hemorrhage and bleeding weakened him into calm. Over the next nine days, he suffered five severe hemorrhages and continued bleedings by Clark. The doctor visited constantly and put Keats on a strict diet, mostly fish. Keats begged for food, saying they were starving him.
Severn tried to comfort his friend, but Keats was now past comfort. He rambled on about Tom’s illness and death, and – even more troubling to the devout Severn – denied any Christian comfort. The painter described the scenes for eager friends in England: ‘For he says in words that tear my very heartstrings – “miserable wretch I am – this last cheap comfort which every rogue and fool have – is deny’d me in my last moments – why is this – O! I have serv’d every one with my utmost good – yet why is this – I cannot understand this” – and then his chattering teeth.’ And later, ‘I think a malignant being must have power over us – over whom the Almighty has little or no influence – yet you know Severn I cannot believe in your book – the Bible. …Here am I, with desperation in death that would disgrace the commonest fellow.’ When Severn finished a letter to Keats’s publisher Taylor, the poet told him to add a postscript: ‘I shall soon be in a second edition – in sheets – and cold press.’
The slow, sad death in a foreign city was breaking Keats’s wonderful spirit. The frantic months of losing his brothers, falling in love, writing perfectly at last and knowing it – they were too painful to contemplate. All the time spent reflecting upon ‘the vale of soul-making’ had led to nothing but a poverty-stricken death far from everything he loved. Poor Severn could not hope to break this depression.
By now, Clark held no hope of recovery and admitted as much to Keats. The poet’s thoughts turned to suicide once more, driven by his own suffering and memories of Tom’s lingering end. ‘Keats see all this – his knowledge of anatomy makes it tenfold worse at every change – every way he is unfortunate,’ Clark wrote. Keats begged Severn for the laudanum, at first appealing to Severn’s self-interest. He described Tom’s death in all its depressing detail, – the loss of bodily control, the constant blood and vomit and diarrhea. Severn would be forced to nurse him; he would also neglect his own work, the reason he had come to Rome. But the painter refused the request. Keats grew angry; he raged at his companion. Severn was keeping him alive against his will. When Severn, not trusting himself, gave the bottle to Clark, Keats turned on the doctor. ‘How long is this posthumous life of mine to last?’ he asked plaintively.
The next month was a slow and steady decline into the final stage of tuberculosis. He coughed hard and constantly, was wracked in sweat, his teeth chattered uncontrollably. Severn nursed him devotedly. Once, Keats awoke while Severn slept at his side. The candle had gutted; in the dark, he cried out. Severn devised a clever solution; he connected a string of candles so that as one went out, the flame spread to the next. The next evening, he awoke to hear Keats exclaim, ‘Severn! Severn! here’s a little fairy lamplighter actually has lit up another candle.’ On 28 January, Severn sketched Keats as he slept. The poet would sometimes cry upon waking to find himself still alive.
Though Keats refused to pray himself, Severn prayed beside him. Keats’s calm was broken only by a letter from Charles Brown from which fell a note in Fanny Brawne’s handwriting; the sight shook his nerves. He did not read it, but asked Severn to place it in his coffin along with a purse made by his sister and a lock of Fanny Brawne’s hair. His thoughts now turned to his final resting-place, the Protestant Cemetery beside the pyramid of Caius Cestius. He asked Severn to visit and describe the place for him. Even today, it remains a place of peace and beauty. Severn told him of the daisies and violets which grew there, and of the flocks of goats and sheep which roamed over the graves. The description pleased Keats. He asked that one phrase be put upon his tombstone: ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’ The phrase was taken from Beaumont and Fletcher’s Philaster: “all your better deeds / Shall be in water writ.”
The constant handling of Fanny’s marble seemed to calm him. But more importantly, he achieved a kind of peace by considering Severn’s suffering rather than his own. He worried about the effect his illness and death would have on his friend, and tried to cheer him as best he could. ‘[T]hese bursts of wit and cheerfulness were called up on set purpose – were, in fact, a great effort on my account. I could perceive in many ways that he was always painfully alive to my situation,’ Severn later recalled. As he rushed about caring for Keats, the poet reassured him: ‘Now you must be firm for it will not last long.’
He also – suddenly and surprisingly – wanted books nearby. Severn did not understand why ‘this great desire for books came across his mind’ but ‘I got him all the books on hand’. By now, Keats was unable to read but the very presence of the books acted as a ‘charm’, Severn wrote, and he gladly collected all he could find.
It seemed he would die on Wednesday, 21 February; a new fit of coughing began and he asked Severn to hold him up so he could breathe. But he lingered on for another day. On Friday the 23rd, around four in the afternoon, Severn was roused by Keats’s call: ‘Severn – I – lift me up – I am dying – I shall die easy – don’t be frightened – be firm, and thank God it has come.’ But it did not come for another seven hours, as he rested in Severn’s arms, holding his hand. His breathing was deep and difficult, but he seemed beyond pain. Only once did he speak again, whispering, ‘Don’t breathe on me – it comes like Ice.’ Finally, near 11 o’clock he died, as though he were going to sleep. He was buried just before dawn on Monday 26 February.
Clark had performed an autopsy on Sunday, which revealed Keats’s lungs to be completely destroyed. He also commissioned a death mask. It took three weeks for news of his death to reach home. Later that spring, Fanny Brawne wrote to Keats’s sister about his death: ‘I have not got over it and never shall.’ She wore mourning for several years and spent many long nights walking along the Heath or reading Keats’s love letters. He had given her his precious folio copy of As You Like It; against the FINIS on its last page, she wrote ‘Fanny April 17 1821.’
Keats’s passing created a rift amongst his friends. As his fame as a poet grew, they told competing stories of his life and often exaggerated their influence upon his work. It became commonplace to view Keats as a tragic soul, too sensitive for this world and driven from it by harsh critical reviews. Keats himself would have been furious at such a description. Rarely has a poet so thoroughly captured life in all its natural glory, without affectation or exaggeration. And rarely, too, has a man lived such an admirable and passionate life. He once remarked hopefully, ‘I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death.’ At a mere twenty-five years of age, John Keats achieved this dream.
Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats – Robert Gittings, John Keats – Aileen Ward, Keats: The Making of a Poet – Andrew Motion, Keats – Amy Lowell, John Keats (2 vol) – Robert Gittings, ed, Selected Letters of John Keats and The Odes of Keats
Several students have written to ask me a simple yet important question – When indicating possession of a word that ends in s, is it correct to repeat the s after using an apostrophe? In other words, which is correct – Keats’s life or Keats’ life?
According to the venerable Chicago Manual of Style, either usage is correct but they recommend the former.
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