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
ROME. 24 Dec 1820
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
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'
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
I have also written
a brief article
about Keats's illness and the journey to Rome.