Rome, 14 Dec 1820
My dear Brown,
I fear our poor Keats is at his worst. A most unlooked-for relapse has confined him to his bed with every chance against him. It has been so sudden upon what I almost thought convalescence and without any seeming cause that I cannot calculate on the next change. I dread it, for his suffering is so great, so continued, and his fortitude so completely gone, that any further change must make him delirious. This is the fifth day and I see him get worse, but stop. I will tell you the manner of this relapse from the first.
17 Dec, 4 Morning
Not a moment can I be from him. I sit by his bed and read all day and at night I humour him in all his wanderings. He has just fallen asleep, the first for 8 nights, and now from mere exhaustion. I hope he will not wake until I have written this, for I am anxious beyond measure to have you know this worse and worse state. Yet I dare not let him see I think it dangerous. I had seen him wake on the morning of this attack, and to all appearance he was going on merrily and he had unusual good spirits, when in an instant a Cough seized him and he vomited near two Cupfuls of blood. In a moment I got Dr Clark, who saw the manner of it, and immediately took away about 8 ounces of blood from the Arm; it was black and thick in the extreme. Keats was much alarmed and dejected. O, what an awful day I had with him! He rush’d out of bed and said “this day shall be my last,” and but for me most certainly it would. At the risk of losing his confidence I took every destroying means from his reach, nor let him be from my sight one minute. The blood broke forth again in like quantity the next morning, and the doctor thought it expedient to take away the like quantity of blood; this was in the same dismal state, and must have been from the horrible state of despair he was in. But I was so fortunate as to talk him into a little calmness, and with some English newspapers he became quite patient under the necessary arrangements.
This is the 9th day, and no change for the better. Five times the blood has come up in coughing, in large quantities generally in the morning, and nearly the whole time his saliva has been mixed with it. But this is the lesser evil when compared with his Stomach. Not a single thing will digest. The torture he suffers all and every night and best part of the day is dreadful in the extreme. The distended stomach keeps him in perpetual hunger or craving, and this is augmented by the little nourishment he takes to keep down the blood. Then his mind is worse than all – despair in every shape. His imagination and memory present every image in horror, so strong that morning and night I tremble for his Intellect. The recollection of England, of his “good friend Brown,” and his happy few weeks in Mrs. Brawne’s Care, his Sister and brother – O, he will mourn over every circumstance to me whilst I cool his burning forehead until I tremble through every vein in concealing my tears from his staring glassy eyes. How he can be Keats again from all this I have little hope, but I may see it too gloomy since each coming night I sit up adds its dismal contents to my mind.
Dr Clark will not say so much, although there is no bounds to his attention, yet with little success “can he administer to a mind diseased.” Yet all that can be done most kindly he does whilst his Lady, like himself in refined feeling, prepares and cooks all that poor Keats takes. For in this wilderness of a place (for an Invalid) there was no alternative. Yesterday Dr Clark went all over Rome for a certain kind of fish, and got it, but just as I received it from Mrs C delicately prepared, Keats was taken by the spitting of blood and is now gone back all the 9 days. This was occasioned by disobeying the Doctor’s commands. Keats is required to be kept as low as possible to check the blood, so that he is weak and gloomy. Every day he raves that he will die from hunger, and I was obliged to give him more than allowed. You cannot think how dreadful this is for me. The Doctor on the one hand tells me I shall kill him to give him more than he allows, and Keats raves for more till I am in complete tremble for him. But I have talked him over now. We have the best opinion of Dr C’s skill. He seems to understand the case, and comes over 4 and 5 times a day. He left word at 12 this morning to call any time in case of danger.
I heard Keats say how he should like Mrs Brawne and Mrs Dilke to visit his sister at Walthamstow. Will you say this for me, and to Mr Taylor that Keats was about to write favorably on the very time of his relapse? For myself I am keeping up beyond my most sanguine expectations; 8 Nights I have been up, and in the days never a moment away from my patient but to run over to the Doctor. But I will confess my spirits have been sometimes quite pulled down, for these wretched Romans have no Idea of comfort. Here I am obliged to wash up, cook, and read to Keats all day. Added to this I have had no letters yet from my family. This is a damp to me for I never knew how dear they were to me. I think of my Mother and I think of Keats for they are something the same in this tormenting Indigestion. But if Keats recovers, and then letters bring good news, why I shall take upon myself to be myself again. I wrote last to my good friend Haslam. It will tell you all the events up to the relapse of Keats. I had put the letters in post on the same morning. It was my custom to walk until Keats awoke. We did breakfast about 9 o’Clock. My head begins to sally round so much that I cannot recollect. I will write to Mr Taylor on the next change in my friend, and to the Kind Mrs Brawne when I have any good news. Will you remember me to this lady? Little did I dream on THIS when I saw her last in London. Will you, my dear Brown, write to me, for a letter to Keats now would almost kill him. Give Haslam this sad news. I am quite exhausted. Farewell. I wish you were here my dear Brown.
Sincerely, Joseph Severn
I have just looked at him. This will be a good night.
Joseph Severn was the young painter who accompanied Keats to Rome. After Keats’s death, Severn became a respected and successful artist and lived to an old age in Rome. He was buried next to Keats in the Protestant Cemetery. Charles Brown was Keats’s closest friend; they shared a home together at Wentworth Place. Brown later emigrated to New Zealand.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "John Keats Letters Joseph Severn to Charles Brown" https://englishhistory.net/keats/letters/john-keats-letters-joseph-severn-to-charles-brown/, March 6, 2015