JOSEPH SEVERN TO MRS SAMUEL BRAWNE:
ROME. 11 January 1821
Rome, 11 Jan 1821 1 o’clock morning
My dear Madam,
I said that “the first good news I had should be for the kind Mrs Brawn.” I am thankful and delighted to make good my promise, to be at all able to do it, for among all the horrors hovering over my poor Keats this was the most dreadful: that I could see no possible way and but a fallacious hope for his recovery. But now, thank God, I have a real one. I most certainly think I shall bring him back to England, at least my anxiety for his recovery and comfort make me think this, for half the cause of his danger has arisen from the loss of England, from the dread of never seeing it more. O, this hung upon him like a torture; never may I behold the like again even in my direst enemy. Little did I think what a task of affliction and danger I had undertaken, for I only thought of the beautiful mind of Keats, my attachment to him, and his convalescence.
But I will tell you dear Madam the singular reason I have for hoping his recovery. In the first fortnight of this attack his memory presented to him everything that was dear and delightful, even to the minutiae, and with it all the persecution and I may say villainy practised upon him, his exquisite sensibility for everyone save his poor self, all his own means and comfort expended upon others, almost in vain. These he would contrast with his present suffering and say that all was brought on by them. And he was right. Now he has changed to calmness and quietude, as singular as productive of good, for his mind was certainly killing him. He has now given up all thoughts, hopes, or even wish for recovery. His mind is in a state of peace from the final leave he has taken of this world and all its future hopes. This has been an immense weight for him to rise from. He remains quiet and submissive under his heavy fate.
Now if anything will recover him it is this absence of himself. I have perceived for the last 3 days symptoms of recovery. Dr Clark even thinks so. Nature again revives in him, I mean where art was used before. Yesterday he permitted me to carry him from his bedroom to our sitting room, to put him clean things on, and to talk about my Painting to him. This is my good news. Don’t think it otherwise, my dear Madam, for I have been in such a state of anxiety and discomfiture in this barbarous place that the least hope of my friend’s recovery is a heaven to me.
For Three weeks I have never left him. I have sat up at night. I have read to him nearly all day and even in the night. I light the fire, make his breakfast and sometimes am obliged to cook, make his bed and even sweep the room. I can have these things done, but never at the time when they ought and must be done, so that you will see my alternative. What enrages me most is making a fire. I blow, blow, for an hour. The smoke comes fuming out. My kettle falls over on the burning sticks – no stove – Keats calling me to be with him, the fire catching my hands and the door bell ringing. All these to one quite unused and not all capable, with the want of every proper material, come not a little galling.
But to my great surprise I am not ill, or even restless, nor have I been all the time. There is nothing but what I will do for him. There is no alternative but what I think and provide myself against, except his death. Not the loss of him, I am not prepared to bear that. But the inhumanity, the barbarism of these Italians. So far I have kept everything from poor Keats, but if he did know but part of what I suffer for them and their cursed laws it would kill him. Just to instance one thing among many: news was brought me the other day that our gentle landlady had reported to the Police that my friend was dying of consumption. Now their law is that every individual thing in each room the patient has been in shall without reserve even to the paper on the walls be destroyed by fire. This startled me not a little, for in our sitting room where I wanted to bring him there is property worth about £150 besides all our own books, etc. invaluable. Now my difficulty was to shift him to this room and let no one know it. This was a heavy task from the unfortunate manner of the place. Our landlady’s apartments are on the same floor with ours. Her servant waits on me when it pleases her and enters from an adjoining room. I was determined on removing Keats, let what would be the consequence. The change was most essential to his health and spirits, and the following morning I set about accomplishing it. In the first place I blocked up the door so that they could not enter, then made up a bed on the Sofa and removed my friend to it. The greatest difficulty was in keeping all from him. I succeeded in this too by making his bed and sweeping the room where it is, and going dinnerless with all the pretensions of dining, persuading him that the Servant had made his bed and I had been dining. He half-suspected this but as he could not tell the why and the wherefore there it ended. I got him back in the afternoon and no one save Dr Clark knew of it.
Dr C still attends him with his usual kindness and shows his good heart in everything he does; the like of his lady. I cannot tell which shows us the most kindness. I am even a mark of their care; mince pies and numberless nice things come over to keep me alive, and but for their kindness I am afraid we should go on very gloomily. Now my dear Madam I must leave off. My eyes are beginning to be unruly, and I must write a most important letter to our President, Sir Thomas Lawrence, before I suffer myself to sleep.
Will you be so kind as to write to Mr Taylor that it was at Messrs Torlonia’s Advice Mr Keats drew a Bill for the whole Sum £120? This was to save trouble and expense of many small bills. He now draws in small sums. I have the whole of affairs under charge and am trying the nearest possible way. Mr Taylor will hear from Dr C about the bill; it will be well arranged. Present my respectful Compliments to Miss B who I hope and trust is quite well. Now that I think of her my mind is carried to your happy Wentworth Place. O, I would my unfortunate friend had never left it for the hopeless disadvantage of this comfortless Italy. He has many many times talked over the few happy days at your House, the only time when his mind was at ease. I hope still to see him with you again. Farewell, my dear Madam. One more thing I must say. Poor Keats cannot see any letters, at least he will not. They affect him so much and increase his danger. The two last I repented giving. He made me put them into his box unread. More of these when I write again; meanwhile, any matter of moment had better come to me. I will be very happy to receive advice and remembrance from you. Once more farewell,
I have just looked at him. He is in a beautiful sleep. In look he is very much more himself. I have the greatest hopes of him.
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 is buried next to Keats in the Protestant Cemetery. Mrs Samuel Brawne was the mother of Keats’s fiancée, Fanny Brawne. The poet stayed at their home before leaving for Italy. More information about Keats’s illness and his final months in Rome can be found here.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Letters From Joseph Severn to Mrs Samuel Brawne" https://englishhistory.net/keats/letters/joseph-severn-to-mrs-samuel-brawne/, March 6, 2015