JOSEPH SEVERN TO WILLIAM HASLAM:
ROME. 15 January 1821
Rome, 15 Jan 1821 Sunday Night, 1/2 past 11 –
My dear Haslam,
Poor Keats has just fallen asleep. I have watched him and read to him to his very last wink. He has been saying to me, “Severn, I can see under your quiet look immense twisting and contending. You don’t know what you are reading. You are enduring for me more than I’d have you. O! that my last hour has come. What is it puzzles you now? What is it happens?” I tell him that “nothing happens, nothing worries me beyond his seeing, that it has been the dull day.” Getting from myself to his recovery, and then my painting, and then England, and then – but they are all lies; my heart almost leaps to deny them, for I have the veriest load of care that ever came upon these shoulders of mine. For Keats is sinking daily. He is dying of a consumption, of a confirmed consumption. Perhaps another three weeks may lose me him forever. This alone would break down the most gallant spirit. I had made sure of his recovery when I set out. I was selfish and thought of his value to me and made a point of my future success depending on his candor to me. This is not all. I have prepared myself to bear this now, now that I must and should have seen it before, but Torlonia’s the bakers refused any more money. The bill is returned unaccepted, “no effects”, and I tomorrow must – aye, must – pay the last solitary Crowns for this cursed lodging place. Yet more. Should our unfortunate friend die, all the furniture will be burnt; beds, sheets, curtains, and even the walls must be scraped. And these devils will come upon me for £100 or £150, the making good.
But above all, this noble fellow lying on the bed is dying in horror: no kind hope smoothing down his suffering, no philosophy, no religion to support him, yet with all the most gnawing desire for it, yet without the possibility of receiving it. It is not from any religious principles I feel this, but from the individual sufferings of his mind in this point. I would not care from what source, so he could understand his misfortunes and glide into his lot. O! My dear Haslam, this is my greatest care, a care that I pray to God may soon end, 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 denied me in my last moments. Why is this? O! I have serv’d everyone with my utmost good, yet why is this? I cannot understand this.” And then his chattering teeth. If I do break down it will be under this. But I pray that some kind of comfort may come to his lot, that some angel of goodness will lead him through this dark wilderness.
Now Haslam, what do you think of my situation? For I know not what may come with tomorrow. I am hedg’d in every way that you look at me. If I could leave Keats for a while everyday I could soon raise money by my face painting, but he will not let me out of his sight. He cannot bear the face of a stranger. He has made me go out twice and leave him solus. I’d rather cut my tongue out than tell him that money I must get; that would kill him at a word. I will not do anything that may add to his misery, for I have tried on every point to leave for a few hours in the day, but he won’t unless he is left alone. This won’t do, nor shall, not for another minute whilst he is John Keats.
Yet will I not bend down under these. I will not give myself a jot of credit unless I stand firm, and will too. You’d be rejoiced to see how I am kept up. Not a flinch yet. I read, cook, make the beds and do all the menial offices, for no soul comes near Keats except the Doctor and myself. Yet I do all this with a cheerful heart, for I thank God my little but honest religion stays me up all through these trials. I’ll pray to God tonight that he may look down with mercy on my poor friend and myself. I feel no dread of what more I am to bear but look to it with confidence.
You see my hopes of being kept by the Royal Academy will be cut off unless I send a picture by the Spring. I have written Sir T. Lawrence some bold things that I have feasting my mind on in this confinement; no less than a project by which to copy (same size) Raphael’s grand pictures in the Vatican – the Sanctum Sanctorum of Painting – 8 in number. I think this will save me at all events.
I have got a volume of Jeremy Taylor’s Works which Keats has heard me read tonight. This is a treasure and came when I thought it hopeless. Why may not other good things come, and even money? I will still keep myself up with the best hope. Dr Clark is still the same altho’ he has received about this bill. I have said to him that if Keats is wanting in any possible thing now that would give him ease but would be out of his agreement, or at least fears the payment for, I will be answerable in any way he may think fit. But no, he does his everything. I lament a thousand times that Mr Taylor did not tell me about this money, that it was to be drawn in small bills. I could have stopped this. As it is I don’t know what to do, unless money is coming through your means, altho’ I know you cannot. But farewell. Pray, my dear fellow, don’t ask me for journals. Every day’s would have been more or less like this. Not a word at my Father’s.
This letter is for thine own eye and own heart, or as you see fit. I wrote by last post to Mrs Brawne. I think she should know these, but it will be a severe blow. See Brown, too, though I do you injustice to tell you. On Wednesday I write to Mr Hunt.
The proofs of Keats’s present state are expectoration continually of a fawn colour, sometimes streaked with blood. He’s still wasting away, altho’ he takes as much food as myself, a dry cough, night sweats, with great uneasiness in his chest. Dr C is afraid the next change will be to diarrhea. Keats sees all this. His knowledge of anatomy makes it tenfold worse at every change. Every way he is unfortunate. I cannot see him any way without something to “dash the cup from his lip”, yet everyone offers me aid on his account. But he cannot bear it. I must not leave night or day. I am quite well, thank God. Once more, good bye. Only one letter from you yet. I am in doubt whether you shall have harrowing things like this. Poor Keats cannot read any letters. He has made me put 2 by unopened. They tear him to pieces. He dare not look upon the outside of any more – make this known – and should any communication be required to make let it come to me. I will frame it to his ear. He places the greatest confidence in me.
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. William Haslam was a lawyer and attended school with Keats. He was one of the poet’s most devoted and generous friends. Unable to accompany Keats to Rome because of a new baby and financial problems of his own, Haslam arranged for Severn to go instead. He also helped make financial arrangements for the trip
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