Brown was Keats’s closest friend. His Life of John Keats, revised and completed twenty years after the poet’s death, offers unique insight into Keats’s life.
Brown made three notations in this memoir. They are marked in the text; scroll to the bottom of the page to read them.
A note on the memoir: After Keats’s death, many of his friends were determined to write memoirs of the poet. But as early as September 1821, Joseph Severn recognized Brown’s unique role in Keats’s life, writing to Brown that he was ‘the only one to write Keats’s Memoir–at least to describe his character’. For Brown, however, grief was too near. It was only in 1829, after much consideration, that he began the work. ‘I am resolved,’ he wrote to their mutual friend Dilke, ‘seeing that Keats is better valued, to write his life.’ And, a few months later, ‘My motive for writing Keats’ life is that he may not continue to be represented as he was not; possibly I ought to add another motive,- that of revenge against Gifford and Lockhart,- aye, and Jeffrey.’
Sadly, however, Brown and Dilke soon quarreled and their lifelong friendship ended. Likewise, Brown had no use for Keats’s brother, George, whom he blamed for taking the poet’s money. Since George possessed many of Keats’s most important letters, this removed a large source of material for Brown. George also threatened legal action if Keats’s then-unpublished poems and letters were printed without his permission. The end result? Brown procrastinated for several years; the task was complicated by his deep and abiding grief over Keats’s death. In 1836, his draft was finally completed. And in 1841, George Keats finally waived his legal rights, thus allowing publication. However, Brown and his son now planned to emigrate to New Zealand.
Brown wished to leave his Keats memorabilia, including his memoir, in England. He cast about for capable hands, and eventually chose Richard Monckton Milnes. An admirer of Keats, Milnes had never met the poet. But he and Brown had been acquaintances for several years and Brown had dismissed all of the Keats circle as potential biographers. Mr Milnes, he wrote to Severn, ‘is a poet himself, an admirer of Keats and, in my mind, better able to sit in judgment on a selection for publication than any other man I know.’
Brown revised his memoir before sending it to Milnes. Twenty years after Keats’s death, his memories remained too painful, as he wrote to Milnes:
‘As soon as I begin to be occupied with his [Keats’s] poems, or with the Life I have written, it forcibly seems to me, against all reason (that is out of the question) that he is sitting by my side, his eyes seriously wandering from me to the papers by turns, and watching my doings. Call it nervousness if you will; but with this nervous impression I am unable to do justice to his fame. Could he speak I would abide by his decision.’
It is clear that Brown’s work cannot be considered a biography in the modern sense. It is a personal memoir, and its failings are caused by the very friendship which inspired it. Brown was simply unable to balance his personal feelings with an objective understanding of Keats’s life.
But it is still necessary to read his work. Milnes’s Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats was published in 1848 and dedicated to Brown. Milnes was not affected by the personal animosities of the Keats circle. And the deaths of Charles Brown and George Keats in 1842 allowed him to balance each man’s recollections. As a result, Milnes’s work remained the definitive biography of Keats for many years. It also draws liberally upon Brown’s memoir.
Brown’s work was never published in its entirety until the early 20th century. Since then, it has remained out of print. It is, however, the most detailed recollection of Keats by an intimate friend. For that reason alone, it deserves our attention.
‘He is made one with Nature: there is heard
His voice in all her music; from the moan
Of thunder to the song of night’s sweet bird;
He is a presence to be felt and known
In darkness and in light, from herb and stone,
Spreading itself where’er that Power may move
Which has withdrawn his being to its own;
Which wields the world with never wearied love,
Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above.
He is a portion of the loveliness
Which once he made more lovely: he doth bear
His part, while the one Spirit’s plastic stress
Sweeps through the dull dense world, compelling there
All new successions to the forms they wear.’
Shelley ‘Adonais’, St: 42 & 43.
These lines are from ‘Adonais’, an elegy by Shelley on the death of Keats. When ‘Adonais’ was sent to me from Italy, I recognized, in these lines, my own every day, involuntary inevitable reflections on the loss of my friend. I honoured the genius that could embody them in language so soothing and poetical; and I eagerly desired, when on my road to Italy, to hold Shelley’s hand in mine, for I had never met him,–but he too, a few days before my arrival in the very city where he had resided for years, was lost.
Often have I been urged to write a biography of Keats, and almost as often have I urged a promise of every information in my power to others. Earnestly wishing it done, I have myself recoiled from the office; for it is painful. He was dearly beloved, and honoured as a superior being by me. Now that twenty years have passed since I lost him, his memory is still my chief happiness; because I think of him in the feeling of Shelley’s lines. But, when I must, while writing his life, recall, during our intimate and unreserved friendship, his disappointment, his sorrows, and his death, each crowded with images and circumstances, which force themselves on my mind, the pain well nigh overcomes my duty. For it is a duty; and, since it seems to devolve on me, I will perform it. His fame is part of my life. Indignation at his enemies, with contempt for their listeners, has been another cause of my having deferred this task; but now, it is true, the best and the greater part of his literary countrymen have learnt to feel delight in his poetry.
John Keats was born in Moorfields on 29th October 1796 (1). His father was a native of Devonshire, and married a daughter of the proprietor of an inn. At the age of eight or nine years Keats lost his father; and, while he was yet a boy, his mother also died. He was the eldest of three sons and a daughter. Property in the funds to the amount of about £10,000 was bequeathed among them; £2,000 to each of the brothers, and the remainder to the sister.
He was educated at the Revd Mr Clarke’s school at Enfield, and afterwards apprenticed to Mr Hammond, a surgeon, in Church Street, Edmonton. Owing to his early removal from the school, he felt a deficiency in the latin language; and therefore, during his apprenticeship, made and carefully wrote out a literal prose translation of the whole of Virgil’s Æneid. At that time also he studied his own language with all the critical nicety in his power, and made himself, for his age, learned in history. After the usual term of years with Mr Hammond, he became a student at Guy’s Hospital; where he was indefaticable in his application to anatomy, medicine, and natural history.
Though born to be a poet, he was ignorant of his birthright until he had completed his eighteenth year. Before this period his leisure hours, which were few, had not been occupied in reading works of imagination; neither had he attempted, nor thought of writing a single line. In one whose passions were vivid, whose imagination was unbounded, and who, not many months after, was absorbed in poetry, it is strange that no indication of his powers should have appeared at the first burst of youth. Other and opposite studies, pursued with an eager temperament, may partly, but, perhaps, not wholly account for it. From his earliest boyhood he had an acute sense of beauty, whether in a flower, a tree, the sky, or the animal world; how was it that his sense of beauty did not naturally seek in his mind for images by which he could best express his feelings? It was the ‘Faery Queen’ that awakened his genius. In Spenser’s fairy land he was enchanted, breathed in a new world, and became another being; till, enamoured of the stanza, he attempted to imitate it, and succeeded. This account of the sudden development of his poetic powers I first received from his brothers, and afterwards from himself. This his earliest attempt, the ‘Imitation of Spenser’, is in his first volume of Poems, and is peculiarly interesting to those who are acquainted with its history.
‘Now morning from her orient chamber came, And her first footsteps touch’d a verdant hill; &c.’
If any youth, after repeated trials of his strength, were to produce verses worthy to compete with these, who would not hold forth his hand to him, and whose heart would not throb with fear at what he might endure?
From this moment he began, deeply and fervently, to read and ponder over our poets. Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare were his household gods. When his soul arose into poetry, it was imbued with our earliest authors. He did not immediately relinquish his profession; for this decisive step was not taken till about two years afterwards, some time before May 1817, when he wrote from Canterbury to one of his brothers,–‘I have forgotten all surgery.’ He has assured me the muse had no influence over him in his determination, he being compelled, by conscientious motives alone, to quit the profession, upon discovering that he was unfit to perform a surgical operation. He ascribed his inability to an overwrought apprehension of every possible chance of doing evil in the wrong direction of the instrument. ‘My last operation’, he told me, ‘was the opening of a man’s temporal artery. I did it with the utmost nicety; but, reflecting on what passed through my mind at the time, my dexterity seemed a miracle, and I never took up the lancet again.’
Some of his poems were shown, by a friend, to Leigh Hunt, at that time editor of the ‘Examiner’, who was instantly aware of their great merit, and their promise of excellence from the young poet. This, together with praise from many others, induced him to prepare for the press a small volume, which appeared in the spring of 1817; and, while it was publishing, he had written the first book of ‘ Endymion’.
In the latter part of that year’s summer I first saw him. It was on the Hampstead road that we were introduced to each other; the minutest circumstances attending our first meeting are strong in my memory, but they must be uninteresting to all except myself. Still, as in that interview of a minute I inwardly desired his acquaintanceship, if not his friendship, I will take this occasion of describing his personal appearance. He was small in stature, well proportioned, compact in form, and, though thin, rather muscular;–one of the many who prove that manliness is distinct from height and bulk. There is no magic equal to that of an ingenuous countenance, and I never beheld any human being’s so ingenuous as his. His full fine eyes were lustrously intellectual, and beaming (at that time!) with hope and joy. It has been remarked that the most faulty feature was his mouth; and, at intervals, it was so. But, whenever he spoke, or was, in any way, excited, the expression of the lips was so varied and delicate, that they might be called handsome.
He had taken lodgings for himself and his brothers at Hampstead, and I was his neighbour. I succeeded in making him come often to my house by never asking him to come oftener; and I let him feel himself at perfect liberty there, chiefly by avoiding to assure him of the fact. We quickly became intimate.
Every one who met him sought for his society, and he was surrounded by a little circle of hearty friends. While ‘ Endymion’ was in progress, as some degree of solitude was necessary, he made excursions to Box Hill, Hastings, the Isle of Wight, Oxford, and lastly Teignmouth, whither he went to attend on his youngest brother, whose ill state of health required a mild air, and whence the last book of ‘ Endymion’ was forwarded for the press. At times he relieved himself from continued application to this work by writing sonnets and other short poems, most of which have been printed; but among them is one,–‘Lines on seeing a lock of Milton’s hair’, which is yet unknown, and ought not to be so.
Immediately on the appearance of his first volume “‘Blackwood’s Magazine'” commenced a series of attacks upon him, month after month. These attacks doubtless originated and were carried on in unprincipled party spirit. The inexperienced Keats, without a thought of the consequence, in a political point of view, had addressed his volume to his friend Leigh Hunt in a dedicatory sonnet; and, still less to be forgiven, he had written another sonnet on the day Leigh Hunt left prison, where he had been confined for two years, in expiation of what had been construed into a disloyal libel. There was no indication of criticism in “‘Blackwood’s Magazine'” on Keats’s works; there was nothing but abuse and ridicule to prevent their sale. An author’s person, however objectionable, cannot have any thing to do with a question on his literary merits. These hirelings, however, pretended to think otherwise; and, in order to hold him up to public ridicule, they dealt unreservedly in falsehood. They represented him as affected, effeminate, and sauntering about without a neckcloth, in imitation of the portrait of Spenser; every word of which was as far from the truth as their jokes on ‘pimply-faced Hazlitt’, one whom I never saw with a pimple on his face. Hazlitt himself remarked to me,–‘Of what use would it be were I publicly to convict them of untruth in this description of me?–of none whatever. They would then persuade their readers, far more to blame than themselves, that in their misrepresentation consisted the very marrow, the excellence of the jest;–nay, that the jest would be nothing if it were true.’ The power of these writers, with their unremitting ridicule was great, for they had talent. Mr Lockhart, the son in law of Sir Walter Scott, was generally known as the editor of “‘Blackwood’s Magazine'” at that time. At a later period indeed he denied he was the editor; but he refused to deny that he ever had been the editor.
As quickly as possible after the publication of ‘ Endymion’ an article appeared on it in the ‘Quarterly Review’. In this there was nothing but rage and malice, too undisguised, I thought at the time, to prove injurious, and utterly unrecommended by talent of any kind. Still the high reputation of the work, in which it stood, carried it, in spite of its demerits, safe into the public’s ear. The public could not suspect that Mr Gifford would compromise the character of the ‘Quarterly’ by an untenable decided condemnation. How few are at the trouble of forming their own judgment on a book!–in this exists the power of a reviewer. Shelley, in his preface to ‘Adonais’, asks,–‘As to Endymion , was it a poem, whatever might be its defects, to be treated contemptuously by those who had celebrated, with various degrees of complacency and panegyric, Paris, and Woman, and a Syrian Tale, and Mrs Lafanu and Mr Barrett, and Mr Howard Payne, and a long list of the illus’trious obscure?’ This question from Shelley may be unanswerable; yet still the ‘Quarterly Review’ is read with confidence by a large portion of the public, those who cannot or will not exert their faculties or their courage to form an opinion of their own.
As an antidote to this poison we naturally looked forward to the ‘Edinburg Review’. Mr Jeffrey, however, remained and continued to remain silent; as if quietly watching whether the victim was crushed, or could possibly survive. At length, too late for a good purpose, not till August 1820, after the publication of a third volume, when Keats had received his death-blow, there appeared in the ‘Edinburg Review’ a criticism on his poems, from which criticism I select the following passages. ‘Any one who would represent the whole poem’ (Endymion) ‘as despicable, must either have no notion of poetry, or no regard to truth.’–‘He who does not find a great deal in it to admire and to give delight, cannot in his heart see much beauty in the two exquisite dramas to which we have already alluded,’ (Fletcher Faithful Shepherdess and Ben Jonson Sad Shepherd), ‘or find ‘any great pleasure in some of the finest creations ‘of Milton and Shakespeare’.–‘We are very much inclined indeed to add, that we do not know any book which we would sooner employ as a test to ascertain whether any one had in him a native relish for poetry, and a genuine sensibility to its intrinsic charm.’
Mr Jeffrey, in apology for not having, during the two previous years, noticed a young poet, whom he at last so highly eulogized, chose to make use of this assertion;–‘We had never happened to see either of these volumes till very lately.’ Reviewers are accustomed to say any thing at their will and pleasure; yet, unless we doubt the gentleman’s assertion, we are compelled to accuse the critic, (which would be irreparable disgrace), of having neglected his self assumed duty as a careful examiner into the literature of the day.
In the summer of 1818 Keats offered to be my companion in a walking visit to the English lakes and the highlands of Scotland. We first went by coach to Liverpool, as his brother George was about to embark from that port for America, and thence to Lancaster, from which town we commenced our walk, each with a knapsack on his back. I cannot forget the joy, the rapture of my friend when he suddenly, and for the first time, became sensible to the full effect of mountain scenery. It was just before our descent to the village of Bowness, at a turn of the road, when the lake of Windermere at once came into view. In the evening he repeated to me his beautiful and pathetic poem of ‘Isabella’, which he had just written, before he left Teignmouth. All was enchantment to us both.
He had been introduced to Wordsworth in London, and, to show respect to that great poet, he called on him at Rydale; but it was at the time of a general election, and therefore Wordsworth was away from his quiet home, at Lowther Hall.
After having made something like the usual to[ur] through Westmoreland and Cumberland, we journied by coach from Carlisle to Dumfries, where we stood before the grave of Burns. Then, as we walked, by Solway Firth, through that delightful part of Kirkudbrightshire, the scene of ‘Guy Mannering’, I talked of Meg Merrilies, while Keats, who had not yet read that [nove]l, was much interested in the character. There was [a] little spot, close to our path-way,–‘There’, he said, in an instant positively realizing a creation of the novellist, ‘in that very spot, without a shadow of ‘doubt, has old Meg Merrilies often boiled her ‘kettle!’ It was among pieces of rock, and brambles, and broom, ornamented with a profusion of honeysuckle, wild roses, and foxglove, all in the very blush and fullness of blossom. While we sat at breakfast, he was occupied in writing to his young sister, and, for her amusement, he composed a ballad on old Meg. I took a copy of it at the time.
It was for the amusement of a school-girl; yet how full of imagination!
Old Meg she was a gipsy &c.
Want of time to effect our numerous intentions, with other circumstances, compelled us to forego seeing the Giant’s Causeway, though we had proceeded towards it as far as Belfast. On our return, walking northwards by the coast, Ailsa rock attracted our continued notice. It seemed, at our first view, the sun shining on it, like an enormous transparent tortoise asleep upon calm water. Its height is 940 feet, measured on its perpendicular side, above the level of the sea. Walking onward, we saw, as it were, the shoulders of this rock; then, as we still walked on, we saw more and more, with the mountains of Arran behind, the whole extent of Cantire, and even Ireland like a little dusky cloud in the horizon. At [ou]r inn in Girvan he wrote this Sonnet on Ailsa rock.
Hearken, thou craggy ocean-pyramid &c.
We were now in Ayrshire, the country of Burns, a region of quiet beauty, with much of the character of England. We descended to the ‘banks and braes of bonny Doon’, examined the ruin of Kirk Alloway, indebted to the poet’s imagery alone for its attraction, and saw the town of Ayr before us. —
‘Auld Ayr whom ne’er a town surpasses ‘For honest men and bonny lasses.’
Not far from this side of the town stood the cottage where Burns was born. Keats had predetermined to write a sonnet under its roof; but its conversion into a whiskey-shop, together with its drunken landlord, went far towards the annihilation of his poetic power.
We found our way, through Glasgow, into the highlands, where, soon quitting the carriage-roads, we explored some unfrequented districts, which, I had read, offered still grander scenery. At Oban we crossed to Mull, and, with the assistance of a guide, traversed, by no beaten track, the whole extent of that island, until we came to the celebrated island of Iona. Thence we had a gentle sail to Staffa, where we had the good fortune to arrive, at low water, and just as the sea was becalmed, so that our boat landed us close into the mouth of Fingal’s cave. Keats wrote some lines on this cave, a fragment of a poem, which I never could induce him to finish.
Not Aladdin magian &c.
Returned to Oban, we passed by the romantic mountains of Ballahulish to Fort William, and mounted Ben Nevis. When on the summit of this mountain, we were enveloped in a cloud, and, waiting till it was slowly wafted away, he sat on the stones, a few feet away from the edge of that fearful precipice, fifteen hundred feet perpendicular from the valley below, and wrote this sonnet.
Read me a lesson, Muse, and read it loud &c.
For some time he had been annoyed by a slight inflammation in the throat, occasioned by rainy days, fatigue, privation, and, I am afraid, in one instance, by damp sheets. It was prudently resolved, with the assistance of medical advice, that if, when we reached Inverness, he should not be much better, he should part from me, and proceed from the port of Cromarty to London by sea. He was not recovered, and we parted there. In my solitary after-wanderings I much lamented the loss of his beloved intelligence at my side.
Our original intention was, after visiting other parts of the highlands, to return by Edinburg. This somehow became known to Mr Blackwood, who sent, through a third party, an invitation to Keats. Nothing could exceed the impudence of such an invitation, nor the guilt of the person, through whom it was forwarded, counselling the poet to endeavour to soften the rancour of his enemies in that quarter by attention to it.
I have a poem which he composed, with more than usual care, during our walks. I introduce it here.
There is a charm in footing slow across a silent plain &c.
It was well that he did leave me; for not only was he speedily reinstated in his usual good health, but it was necessary he should be at Hampstead, where he found his younger brother alarmingly ill. This youth, dear to him, had been, for some time, threatened by consumption; and now the disease had taken its most wasting and rapid form. By the time I had finished my lonely tour, and returned to my home, it was not expected he could live many days.
Early one morning I was awakened in my bed by a pressure on my hand. It was Keats, who came to tell me his brother was no more. I said nothing, and we both remained silent for awhile, my hand fast locked in his. At length, my thoughts returning from the dead to the living, I said–‘Have ‘nothing more to do with those lodgings, –and ‘alone too. Had you not better live with me?’ He paused, pressed my hand warmly, and replied,-‘I think it would be better.’ From that moment he was my inmate.
When his grief was alleviated, to which effect his many friends contributed their kind appliances, his hours became gradually absorbed once more in poetry. It was then he wrote Hyperion. At the beginning of the year we were on a visit in Hampshire, where he began The eve of St. Agnes, and finished it on our return. I observed that every short poem, which he was tempted to compose, was scrawled on the first piece of paper at hand, and that it was afterwards used as a mark to a book, or thrust any where aside. In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale. The writing was not well legible; and it was difficult to arrange the stanzas on so many scraps. With his assistance I succeeded, and this was his Ode to a Nightingale, a poem which has been the delight of every one. Immediately afterwards I searched for more of his (in reality) fugitive pieces, in which task, at my request, he again assisted me. Thus I rescued that Ode and other valuable short poems, which might otherwise have been lost. From that day he gave me permission to copy any verses he might write, and I fully availed myself of it. He cared so little for them himself, when once, as it appeared to me, his imagination was released from their influence, that it required a friend at hand to preserve them.
We passed much of this summer at Shanklin in the Isle of Wight, and at Winchester. He was pleased with the quiet of that cathedral town, the beauty of the cathedral itself, and the elm-tree walks. We knew no one there. At Shanklin he undertook a difficult task: I engaged to furnish him with the fable, characters, and dramatic conduct of a tragedy, and he was to embody it into poetry. The progress of this work was curious; for, while I sat opposite to him, he caught my description of each scene, entered into the characters to be brought forward, the events, and every thing connected with it. Thus he went on, scene after scene, never knowing nor inquiring into the scene which was to follow, until four acts were completed. It was then he required to know, at once, all the events which were to occupy the fifth act. I explained them to him; but, after a patient hearing, and some thought, he insisted on it that my incidents were too numerous, and, as he termed them, too melodramatic. He wrote the fifth act in accordance with his own view; and so enchanted was I with his poetry, that, at the time, and for a long time after, I thought he was in the right. This tragedy, Otho the great, was sent to Drury Lane Theatre, not with his name, for (strange it now appears!) his name was not a recommendation, so utterly had it become a by-word of reproach in literature. It was, however, accepted, with a promise on the part of Elliston to bring it forward during that very season. From what I could learn, by an inadvertence of Elliston, it was Kean, to whom it was shown, who desired to play the principal character. Afterwards I was told I had mistaken the promise,–it was for the next season if possible, or for the season after the next. This delay did not suit my purpose, which was to make my friend popular in spite of his detractors. I therefore took it from that theatre, and sent it to Covent Garden Theatre, whence it was speedily returned with a note, in a boy’s hand-writing, containing a negative. I have since had reason to believe it never was unrolled.
As soon as Keats had finished Otho the great, I pointed out to him a subject for an english historical tragedy in the reign of Stephen, beginning with his defeat by the Empress Maud, and ending with the death of his son Eustace, when Stephen yielded the succession to the crown to the young Henry. He was struck with the variety of events and characters which must necessarily be introduced; and I offered to give, as before, their dramatic conduct. ‘The play must open’, I began, ‘with the field of battle, when Stephen’s forces are retreating’–‘Stop!’ he said, ‘stop! I have been already too long in leading-strings. I will do all this myself.’ He immediately set about it, and wrote two or three scenes, about 130 lines.
This second tragedy, never to be resumed, gave place to ‘Lamia’, a poem which had been on hand for some months. He wrote it with great care, after much studying of Dryden’s versification.
I left him alone in Winchester for about three weeks, for he objected to accompany me. His intention was, though he by no means expressed it, to make a trial of solitude. Just before he might have expected my return, I was surprised by a letter, dated 23 September 1819, from which the following is an extract. There was a time when I might have omitted some passages in this extract respecting myself; but I have become, year after year, more and more proud of his good opinion.
Besides, it must not be conjectured that he thought of parting from me on any other ground than is here mentioned.
‘Now I am going to enter on the subject of self. It is quite time I should set myself doing something, and live no longer upon hopes. I have never yet exerted myself. I am getting into an idle minded, vicious way of life, almost content to live upon others. In no period of my life have I acted with any self will, but in throwing up the apothecary profession. That I do not repent of. Look at x x x x x x: if he was not in the law he would be acquiring, by his abilities, something towards his support. My occupation is entirely literary; I will do so too. I Will write, on the liberal side of the question, for whoever will pay me. I have not known yet what it is to be diligent. I propose living in town in a cheap lodging, and endeavouring, for a beginning, to get the theatricals of some paper. When I can afford to compose deliberate poems I will. I shall be in expectation of an answer to this. Look on my side of the question. I am convinced I am right. Suppose the Tragedy should succeed,–there will be no harm done. And here I will take an opportunity of making a remark or two on our friendship, and all your good offices to me. I have a natural timidity of mind in these matters: liking better to take the feeling between us for granted, than to speak of it. But, good God! what a short while you have known me! I feel it a sort of duty thus to recapitulate, however unpleasant it may be to you. You have been living for others more than any man I know. This is a vexation to me; because it has been depriving you, in the very prime of your life, of pleasures which it was your duty to procure. As I am speaking in general terms this may appear nonsense; you perhaps will not understand it: but if you can go over, day by day, any month of the last year,–you will know what I mean. On the whole, however, this is a subject that I cannot express myself upon. I speculate upon it frequently; and, believe me, the end of my speculations is always an anxiety for your happiness. This anxiety will not be one of the least incitements to the plan I purpose pursuing. I had got into a habit of mind of looking towards you as a help in all difficulties. This very habit would be the parent of idleness and difficulties. You will see it is a duty I owe myself to break the neck of it. I do nothing for my subsistence–make no exertion. At the end of another year, you shall applaud me,-not for verses, but for conduct. If you live at Hampstead next winter–I like x x x x x x x x x and I cannot help it. On that account I had better not live there. While I have some immediate cash, had better settle myself quietly, and fag on as others do. I shall apply to Hazlitt, who knows the market as well as any one, for something to bring me in a few pounds as soon as possible. I shall not suffer my pride to hinder me. The whisper may go round; I shall not hear it. If I can get an article in the “Edinburg”, I will. One must not be delicate. Nor let this disturb you longer than a moment. I look forward, with a good hope, that we shall one day be passing free, untrammelled, unanxious time together. That can never be if I continue a dead lump. x x x x x x x x x x x x x x I shall be expecting anxiously an answer from you. If it does not arrive in a few days, this will have miscarried, and I shall come straight to x x x x before I go to town, which you, I am sure, will agree had better be done while I still have some ready cash. By the middle of October I shall expect you in London. We will then set at the Theatres. If you have any thing to gainsay, I shall be even as the deaf adder which stoppeth her ears.’
On the same day he wrote another letter, having received one from me between the writing of his two. He again spoke of his purpose.
‘Do not suffer me to disturb you unpleasantly: I do not mean that you should suffer me to occupy your thoughts, but to occupy them pleasantly; for, I assure you, I am as far from being unhappy as possible. Imaginary grievances have always been more my torment than real ones. You know this well. Real ones will never have any other effect upon me than to stimulate me to get out of or avoid them. This is easily accounted for. Our imaginary woes are conjured up by our passions, and are fostered by passionate feeling; our real ones come of themselves, and are opposed by an abstract exertion of mind. Real grievances are displacers of passion. The imaginary nail a man down for a sufferer, as on a cross; the real spur him up into an agent. I wish, at one view, you could see my heart towards you. ‘Tis only from a high tone of feeling that I can put that word upon paper–out of poetry. I ought to have waited for your answer to my last before I wrote this. I felt, however, compelled to make a rejoinder to your’s. I had written to x x x x on the subject of my last.-I scarcely know whether I shall send my letter now. I think he would approve of my plan; it is so evident. Nay, I am convinced, out and out, that by prosing for awhile in periodical works I may maintain myself decently.’
I set off immediately to him, and we returned to town together. Up to that period he had always expressed himself averse to writing for any periodical work. The only contribution he ever made of this kind was to the ‘Champion’ newspaper, in a short notice of Kean’s performance of Luke in ‘The city madam’. As his poems were, to the disgrace of his contemporaries, unprofitable, in which sense alone his time had been spent idly, and as I was well acquainted with his independent feeling, there was no part of his plan, but what met with my concurrence, except the loss of his society. On this subject he heard me patiently, but concluded with insisting on the necessity of his living in a lodging in town, and by himself. He actually carried his plan into effect, not aware, as I was, of his incapability of living in solitude, and distant from the young lady in Hampstead who had won his heart. He remained in his new lodging two days (I think no more) and lived again with me. He appeared to have relinquished his intention of writing in periodical works. Probably he found his aversion to such a task insuperable.
It was evident from the letters he had sent me, even in his self-deceived assurance that he was ‘as far from being unhappy as possible’, that he was unhappy. I quickly perceived he was more so than I had feared; his abstraction, his occasional lassitude of mind, and, frequently, his assumed tranquillity of countenance gave me great me great uneasiness. He was unwilling to speak on the subject; and I could do no more than attempt, indirectly, to cheer him with hope, avoiding that word however. By chance our conversation turned on the idea of a comic faery poem in the Spenser stanza, and I was glad to encourage it. He had not composed many stanzas before he proceeded in it with spirit. It was to be published under the feigned authorship of Lucy Vaughan Lloyd, and to bear the title of The Cap and Bells, or, which he preferred, The Jealousies. This occupied his mornings pleasantly. He wrote it with the greatest facility; in one instance I remember having copied (for I copied as he wrote) as many as twelve stanzas before dinner. In the evenings, at his own desire, he was alone in a separate sitting-room, deeply engaged in remodelling his poem of ‘Hyperion’ into a ‘Vision’. The change in the conduct of this poem has not, in the opinion of his friends, been regarded as an improvement.
This morning and evening employment was broken into by a circumstance which it is needless to mention. He could not resume that employment, and he became dreadfully unhappy. His hopes of fame, and other more tender hopes were blighted. His patrimony, though much consumed in a profession he was compelled to relinquish, might have upheld him through the storm, had he not imprudently lost a part of it in generous loans. Prudence, in the vulgar acceptation of that virtue, is the leaving one vice for another of economy; or it is sheer selfishness. Now he had no vice; but he was as far removed from a selfish being as can be imagined. Indeed he possessed the noble virtues of friendship and generosity to excess; and they, in this world, may chance to spoil a man of independent feeling, till he is destitute. Even the ‘immediate cash’, of which he spoke in the extracts I have given from his letters, was lent, with no hope of its speedy repayment, and he was left worse than pennyless. All that a friend could say, or offer, or urge was not enough to heal his many wounds. He listened, and, in kindness, or soothed by kindness, showed tranquillity, but nothing from a friend could relieve him, except on a matter of inferior trouble.
He was too thoughtful, or too unquiet; and he began to be reckless of health. Among other proofs of recklessness, he was secretly taking, at times, a few drops of laudanum to keep up his spirits. It was discovered by accident, and, without delay, revealed to me. He needed not to be warned of the danger of such a habit; but I rejoiced at his promise never to take another drop without my knowledge; for nothing could induce him to break his word, when once given,–which was a difficulty. Still, at the very moment of my being rejoiced, this was an additional proof of his rooted misery.
Not long after this, one night–(I have no record of the date, but it was either at the end of December or the beginning of January),–one night, at eleven o’clock, he came into the house in a state that looked like fierce intoxication. Such a state in him, I knew, was impossible; it therefore was the more fearful. I asked hurriedly, ‘What is the matter,–you are fevered?’ ‘Yes, yes,’ he answered, ‘I was on the outside of the stage this bitter day till I was severely chilled,–but now I don’t feel it. Fevered!–of course, a little.’ He mildly and instantly yielded, a property in his nature towards any friend, to my request that he should go to bed. I followed with the best immediate remedy in my power. I entered his chamber as he leapt into bed. On entering the cold sheets, before his head was on the pillow, he slightly coughed, and I heard him say,–‘That is blood from my mouth.’ I went towards him; he was examining a single drop of blood upon the sheet. ‘Bring me the candle, Brown; and let me see this blood.’ After regarding it steadfastly, he looked up in my face, with a calmness of countenance that I can never forget, and said,-‘I know the colour of that blood;–it is arterial blood;–I cannot be deceived in that colour;-that drop of blood is my death-warrant;–I must die.’ I ran for a surgeon; my friend was bled; and, at five in the morning, I left him after he had been, some time, in a quiet sleep.
His surgeon and physician both unhesitatingly declared that his lungs were uninjured. This satisfied me, but not him: he could not reconcile the colour of that blood with their favourable opinion. He was long ill, and, at one period, unable to bear the presence of any one except his medical attendant and myself. I am inclined to think that nobleness of mind shows more gloriously in receiving than in giving. While I waited on him, day and night, his instinctive generosity, his acceptance of my offices, by a glance of his eye, a motion of his hand, made me regard my mechanical duty as absolutely nothing compared to his silent acknowledgment. Something like this, Severn, his last nurse, observed to me; and I am convinced it was an innate virtue in him to make those who most obliged him the most obliged, without effort, without a thought, well nigh magical. I recollect his once saying,–‘If you would have me recover, flatter me with a hope of happiness when I shall be well; for I am now so weak that I can be flattered into hope.’
With the spring his strength and, apparently, his former health returned. So much so, that his physician even recommended him to join me in another walking tour to the highlands; but neither he nor I, knowing what privations and bad weather he might endure there, was of the same opinion. I went alone. It was his choice, during my absence, to lodge at Kentish Town, that he might be near his friend, Leigh Hunt, in whose companionship he was ever happy. He went with me in the scotch smack as far as Gravesend. This was on the 7th May. I never saw him afterwards.
As evidence of his well being I had requested him to send me some new stanzas to his comic faery poem; for, since his illness, he had not dared the exertion of composing. At the end of eight days he wrote in good spirits, and began his letter thus:
My dear Brown,
You must not expect me to date my letter from such a place as this: you have heard the name; that is sufficient, except merely to tell you it is the 15th instant. You know I was very well in the smack; I have continued much the same, and am well enough to extract much more pleasure than pain out of the summer, even though I should get no better. I shall not say a word about the stanza you promised yourself through my medium, and will swear, at some future time, I promised. Let us hope I may send you more than one in my next. + + + + + + + +
In June he wrote as follows; and what I heard from other quarters also tended to confirm my best hopes.
My dear Brown,
I have only been to + + +’s once since you left, when x x x x could not find your letters. Now this is bad of me. I should, in this instance, conquer the great aversion to breaking up my regular habits, which grows upon me more and more. True I have an excuse in the weather, which drives one from shelter to shelter in any little excursion. I have not heard from George. My book is coming out with very low hopes, though not spirits on my part. This shall be my last trial; not succeeding, I shall try what I can do in the Apothecary line. When you hear from or see x x x x x x it is probable you will hear some complaints against me, which this notice is not intended to forestall. The fact is I did behave badly; but it is to be attributed to my health, spirits, and the disadvantageous ground I stand on in society. I would go and accommodate matters, if I were not too weary of the world. I know that they are more happy and comfortable than I am; therefore why should I trouble myself about it? I foresee I shall know very few people in the course of a year or two. Men get such difficult habits, that they become as oil and vinegar to one another. Thus far I have a consciousness of having been pretty dull and heavy, both in subject and phrase; I might add, enigmatical. I am in the wrong, and the world is in the right, I have no doubt. Fact is, I have had so many kindnesses done me by so many people, that I am cheveaux-de-frised with benefits, which I must jump over or break down. I met x x x in town a few days ago, who invited me to supper to meet Wordsworth, Southey, Lamb, Haydon, and some more; I was too careful of my health to risk being out at night. Talking of that, I continue to improve slowly, but, I think, surely. All the talk at present x x x x x x x x There is a famous exhibition in Pall Mall of the old english portraits by Vandyck and Holbein, Sir Peter Lely and the great Sir Godfrey. Pleasant countenances predominate; so I will mention two or three unpleasant ones. There is James the first,–whose appearance would disgrace a “Society for the suppression of women”; so very squalid, and subdued to nothing he looks. Then, there is old Lord Burleigh, the high priest of economy; the political save-all, who has the appearance of a Pharisee just rebuffed by a gospel bon-mot. Then, there is George the second, very like an unintellectual Voltaire, troubled with the gout and a bad temper. Then, there is young Devereux, the favourite, with every appearance of as slang a boxer as any in the court; his face is cast in the mould of blackguardism with jockey-plaster. x x x x x I shall soon begin upon Lucy Vaughan Lloyd. I do not begin composition yet, being willing, in case of a relapse, to have nothing to reproach myself with. I hope the weather will give you the slip; let it show itself, and steal out of your company. x x x x x x When I have sent off this, I shall write another to some place about fifty miles in advance of you.
Good morning to you.
Your’s ever sincerely, JOHN KEATS.
During a pedestrian tour, though every care is beforehand taken for the direction of letters, at particular times, and to particular places, somehow, either by inattention or error, mistakes abound. I walked on, disappointed from one post-office to another, till 9th September, when, at Dunkeld, I received letters forwarded from various parts of the Highlands, among which were two from Keats. The first was written on 14th August, and the second a few days after. On reading them, I turned my steps undeviatingly homewards.
My dear Brown,
You may not have heard from x x x x or x x x x, or in any way, that an attack of spitting of blood, and all its weakening consequences, has prevented me from writing for so long a time. I have matter now for a very long letter, but not news; so I must cut every thing short. I shall make some confession, which you will be the only person, for many reasons, I shall trust with. A winter in England would, I have not a doubt, kill me; so I have resolved to go to Italy, either by sea or land. Not that I have any great hopes of that,-for, I think, there is a core of disease in me not easy to pull out. x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x If I should die x x x x x I shall be obliged to set off in less than a month. Do not, my dear Brown, tease yourself about me. You must fill up your time as well as you can, and as happily. You must think of my faults(2) as lightly as you can. When I have health I will bring up the long arrears of letters I owe you. x x x x x x My book has had good success among literary people, and, I believe, has a moderate sale. I have seen very few people we know. x x x has visited me more than any one. I would go to x x x x x and make some inquiries after you, if I could with any bearable sensation; but a person I am not quite used to causes an oppression on my chest. Last week I received a letter from Shelley, at Pisa, of a very kind nature, asking me to pass the winter with him. Hunt has behaved very kindly to me. You shall hear from me again shortly.
Your affectionate friend, JOHN KEATS.
My dear Brown,
x x x x x x x I ought to be off at the end of this week, as the cold winds begin to blow towards evening;–but I will wait till I have your answer to this. I am to be introduced, before I set out, to a Dr Clarke, a physician settled at Rome, who promises to befriend me in every way at Rome. The sale of my book is very slow, though it has been very highly rated. One of the causes, I understand from different quarters, of the unpopularity of this new book, and the others also, is the offence the ladies take at me. On thinking that matter over, I am certain that I have said nothing in a spirit to displease any woman I would care to please: but still there is a tendency to class women in my books with roses and sweetmeats,-they never see themselves dominant. If ever I come to publish “Lucy Vaughan Lloyd”, there will be some delicate picking for squeamish stomachs. I will say no more, but, waiting in anxiety for your answer, doff my hat, and make a purse as long as I can.
Your affectionate friend,
On my arrival at Dundee, a smack was ready to sail, and with a fair wind. Yet I was one day too late. Unknown to each other at the time, our vessels lay, side by side, at Gravesend; for he had been recommended to go to Italy by sea, and was then on the first night of his voyage.
In my absence, while the autumn was too far advancing, a dear friend, Joseph Severn, almost at a day’s warning, accompanied him. Severn had gained the gold medal at the Royal Academy for the best historical picture among the students, and therefore was entitled to his expences to and from Italy, as well as for three years of study there. Our Keats could not be in more affectionate hands; and I contented myself with preparing to follow him very early in the spring, and not return should he prefer to live there. I thought of nothing but his recovery; for all the medical men who attended him were constant in their assertions that his lungs were uninjured; and his mind, I hoped, by change of scene, and renewed strength of body, would become tranquil.
Again we were within ten miles of each other, still without knowing it at the time. Contrary winds had driven him back to Portsmouth, where he landed for a day, while I chanced to be in the neighbourhood. I received this letter from him.
Maria Crowther. Off Yarmouth, Isle of Wight.
Saturday, 28 September.
My dear Brown,
The time has not yet come for a pleasant letter from me. I have delayed writing to you from time to time, because I felt how impossible it was to enliven you with one heartening hope of my recovery. This morning in bed the matter struck me in a different manner: I thought I would write “while I was in some liking “, or I might become too ill to write at all, and then, if the desire to have written should become strong, it would be a great affliction to me. I have many more letters to write, and I bless my stars that I have begun, for time seems to press, this may be my last opportunity. We are in a calm, and I am easy enough this morning. If my spirits seem too low, you may, in some degree, impute it to our having been at sea a fortnight without making any way. I was very disappointed at not meeting you at Bedhampton, and am very provoked at the thought of you being at Chichester to-day. I should have delighted in setting off for London, for the sensation merely,–for what should I do there? I could not leave my stomach, or lungs, or other worse things behind me. I wish to write on subjects that will not agitate me much,–there is one I must mention, and have done with it. Even if my body would recover of itself, this would prevent it. The very thing I want to live most for will be a great occasion of my death. I cannot help it. Who can help it? Were I in health it would make me ill, and how can I bear it in my state? I dare say you will be able to guess on what subject I am harping. You know what was my greatest pain during the first part of my illness at your house. I wish for death every day and night to deliver me from these pains, and then I wish death away, for death would destroy even those pains which are better than nothing. Land and sea, weakness and decline are great separators, but death is the great divorcer for ever. When the pang of this thought has passed through my mind, I may say the bitterness of death is passed. I often wish for you, that you might flatter me with the best.
I think, without my mentioning it, for my sake you would be a friend to x x x x when I am dead. If there is any thing you can do for her by word or deed, I know you will do it. I am in a state at present in which woman, merely as woman, can have no more power over me than stocks and stones, and yet the difference of my sensations with respect to her and my sister is amazing. The one seems to absorb the other to a degree incredible. The thought of leaving her is beyond every thing horrible–the sense of darkness coming over me! I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing. Some of the phrases she was in the habit of using, during my last nursing, ring in my ears. Is there another life? Shall I awake and find all this a dream? There must be: we cannot be created for this sort of suffering;–the receiving this letter is to be one of your’s!
I will say nothing about our friendship, or rather your’s to me, more than that, as you deserve to escape, you will never be so unhappy as I am. I should think of you in my last moments. I shall endeavour to write to her, –if possible to-day. A sudden stop to my life in the middle of one of these letters would be no bad thing, for it keeps one in a sort of fever awhile. Though fatigued with a letter longer than any I have written for a long while, it would be better to go on for ever than awake to a sense of contrary winds. We expect to put into Portland roads to-night. The captain, the crew, and the passengers are all ill tempered and weary. I shall write to x x x I feel as if I was closing my last letter to you.
My dear Brown,
Your affectionate friend,
I make no comment on this, nor shall I on two more letters from him; I cannot. Besides, what have the admirers of his poems and his character to do except with him alone, and to sympathise with his sufferings? Another’s would be discordant. His next was written when he had arrived at the end of his voyage.
Naples. Wednesday first in November.
My dear Brown,
Yesterday we were let out of Quarantine, during which my health suffered more from bad air and a stifled cabin than it had done the whole voyage. The fresh air revived me a little, and I hope I am well enough this morning to write to you a short calm letter;–if that can be called one, in which I am afraid to speak of what I would the fainest dwell upon. As I have gone thus far into it, I must go on a little;–perhaps it may relieve the load of WRETCHEDNESS(3) which presses upon me. The persuasion that I shall see her no more will kill me. I cannot q– My dear Brown, I should have had her when I was in health, and I should have remained well. I can bear to die–I cannot bear to leave her. Oh, God! God! God! Every thing I have in my trunks that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear. The silk lining she put in my travelling cap scalds my head. My imagination is horribly vivid about her–I see her –I hear her. There is nothing in the world of sufficient interest to divert me from her a moment. This was the case when I was in England; I cannot recollect, without shuddering, the time that I was prisoner at Hunt’s, and used to keep my eyes fixed on Hampstead all day. Then there was a good hope of seeing her again–Now!–O that I could be buried near where she lives! 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 can bear. My dear Brown, what am I to do? Where can I look for consolation or ease? If I had any chance of recovery, this passion would kill me. Indeed through the whole of my illness, both at your house and at Kentish Town, this fever has never ceased wearing me out. When you write to me, which you will do immediately, write to Rome (poste restante)–if she is well and happy, put a mark thus +,–if–Remember me to all. I will endeavour to bear my miseries patiently. A person in my state of health should not have such miseries to bear. Write a short note to my sister, saying you have heard from me. Severn is very well. If I were in better health I should urge your coming to Rome. I fear there is no one can give me any comfort. Is there any news of George? O, that something fortunate had ever happened to me or my brothers!–then I might hope,–but despair is forced upon me as a habit. My dear Brown, for my sake, be her advocate for ever. I cannot say a word about Naples; I do not feel at all concerned in the thousand novelties around me. I am afraid to write to her. I should like her to know that I do not forget her. Oh, Brown, I have coals of fire in my breast. It surprises me that the human heart is capable of containing and bearing so much misery. Was I born for this end? God bless her, and her mother, and my sister, and George, and his wife, and you, and all!
Your ever affectionate friend,
Thursday. I was a day too early for the courier. He sets out now. I have been more calm to-day, though in a half dread of not continuing so. I said nothing of my health; I know nothing of it; you will hear Severn’s account from x x x x x x I must leave off. You bring my thoughts too near to—–
God bless you!
The pain of this was relieved by the account Severn sent, by the same post, of his usual tone of mind, and of the opinion of the physicians there,-all positive there was no disease of the lungs. The account, indeed, was cheering and hopeful. Then I heard from Keats himself, when he had reached Rome, in a comparitively happy mood.
Rome. 30 November 1820.
My dear Brown,
‘Tis the most difficult thing in the world for 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 the 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 x x x x x 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 x x x to-morrow, or next day. I will write to x x x x x 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 x x x x 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 make an awkward bow.
God bless you!
My hopes, strong till then, were lost on the receipt of the following letter from Severn. I perceived that his physicians had been in error, and that the words of Keats himself, spitting up that one drop of blood,–‘That drop of blood is my death-warrant!’–were true.
Rome. 14 December 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 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 the manner of this relapse from the first.
17 December. 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 eight 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 his worse and worse state,–yet I dare not let him see I think it dangerous.
I had seen him awake on the morning of this attack, and, to all appearance, he was going on merrily, and had unusual good spirits;–when, in an instant, a cough seized him, and he vomited nearly two cup-fulls of blood. In a moment I got Dr Clarke, who saw the manner of it, and immediately took away about eight ounces of blood from the arm,–it was black and thick in the extreme. Keats was much alarmed and dejected. Oh! what an awful day I had with him! He rushed 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 mean from his reach, nor did I let him be free from my sight one minute. The blood broke forth 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 so, 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 ninth 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 less evil 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 thought in horror–so strong that every morning and night I tremble for his intellect–the recollection of England–of his “good friend Brown”–and his “happy few weeks in x x x x x’s care”–his sister and brother. Oh! he will mourn over every circumstance to me whilst I cool his burning forehead–until I tremble through every vein–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 gloomily, since each coming night I sit up adds its dismal contents to my mind.
Dr Clarke will not say so much. Although there are 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 Clarke went all over Rome for a certain kind of fish, and got it; but, just as I received it from Mrs Clarke, delicately prepared,–Keats was taken by the spitting of blood–and is now gone back all the eight 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 he will die from hunger, and I was obliged to give more than allowed. You cannot think how dreadful this is for me. The doctor, on one hand, tells me I shall kill him to give more than he allows, and Keats raves for more till I am in a complete tremble for him;–but I have talked him over now. We have the best opinion of Dr Clarke’s skill; he seems to understand the case, and comes over four or five times a day. He left word at twelve this morning to call any time in case of danger. For myself, I am keeping up beyond my most sanguine expectation. Eight nights I have been up, and, in the days, never a moment away from my patient, unless to run over to the doctor. But I will confess my spirits have been quite pulled down. These wretched Romans have no idea of comfort. Here am I obliged to wash up, cook, and read to Keats all day. Added to this, I have had no letters yet from my family. x x x x x x x x x x Will you, my dear Brown, write to me, for a letter to Keats now would almost kill him. Give x x x this sad news. I am quite exhausted. Farewell. I wish you were here, my dear Brown.
Your’s sincerely, JOSEPH SEVERN.
I have just looked at him–this will be a good night.
The tragedy goes on to the last, still in the words of kind hearted Severn.
Rome. 8 February 1821.
My dear Brown,
I have just got your letter of 15th January. The contrast of your quiet friendly Hampstead with this lonely place and our poor suffering Keats brings the tears into my eyes. I wish many, many times that he had never left you. His recovery must have been impossible whilst he was in England, and his excessive grief since has made it more so. In your care he seemed to me like an infant in its mother’s arms; you would have smoothed down his pain by varieties; his death might have been eased by the presence of his many friends. But here, with one solitary friend, in a place savage for an invalid, he has one more pang added to his many;–for I have had the hardest task in keeping from him my painful situations. I have kept him alive by these means, week after week. He had refused all food; but I tried him every way. I left him no excuse. Often I have prepared his meals six times a day, and kept from him the trouble I had in doing it. I have not been able to leave him;–that is, I have not dared to do it, but when he slept. Had he come here alone, he would have plunged into the grave in secret;–we should never have known one syllable about him. This reflection alone repays me for all I have done. It is impossible to conceive what the sufferings of this poor fellow have been. Now–he is still alive, and calm;–if I say more, I shall say too much. Yet, at times, I have hoped he would recover,–but the doctor shook his head,–and, as for Keats, he would not hear that he was better. The thought of recovery is beyond every thing dreadful to him. We now dare not perceive any improvement; for the hope of death seems his only comfort. He talks of the quiet grave as the first rest he can ever have. I can believe and feel this most truly.
In the last week a great desire for books came across his mind. I got him all the books at hand; and, for three days, this charm lasted on him, but now it has gone. Yet he is very calm. He is more and more reconciled to his horrible misfortunes.
14th February. Little or no change has taken place since the commencement of this,–except this beautiful one, that his mind is growing to great quietness and peace. I find this change has its rise from the increasing weakness of his body; but it seems like a delightful sleep to me,–I have been beating about in the tempest of his mind so long. To-night he has talked very much to me, but so easily, that he, at last, fell into a pleasant sleep. He seems to have comfortable dreams, without the night-mare. This will bring on some change,-it cannot be worse,–it may be better. Among the many things he has requested of me to-night, this is the principal one,–that on his grave-stone shall be this,–
HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER.
You will understand this so well, that I need not say a word about it. But, is it not dreadful that he should, with all his misfortunes on his mind, and perhaps wrought up to their climax, end his life without one jot of human happiness? When he first came here, he purchased a copy of Alfieri,-but put it down at the second page,–
“Misera me! sollievo a me non resta
“Altro che il pianto,–ed il pianto è delitto.”
He was much affected at this passage; and now that I know so much more of his grief, I do not wonder at it.
Such a letter has come! I gave it to Keats, supposing it to be one of your’s,–but it proved sadly otherwise;–the glance of that letter tore him to pieces,–the effects were on him for many days!–he did not read it–he could not–but requested me to place it in his coffin, together with a purse and a letter (unopened) of his sister’s-since which time he has requested me not to place that letter in his coffin, but only his sister’s purse and letter, with some hair. Here he found many causes of his illness in the exciting and thwarting of his passions, but I have persuaded him to feel otherwise on this delicate point. In his most irritable state, he sees a friendless world, with every thing that his life presents, particularly the kindness of his friends, tending to his untimely death.
I have got an English nurse to come two hours every other day, so that I have quite recovered my health; but my nurse, after coming five times, has been taken ill to-day; this is a little unfortunate as Keats seemed to like her. Another and greater misfortune is the cursed rumpus betwixt the Neapolitans and the Austrians. We are daily fearing that the thievish Neapolitans will arrive and ransack Rome. They are on their way hither; and, from the grudge betwixt them and the Romans, we have little to hope for. Rome might be taken with a straw–it is only defended by its relies. At twelve last night they rumbled all their artillery by here to the Porta Santa Giovanna. The Pope was on his legs all night, trusting any thing rather than heaven. If the Austrians do not arrive in time, our P’s and Q’s are likely to be altered. The English are very numerous here. Farewell.
Sincerely your’s, JOSEPH SEVERN.
In a little back-room I get chalking out a picture. This, with swallowing a little Italian every day, helps to keep me up. The Doctor was delighted with your kindness to Keats. He is a most worthy man; we must ever respect him for his unremitting kindness to Keats.
P.S. The post does not go for another two hours. To my great astonishment, I found it half past three this morning when I had done writing. You see I cannot do any thing until poor Keats is asleep. This morning he has waked very calm. I think he seems somewhat better. He has taken half a pint of fresh milk. The milk here is beautiful to all the senses–it is delicious–for three weeks he has lived on it, sometimes taking a pint and a half in a day.
You astonish me about x x x x x x x
The Doctor has been; he thinks Keats worse. He says the expectoration is the most dreadful he ever saw. Keats’s inward grief must have been beyond limit. His lungs are in a dreadful state. His stomach has lost all its power. Keats himself says he has fretted to death–from the first little drop of blood he knew he must die–he says no common chance of living was for him.’
Rome. 27 February 1821.
My dear Brown,
He is gone–he died with the most perfect ease–he seemed to go to sleep. On the 23rd, about 4, the approaches of death came on. “Severn-I–lift me up–I am dying–I shall die easy–don’t be frightened–be firm, and thank God it has come!” I lifted him up in my arms. The phlegm seemed boiling in his throat, and increased until 11, when he gradually sunk into death–so quiet-that I still thought he slept. I cannot say now-I am broken down from four nights’ watching, and no sleep since, and my poor Keats gone. Three days since, the body was opened; the lungs were completely gone. The Doctors could not conceive by what means he had lived these two months. I followed his poor body to the grave on Monday, with many English. They take such care of me here–that I must, else, have gone into a fever. I am better now–but still quite disabled.
The Police have been. The furniture, the walls, the floor, every thing must be destroyed by order of the law. But this is well looked to by Dr C.
The letters I put into the coffin with my own hand.
I must leave off.
This goes by the first post. Some of my kind friends would have written else. I will try to write you every thing next post; or the Doctor will.
They had a mask–and hand and foot done–
I cannot get on–
These details of suffering and death may be called by the public an infliction of unnecessary pain. Not so; the public, the countrymen of a poet, whose merit, either from ignorance or credulity, carelessness or caprice, they did not choose to acknowledge, cannot be too minutely made acquainted with the consequences of their neglect.
After twenty years, with all the charity of which my nature is capable, my belief continues to be that he was destroyed by hirelings, under the imposing name of Reviewers. Consumption, it may be urged, was in the family; his father and his younger brother had both died of it; therefore, his fate was inevitable. Perhaps it was so; perhaps not. The brother who died was very tall and narrow chested; our Keats was short, with well-proportioned limbs, and with a chest remarkably well-formed for strength. At the most, it comes to this: if an hereditary predisposition existed, that predisposition might not have been called into action, except by an outrageous denial of his now acknowledged claim to be ranked as a poet of England. Month after month, an accumulation of ridicule and scoffs against his character and person, did worse than tear food from the mouth of a starving wretch, for it tore honour from the poet’s brow. Could he have been less sensitive, could he have been less independent, could he have truckled to his self-constituted judges, could he have flattered the taste of the public, and pandered to their will and pleasure–in fact, could he have ceased to be John Keats, he might have existed at this moment, happy as one of the inferior animals of the creation.
As a critic on his poems, I confess myself incapable. I have purposely refrained from the task. While alive to their beauties, I am conscious of not being so to their faults. Time has not allayed my admiration. To dwell alone upon the beauties of his works is ample joy, and I seek not to have it diminished. Upon this subject I have but one observation to offer: he was, from the first day he became a poet, in progressive improvement. To this his poems bear witness. How high, had he not been destroyed by hirelings or disease, his genius might have soared, is a thought that at once exalts and depresses me.
Brown ends his memoir with copies of several of Keats’s poems.
Charles Brown’s Notes: 1. I cannot be certain of this date. While I was in Italy, and since my return, friends have in vain endeavoured to discover the registry of his baptism. One of his schoolfellows informs me that he thinks Keats must have been born a year earlier. The year of his birth I calculate from what he himself casually said of his age; but I suspect that his birthday, from his dislike to having it kept, is not correctly given, though said to have been given by himself to a lady, who asked him the question, with an avowed purpose of keeping it. 2. Sixteen years have not changed my opinion. I thought then, and I think now, he had no fault. On the faulty side he was scarcely human. 3. He could not go on with this sentence, nor even write the word ‘quit’,–as I suppose. The word WRETCHEDNESS above he himself wrote in large characters.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "The Life of John Keats: A memoir by Charles Armitage Brown" https://englishhistory.net/keats/life-john-keats-memoir-charles-armitage-brown/, February 22, 2015