KeatsJohn Keats (October 31, 1795 – February 23, 1821) was one
of the principal poets of the English Romantic movement. During his
short life, his work received constant critical attacks from the periodicals
of the day, though politics, rather than aesthetics, often dictated
those opinions. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, audiences began
to appreciate more fully the significance of the cultural change his
work both presaged and helped to form. Elaborate word choice and sensual
imagery characterize Keats' poetry, especially his early writings. He
often felt himself working in the shadow of past poets, particularly
Milton, Spenser and Shakespeare. Only towards the end of his life did
he produce his most original and most memorable poems, including a series
of odes that remain among the most popular poems in English.
Keats was born
in Finsbury Pavement in London, where his father, Thomas Keats, was
a hostler. The pub is now called "The John Keats at Moorgate,"
only a few yards from Moorgate station. Keats lived happily for the
first seven years of his life. The beginnings of his troubles occurred
in 1804, when his father died from a fractured skull after falling from
his horse. His mother, Frances Jennings Keats, remarried soon afterwards,
but quickly left the new husband and moved herself and her four children
(a son had died in infancy) to live with Keats' grandmother. There,
Keats attended a school that first instilled in him a love of literature.
In 1810, however, his mother died of tuberculosis, leaving him and his
siblings in the custody of their grandmother.
appointed two guardians to take care of her new 'charges', and these
guardians removed Keats from his old school to become a surgeon's apprentice.
This continued until 1814, when, after a fight with his master, he left
his apprenticeship and became a student at a local hospital. During
that year, he devoted more and more of his time to the study of literature.
Keats travelled to the Isle of Wight in the spring of 1817, where he
spent a week.
He soon found his
brother, Tom Keats, entrusted to his care. Tom was suffering, as his
mother had, from tuberculosis. Finishing his epic poem "Endymion",
Keats left to stay and walk in Scotland and Ireland with his friend
Charles Brown. However, he too began to show signs of tuberculosis infection
on that trip, and returned prematurely. When he did, he found that Tom's
condition had deteriorated, and that Endymion had, as had Poems before
it, been the target of much abuse from the critics. On December 1, 1818,
Tom Keats died from his disease, and John Keats moved again, to live
in Brown's house in Hampstead. There he lived next door to Fanny Brawne,
where she had been staying with her mother. He then quickly fell in
love with Fanny. However, it was overall an unhappy affair for the poet;
Keats' ardour for her seemed to bring him more vexation than comfort.
The later (posthumous) publication of their correspondence was to scandalise
Victorian society. In the diary of Fanny Brawne was found only one sentence
regarding the separation: "Mr. Keats has left Hampstead."
Life and Death masks, RomeThis relationship was cut short when, by 1820,
Keats began showing worse signs of the disease that had plagued his
family. On the suggestion of his doctors, he left the cold airs of London
behind and moved to Italy with his friend Joseph Severn. Keats moved
into a house on the Spanish Steps, in Rome, where despite attentive
care from Severn and Dr. John Clark, the poet's health rapidly deteriorated.
He died on February 23 1821 and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery,
Rome. His last request was followed, and thus he was buried under a
tomb stone reading, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."
His name does not appear on the stone.
Shelley and Byron
erroneously blamed his death on an article published shortly before
in the Quarterly Review, with a scathing attack on Keats's Endymion;
'snuffed out by an article' was Byron's phrase. The offending article
was long believed to be written by William Gifford, though later shown
to be the work of John Wilson Croker. Keats' death inspired Shelley
to write the poem Adonais.
The Life of John
Notes: When quoting
from Keats's letters, I have retained his original spelling. All images
at this page can be viewed in larger format at Keats: Images. All letters
can be read in their entirety at Keats: Letters. Please visit The Keats
Chronology for a more linear study of his life and work. It also includes
more information about his apothecary studies. You may also read Charles
Brown's memoir The Life of John Keats and Sidney Colvin's 1917 biography
John Keats was born
on 31 October 1795, the first of Frances Jennings and Thomas Keats's
five children, one of whom died in infancy. His parents had been wed
for barely a year when John was born. His maternal grandparents, John
and Alice Jennings, were well-off and, upon his parents' marriage, had
entrusted the management of their livery business to Thomas. These stables,
called the 'Swan and Hoop', were located in north London and provided
horses for hire to adjacent neighborhoods.
Thomas and Frances
lived at the stables through the births of their first three children.
George was born on 28 February 1797 and Thomas on 18 November 1799.
After their births, the young couple felt successful enough to move
to a separate house on Craven Street, about a half-mile from the business.
Here, on 28 April 1801, their son Edward was born; he died shortly thereafter.
And on 3 June 1803, the last of their children and only daughter, Frances
Mary, was born.
Details of Keats's
early life are scarce. During the last few years of his life, letters
allow one to track him virtually week-to-week but his childhood and
adolescence are another matter. Indeed, virtually all the information
known is in the form of reminisces, many taken years after Keats had
died. Understandably, one must view these memories with some skepticism.
Whether discussing Keats's physical appearance (his brother George said
he resembled their mother while a family friend said it was the father)
or his pastimes, these sources often contradict one another.
Thomas Keats, died on Sunday, 15 April 1804, while returning home from
visiting John and George at Enfield school. It was believed his horse
slipped on the cobblestones and threw him to the ground. Suffering a
skull fracture, he lived for a few hours after being found by a night
watchman. Barely two months later, on 27 June 1804, Frances Jennings
remarried. Grief-stricken and unable to conduct the livery business
herself, she wed a minor bank clerk named William Rawlings. Rawlings
was a fortune-hunter and the marriage was a failure. The children were
immediately sent to live with their grandmother and, a few years later,
their mother joined them. She had left Rawlings and, with him, the stables
she had inherited from her former husband. From this time on, her health
The upheaval in
the children's lives continued. On 8 March 1805, their grandfather died
and the financial turmoil which haunted Keats's life began. For John
Jennings, a kindly and generous man, was also gullible; he had hired
a land surveyor, not a lawyer, to draft his will and the result was
an ill-written and vague document. Mr. Jennings's real wishes were obscured
and open to interpretation. The specifics of the case are far too detailed
for this generalized sketch, but are available in any biography of Keats.
There is also a book called The Keats Inheritance which can be found
in any good university library. It is worth mentioning here simply because
Keats's entire adult life was spent struggling with money.
The fight over shares
in the estate began shortly after Jennings's death and ended long after
John Keats's death. Their grandmother, now almost seventy, was left
with half the income she and her husband had lived on. To practice economy,
she moved to a smaller home and attempted to save what she could. In
her own will, she appointed Richard Abbey trustee and guardian of her
grandchildren. This appointment was to have tragic consequences for
all the Keats children, but most especially John.
new home was close to Enfield, where the youngest son Tom was sent to
join his brothers at school. At Enfield, the Keats brothers were well-liked
and popular. John caught the attention of his schoolfellows; their reminisces
stress his bravery and generosity to others. They also mentioned his
sensitivity, a trait which did not prevent him from engaging in fights.
As schoolfellow Edward Holmes remembered, "The generosity &
daring of his character - in passions of tears or outrageous fits of
laughter always in extremes will help to paint Keats in his boyhood."
But Holmes, who later became a well-known music critic, stressed that
Keats "was a boy whom any one might easily have fancied would become
great - but rather in some military capacity than in literature."
Simply put, there was little in John's character which would indicate
a great future in poetry.
The money problems
which began with his grandfather's death were exacerbated by his mother's
death in mid-March of 1810 and his grandmother's death in December of
1814. Keats, as the eldest child, was old enough to try and help his
mother through her illness; her death impressed itself upon him deeply.
His grandmother, whose home had been his for nearly a decade, was also
sorely missed. Richard Abbey now became the primary 'adult' influence
in Keats's life. Abbey withdrew John and George from school and apprenticed
John to an apothecary/surgeon named Dr. Hammond. Keats displayed great
aptitude for the difficult job though his enthusiasm waned as his interest
in poetry grew. For the next three years, he studied medicine. He also
wrote his first poem in 1814, a few months before his grandmother died.
Abbey was executor
of her estate and thus guardian of her grandchildren. He took Keats's
younger sister Fanny into his home. Using the vague wording of John
Jennings' will as a pretext, he often withheld money from the children.
He did this despite his legal obligations, largely because he believed
they would waste the money and become destitute. The actual amount of
the inheritance was also never made clear. And so the Keats children
struggled for money while Abbey wrangled with the inheritance, whether
through malice or disinterest. The psychological and physical effects
of this poverty were profound.
Abbey's own conservative
austerity made him unsympathetic to the children. He had a low opinion
of their temperaments and maturity. This opinion was formed by the behavior
of their mother during her marriage and estrangement from Rawlings.
There had been rumors of Frances wandering the streets in disarray and
living in sin with various men. Abbey wanted the Keats sons to achieve
success in respectable, stable careers, hence his desire for John to
become an apothecary. Like most Englishmen, he did not consider poetry,
particularly as practiced by a middle-class boy, to be a good career
choice. Poetry was the provenance of the noble and wealthy who possessed
the leisure and education to indulge in wordplay. John Keats could not
afford such a lifestyle. This attitude was pervasive enough to influence
early reviews of Keats's poetry as influential magazines such as Blackwood's
called him 'ignorant and unsettled', a 'pretender' to a poetic career.
On 1 October 1815,
Keats entered Guy's Hospital for more formal training. Henry Stephens,
a classmate and later the inventor of blue-black ink, described the
lectures, he [Keats] would sit & instead of Copying out the lecture,
would often scribble some doggerel rhymes, among the Notes of Lecture,
particularly if he got hold of another Student's Syllabus - In my Syllabus
of Chemical Lectures he scribbled many lines on the paper cover, This
cover has been long torn off, except one small piece on which is the
following fragment of Doggerel rhyme
Give me women, wine and snuff
Until I cry out "hold, enough!"
You may do so sans objection
Till the day of resurrection;
For, bless my beard, they aye shall be
My beloved Trinity.
made him excise the reference to women and the last two lines when he
told this story to Keats's first biographer, RM Milnes.
In March 1816,
Keats became a dresser, applying bandages and, in the summer, a Licentiate
of the Society of Apothecaries. But the most momentous event was the
publication of his first poem in The Examiner. There was little critical
reception, but Keats was attracting new friends who shared his literary
tastes, among them Leigh Hunt, Benjamin Haydon and John Reynolds. Hunt
was the earliest and most enthusiastic supporter of Keats. As a critic
on the fringes of the literary establishment, he did all he could to
champion his friend's career. Oddly, Keats came to be critical of Hunt's
personal and professional affairs, which was a rare lapse in his usually
generous nature. In December, Hunt quoted Keats in his famous 'Young
Poets' article. He had already given him the nickname 'Junkets', from
Keats's Cockney pronunciation of his own name.
By this time, Keats
had decided to end his medical training. He had no illusions of the
difficulty of a poetic career but he was determined to follow his dream.
He was already borrowing as many books as possible from various friends,
and became an ardent admirer of Spenser and Shakespeare. This devotion
to reading, which had begun after his father's death and remained throughout
his life, inspired his most famous poem of 1816, On First Looking Into
Much have I travell'd
in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific--and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise--
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
The following year,
1817, was even more momentous for Keats. While living with his brothers
George and Tom in Cheapside, he continued to write poetry; his first
volume, Poems, was published by C and J Ollier on 3 March. In a friendly
spirit, he gave a copy to Abbey, who told him when they next met, "Well,
John, I have read your book, & it reminds me of the Quaker's Horse
which was hard to catch, & good for nothing when he was caught -
So, Your Book is hard to understand & good for nothing when it is
understood." Years later, when relating the story, Abbey implied
the comment had been humorous but Keats had taken it to heart: "Do
you know, I don't think he ever forgave me for uttering this Opinion."
The book sold very badly and Keats soon left for another publisher,
Taylor and Hessey.
It was around this
time that the Keats brothers decided to move to the healthier area of
north London, settling in Hampstead. Both George and Tom had been employed
by Abbey but left their jobs before the move. In Hampstead, the brothers
made numerous friends, most notably Charles Wentworth Dilke and his
wife Maria. George Keats's departure from Abbey's business also marked
the beginning of various schemes to make money, one of which required
some of John's inheritance. The next year, he would marry and move to
In April 1817, shortly
after giving Abbey his first book, Keats embarked on a four-month tour
through Carisbrooke, Canterbury, Hastings, etc He also wrote the first
books of Endymion and other compositions. The unaccustomed solitude
and intense work affected Keats deeply. For the first time in his life,
he was able to focus completely on his poetry and realize both the extent
of his own ambition and ability. Touching upon his own native genius
reassured him that the decision to risk all for a literary career was
indeed worthwhile; however, the solitude affected him enough to send
him back to the reassuring comfort of Tom's companionship. His friend,
the painter Haydon, would encourage Keats to seek as much solitude as
possible while writing. However much he personally needed the support
of his brothers, it could not help his poetic development. But the lonely,
grinding work of creation, of writing and editing new lines, was difficult.
The early losses of his parents and grandparents had undeniably fostered
the strong bond between the Keats children; only death would break it.
Despite Haydon's kind advice, the brothers would stay together until
George's emigration and Tom's death. Keats could not help but become
overly involved in his brothers' lives, often to the sacrifice of his
writing and peace of mind.
The trip had another
salutary affect upon Keats's life. During his travels, he first met
Joseph Severn, the young painter who would eventually nurse him during
his final illness in Rome. Severn was immediately struck by Keats's
genius, which seemed to manifest itself in his ability to literally
feel the poetic essence of all things. Haydon confirmed Severn's impression:
"The humming of the bee, the sight of a flower, the glitter of
the sun, seemed to make his nature tremble!" This was a very Wordsworthian
attribute, as Keats surely understood. He admired much of Wordsworth's
work, but his own love of Elizabethan wordplay gave his poetry an extravagance
and sensuality which Wordsworth lacked.
Keats also met Benjamin
Bailey and Charles Brown. In September, Keats stayed with his new friend
Bailey at Oxford and wrote the third book of Endymion; the fourth book
would be completed in late November. Bailey was easily the wealthiest
of Keats's new friends and his lodgings were comfortable and cheerful.
They were also full of the books which Keats loved. His writing progressed
largely because of Bailey's own work schedule. Bailey would begin his
studies directly after breakfast and Keats would also take up his pen.
Later in the afternoon, he would read his work to Bailey and they would
talk and go for long walks. Like Severn, Bailey genuinely admired Keats.
His open appreciation encouraged the shy poet's work and conversation.
Keats rarely spoke of personal matters to anyone but, while in Oxford,
he opened up to Bailey. His young friend did not gain a favorable impression
of George or Tom, who were at the time having a far too expensive holiday
in Paris, complete with a visit to an infamous brother and gaming house.
Bailey also learned that Abbey was discouraging Fanny from meeting with
her brothers. In response, Keats continued to write his sister, reassuring
her that she was both his "only sister" and "dearest
This time in Oxford
allowed Bailey to offer insights into Keats's character which are free
of condescension or exaggeration: "The errors of Keats's character,
- and they were as transparent as a weed in a pure and lucent stream
of water, - resulted from his education; rather from his want of education.
But like the Thames waters, when taken out to sea, he had the rare quality
of purifying himself;...." He was also aware of Keats's innately
generous nature; the poet "allowed for people's faults more than
any man I ever knew."
Their readings together
also confirmed Bailey's understanding that, though his own education
was more vast, Keats's power of insight was infinitely greater. Destined
for a career in the Church and intensely studying theology, Bailey engaged
Keats sin many religious talks. The poet was a skeptical believer, but
always open to new ideas. The time at Oxford was allowing him to think
deeply and consistently about his poetic instincts. He also began to
closely study his earlier verse, attempting to create his own philosophy
The impact of the
month in Oxford on Keats's development as a man and poet was immense.
It marked a new understanding of his desires and purpose, and a new
dedication to a literary career. But when he returned to London at the
start of the Oxford Michaelmas term on 5 October, it was with noticeable
regret. George and Tom had also returned to their cramped rooms. Keats
enjoyed his brothers' companionship, but the long hours of work he had
done in Oxford could not be replicated here. The noise and lack of privacy
made poetry nearly impossible. At first, he took long walks around the
neighborhood, visiting Haydon and Hunt. His old friends were quarreling,
with Hunt criticizing Haydon's paintings and Keats's Endymion. "I
am quite disgusted with literary Men," Keats wrote to the sympathetic
But there was another
problem as well, a mysterious one which exacerbated his impatient and
frustrated mood. Some biographers believe that Keats had contracted
a venereal disease while in Oxford. He was particularly ill at Hampstead
in October, and treated himself with mercury, writing to Bailey, "The
little Mercury I have taken has corrected the Poison and improved my
Health." The infection lasted for two months, for he mentioned
it again to Bailey in late November. There was also a letter in late
October in which Keats joked about some sort of sexual experience. In
this letter, he also remarks upon inquiries about his health; several
friends had supposed he was suffering the pangs of romantic love, but
he assured Bailey it was quite the opposite. This issue is discussed
at length in Robert Gittings' biography of Keats. The poet's sexual
experience has always frustrated biographers, but the bawdy contents
of several letters and poems suggests that Keats had some experience.
(It is the use of
mercury which biographers have used to support the theory of venereal
disease. As Keats had occasion to know from the lectures at St Guy's,
mercury was used to treat syphilis and gonorrhea. However, it was also
used to treat common respiratory illnesses. Since Keats spent the latter
days of October indoors completing Endymion, it is possible he merely
had a cold. It's impossible to know the truth of the matter; for opposing
views, read Robert Gittings's biograpy and Walter Wells's medical study.)
The forced rest
of October allowed him to continue, though with interruption, the development
of his philosophy. He could now read and critique even his great heroes
Wordsworth and Coleridge; his contemporaries Shelley and Byron were
also studied. Keats was now confident enough of his own abilities to
judge their innate worth. He felt himself to be charting a new path,
while growing increasingly frustrated with the constraints of Endymion.
Taken as a whole, the work is inconsistent and often frustrating, but
there are passages of great beauty and power. Reading it, we can witness
the young poet (and remember, Keats was about to turn just 22) struggling
to find his natural voice, finding it, and then developing its consistency.
But in the final
months of 1817, even as he recovered from his mysterious illness, he
had a more pressing cause for worry - his brother Tom was ill, and becoming
more so, in a ghastly repeat of their mother's death. Tom's illness
would come to occupy his brother's thoughts for most of the next year.
In December 1817, there was a welcome distraction - the chance to meet
his great hero Wordsworth. Haydon arranged the meeting and later famously
"I said he
has just finished an exquisite ode to Pan - and as he had not a copy
I begged Keats to repeat it - which he did in his usual half chant,
(most touching) walking up & down the room - when he had done I
felt really, as if I had heard a young Apollo - Wordsworth drily said
- 'a Very pretty piece of Paganism' -
This was unfeeling, & unworthy of his high Genius to a young Worshipper
like Keats - & Keats felt it deeply - so that if Keats has said
any thing severe about our Friend; it was because he was wounded - and
though he dined with Wordsworth after at my table - he never forgave
The above description
is quite famous but there is reason to doubt its accuracy. Haydon first
told the story decades later; his journals at the time make no mention
of it. Also, Keats's attitude towards Wordsworth did not noticeably
change. It is clear from other accounts that some exchange occurred
between the two poets, but it seemed more to amuse Keats than offend
him. He was now confident enough of his own abilities to recognize Wordsworth's
less attractive traits.
George and Tom traveled to Teignmouth for Tom's health. The tuberculosis
that had killed their mother was not yet suspected in the youngest Keats;
but he was ill and seemed to grow worse as the weeks passed. Keats spent
the next two months revising and copying Endymion and attending lectures
by the great critic William Hazlitt. Endymion was published in late
spring by Taylor and Hessey. His brother's declining health brought
Keats to Teignmouth in March, and he spent the next two months there,
nursing Tom while writing Isabella, or the Pot of Basil. Bailey invited
him to Oxford again; he had read Endymion several times and was impressed
enough to write a glowing review for a local paper. But Tom's condition
prevented the trip.
was planning his wedding to Georgiana Wylie and their emigration to
America. Of his inheritance of £1700, he would leave £500
behind; this was to pay his outstanding debts and give his brothers
extra money. It was also repayment of various loans Keats had made him
over the years. George married on 28 May 1818, with Keats signing the
register as witness. Three weeks later, George and his new wife left
For the first time
in their young lives, the brothers were split apart. Keats felt the
separation keenly. Their orphaned upbringing had made them extraordinarily
close and now George was gone, Fanny was locked away with Abbey's family,
and poor Tom was dying, as Keats finally admitted to himself. They had
originally hoped for a recovery, perhaps spurred by a trip to the warm
climates of Portugal or Italy, but the plans came to naught. He wrote
in a maudlin mood to Bailey: "I have two Brothers, one is driven
by the 'burden of Society' to America, the other, with an exquisite
love of Life, is in a lingering state. I have a Sister too and may not
follow them, either to America or to the Grave."
for Georgiana gave him some consolation; just twenty years old upon
leaving England, she had already impressed him with her kind, warm-hearted
nature and appreciation of his work. Also, Tom had made plans to return
to London and allow their landlady Mrs. Bentley to nurse him at Well
Walk. This would allow Keats the opportunity to travel with Charles
Brown, whose acquaintance he had made in the fateful summer of 1817.
They toured the Lake District for several weeks, and then did an extensive
walking tour of Scotland. It was a wonderful trip for the poet. Not
only was he distracted from his personal problems, but he and Brown
became close friends. And the beautiful landscapes he encountered inspired
his writing. He described them in a lengthy letter to Tom: "....[T]hey
make one forget the divisions of life; age, youth, poverty and riches;
and refine one's sensual vision into a sort of north star which can
never cease to be open lidded and steadfast over the wonders of the
great Power. ....I never forget my stature so completely. I live in
the eye; and my imagination, surpassed, is at rest. ....I shall learn
poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever."
These were indeed
prophetic words, foreshadowing his incredible accomplishments of 1819.
This trip, like his tour of 1817 and subsequent month in Oxford, marked
the next stage of Keats's life. Brown would become a major figure, both
friend and supporter to the poet.
In mid-July, Keats
wrote a long letter to Bailey which should be noted since it contains
the poet's oft-quoted remarks about women. Keats had been dismissive
of the fairer sex in an earlier letter, which upset Bailey; now he was
reflective, seeking to understand his own contradictory feelings. His
current reading of Burns and Dante had also affected him. And he understood
his own character well enough to tell Bailey, "I carry all matters
to an extreme." Regarding women:
"Is it not
extraordinary? When among Men I have no evil thoughts, no malice, no
spleen - I can listen and from every one I can learn - my hands are
in my pockets I am free from all suspicion and comfortable. When I am
among Women I have evil thoughts, malice, spleen - I cannot speak or
be silent - I am full of Suspicions and therefore listen to no thing
- I am in a hurry to be gone - You must be charitable and put all this
perversity to my being disappointed since Boyhood - ....I must absolutely
get over this, - but how? The only way is to find the root of the evil,
and so cure it."
This attitude has
been much discussed by biographers and critics, but seems understandable
enough. As a shy young man with limited experience of women as well
as a lingering defensiveness regarding his height (Keats was about five
feet tall), his feelings were necessarily conflicted.
A few days after
completing this letter, the rigors of the tour finally caught up with
him. He caught a severe cold which turned into acute tonsillitis. He
saw a doctor at Inverness on 6 August who advised him to return to London.
Keats did so, and the ten day sale from Cromarty to London, with its
enforced rest, restored some of his health. But bad news had arrived
in Scotland for him. Tom's doctor had asked the Dilkes to send for Keats;
his brother's condition was now dire. Brown wrote back that Keats was
already on his way home. He arrived in London unaware and cheerful,
meeting Severn in the city and then traveling back to Hampstead. His
first stop was the Dilke household, where he made a great impression
on Mrs. Dilke; Keats was "as brown and as shabby as you can imagine;
scarcely any shoes left, his jacket all torn at the back, a fur cap,
a great plaid, and his knapsack. I cannot tell you what he looked like."
They told him about Tom's condition and he immediately left for Well
Nursing Tom was
now his main task, but his own sore throat soon returned. Keats began
to take larger doses of mercury under the advice of Tom's doctor. They
feared his ulcerated throat might turn out to be a syphilitic ulcer;
doctors mistakenly believed there was a connection between gonorrhea
and syphilis. The mercury had its own side effects, including nervousness,
sore gums, and a bad toothache. Keats discontinued the medicine in late
September. He spent several weeks in near seclusion, venturing to London
once to ask Abbey to allow Fanny to visit Tom. When not brooding over
his brother's too brief life, he could consider the cruel reviews of
Poems and Endymion which had appeared in the press.
Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine had published a scathing criticism of
the 'Cockney School of Poetry', into which they lumped both Hunt and
Keats. Keats did not appreciate the link; his own development had taken
him far from Hunt's aesthetic. But he was not destroyed by the review,
as later writers would imply.
The review itself
made numerous references to his humble middle-class origins and apothecary
training. Blackwood's would return to this snide characterization continuously.
And it was all because of Bailey's misguided loyalty. At a dinner party
with John Lockhart of Blackwood's, who published reviews under the anonymous
'Z.', Bailey heard Lockhart comment that Keats shared Hunt's poetry
and politics. In their long talks and letters, Keats had confessed his
fear of exactly this criticism to Bailey, and now Bailey jumped to his
friend's defense. Attempting to distinguish the two men, he discussed
Keats's life, giving Lockhart ammunition for his attack. Realizing his
blunder, Bailey asked Lockhart to keep the information to himself, which
the critic did. After all, the review did not appear under his name.
was by far the worst; other reviewers were content to simply discuss
the poetry itself. It was of too new a type for immediate popularity,
but some acknowledged Keats's obvious talent, merely criticizing the
path he had chosen. For Keats himself, the works reviewed had long since
been abandoned in an aesthetic sense. They were the products of his
youth, his idealistic experimentation, his first attempts at poetry;
he had already left them behind.
He was also leaving
behind another part of his youth, the close companionship and support
of his brothers. George was gone to America and Tom was dying. Keats
could no longer define himself as an older brother and rely upon their
encouragement. He would soon be completely alone. He would also compose
some of the most beautiful poetry ever written.
As if Keats's return
home was not traumatic enough, with Tom's illness and his own emotional
and physical stress, another event occurred which had a profound impact
upon the poet. He met Charles Brown's former tenants, the Brawne family.
Brown and the Dilke family each owned half of a double house in Hampstead
called Wentworth Place. Brown rented out his half when he left on annual
vacations, as he had with Keats that summer; when he returned, the Brawnes
moved to Elm Cottage, a brief walk away. But while they had lived at
Wentworth Place, they had become close friends with Keats's friends,
the kindly Dilke family. The Dilkes had spoken often of Keats, praising
him in the highest terms. And so when the Brawne family finally met
the esteemed young Mr Keats, they were prepared to like him.
Mrs Brawne was widowed;
she lived with her 18 year old daughter Fanny, 14 year old son Sam and
9 year old daughter Margaret. The teenaged Fanny was not considered
beautiful, but she was spirited and kind. She was also a realist and
immensely practical, perhaps as a result of her family's straitened
circumstances. She took great care with her appearance and enjoyed flirting
with young admirers. As Hampstead was close to an army barracks, there
were numerous military dances throughout the year. Fanny was a popular
participant; when they first met, Keats was struck by her coquettish
sense of fun, and it later pricked his jealousy too often for comfort.
"My greatest torment since I have known you has been the fear of
you being a little inclined to the Cressid," he would tell her
later, referring to Chaucer's infamous flirt.
They met at the
Dilkes' home, as Fanny later recalled, and "[Keats's] conversation
was in the highest degree interesting and his spirits good, excepting
at moments when anxiety regarding his brother's health dejected them."
Indeed, Keats, whatever his first impressions of young Miss Brawne,
was too caught up with his younger brother's decline to ponder any attraction.
By the end of November, with Tom close to death, Keats spent nearly
every waking moment at Tom's bedside. The little rooms at Well Walk,
once the scene of close companionship for the brothers, were now haunted
with disappointment, despair and grief. When Tom died on 1 December,
Keats was worn and numb. The memories of Tom's terrible, lingering illness
would never leave him; Keats was too sensitive and brooding to ever
But he at least
had a welcome distraction in Fanny Brawne. Eager to escape Well Walk,
he gladly accepted Brown's invitation to share Wentworth Place with
him. This was not charity on Brown's part; Keats paid him the normal
rate for lodging. Since the Dilkes' were now next door, Keats visited
with more frequency; and each time, the brown-haired, blue-eyed Fanny
made a greater impression. She both confused and exasperated Keats,
and therein lay her attraction. He simply could not understand her.
In mid-December, two weeks after Tom's death, he wrote a long letter
to George and Georgiana in America. Its contents spanned a fortnight
and Fanny is notably mentioned: "Mrs Brawne who took Brown's house
for the summer still resides in Hampstead. She is a very nice woman
and her daughter senior is I think beautiful, elegant, graceful, silly,
fashionable and strange. We have a little tiff now and then - and she
behaves a little better, or I must have sheered off." And later
the poet gives a more vivid description:
"Shall I give
you Miss Brawne? She is about my height with a fine style of countenance
of the lengthened sort - she wants sentiment in every feature - she
manages to make her hair look well - her nostrils are fine though a
little painful - her mouth is bad and good - her Profile is better than
her full-face which indeed is not full but pale and thin without showing
any bone - her shape is very graceful and so are her movements - Her
arms are good her hands badish - her feet tolerable.... She is not seventeen
- but she is ignorant - monstrous in her behavior flying out in all
directions, calling people such names that I was forced lately to make
use of the term Minx - this I think not from any innate vice but from
a penchant she has for acting stylishly. I am however tired of such
style and shall decline any more of it."
And, for a time,
it seems he did try to dismiss Fanny from his mind. She rates only a
passing mention in a mid-February letter to George (he and Fanny have
an occasional 'chat and a tiff'). Poetry had once more become a consuming
passion. But it would only be a matter of time before both Fanny and
poetry occupied positions of equal importance in his life.
Fanny was no poet,
nor did she aspire to the title. But as their acquaintance grew and
deepened, she developed a keen appreciation and respect for Keats's
work. Whether she enjoyed it because it was written by the young man
she loved, or because she recognized its greatness, we do not know;
but her encouragement - and that of his friends - was welcome. (And
it may be that Keats preferred Fanny's decidedly non-poetic conversation.
He had, after all, commented, "I have met with women who I really
think would like to be married to a Poem and to be given away by a Novel."
If Fanny loved him, she loved him as John Keats alone and that won his
Throughout the winter
of 1819, Keats worked for hours at his desk. In January, The Eve of
St Agnes was completed and, a month later, The Eve of St Mark. He also
worked on the ambitious Hyperion until early spring; he would leave
it deliberately unfinished.
On 3 April 1819,
he was suddenly forced into even closer quarters with the baffling Miss
Brawne. The Dilkes decided to move to the city center and rented their
half of Wentworth Place to Mrs Brawne and her children. Fanny was now
a next door neighbor and her presence came close to intoxicating Keats.
From April onward, their romance blossomed. Keats would interrupt his
serious poetry to write quick sonnets to Fanny, including the famous
Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art. Most of these works
dwell upon her physical charms, but they also celebrate the enjoyment
and abandon he found in her company. It was inevitable that his first
love affair would consume him. Once he allowed love to take hold, Keats
dedicated himself to it with his trademark intensity. In turn, he was
given new impetus, - new inspiration, - new insight into his own emotions
and the world itself. His poetry began to reflect this new maturity
The original manuscript
of the 'Bright star!' sonnet.
In late April, he
began composing one of his best-loved works, La Belle Dame Sans Merci.
The story of an enchantress and the knight she lures to his doom, it
is an evocative and beautiful work, justly celebrated. But even it gives
no hint of the great works to come; Keats himself considered it mere
light verse and, in a letter to George, dismissed it with a joke. Then,
in the space of a few weeks, he composed three of the most beautiful
works of poetry ever written - Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode to a Nightingale
and Ode on Melancholy. The story of the composition of Ode to a Nightingale,
as well as an image of Keats's original draft, can be read at the Keats:
These works have
been subject to much critical analysis, but the fact remains that -
their technical merit aside - they are, quite simply, beautiful. They
remain the ultimate expression of Keats's genius and secured his reputation
as a great poet. But this vindication of his early promise did not result
in immediate acclaim. There was no fanfare, or even immediate publication.
Instead, there were more long hours at work, stolen moments with Fanny,
and Brown's cheerful company. Mrs Brawne had by now realized the serious
course of Keats and Fanny's relationship; she could not have been very
pleased. Keats was a kind and intelligent young man, but he was poor
and his chosen career offered little hope of success. But her own good
nature could not prevent a love match. She grew fond of the poet and
later nursed him through his illness.
But Brown was not
happy about the relationship. He disliked Fanny, perhaps out of jealousy
because she consumed much of Keats's time and thought. Perhaps, too,
he understood the depth of Keats's feelings and Fanny's casual, flirtatious
attitude with other men (Brown included) indicated a far more shallow
attachment on her part. He did not encourage their courtship and, amongst
the poet's friends (with the exception of the Dilkes), Fanny was viewed
somewhat askance. They noticed her teasing behavior and the depression
and jealousy it aroused in Keats. Distracted by such antics, how could
For his part, Keats
was not unaware of their friendly concern but knew himself too well
to be bothered. He had confessed his extreme nature to Bailey over two
years past and had come to relish it; it provided the force for his
poetry ("the excellence of every Art is its intensity," he
He continued writing,
completing the Ode on Indolence probably in early June. Its epigraph
is from Matthew 6:28, in which Jesus urges his followers not to be anxious:
"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not,
neither do they spin." And its inspiration was found in a letter
he had begun to George and Georgiana in mid-March. He had written:
"This morning I am in a sort of temper indolent and supremely careless....
Neither Poetry, nor Ambition, nor Love have any alertness of countenance
as they pass by me: they seem rather like three figures on a greek vase
- a Man and two women - whom no one but myself could distinguish in
their disguisement. This is the only happiness; and is a rare instance
of advantage in the body overpowering the Mind."
The Ode to Psyche
was completed next. When summer finally arrived, Keats had gone through
a period of sustained achievement. He also became unofficially engaged
to Fanny. But mid-summer brought the potential for a new tragedy. He
experienced the first signs of tuberculosis, the disease which had already
claimed his mother and younger brother and would eventually kill him.
Living with his
good friend Charles Brown, and with his new love next door, Keats had
reason to believe the tragedies of the past were safely behind him.
His poetry had matured with stunning force; the risky rejection of a
medical career could soon be justified, even to the skeptical Abbey.
And though his first volume had earned bad reviews from the mainstream
press, he had high hopes for his next collection. The pressing problem
of money could not be forgotten, of course; it drove him to Shanklin
in the Isle of Wight for the summer. This holiday in cheap lodgings
saved money but it also allowed Keats uninterrupted time to write.
He worked on part
one of Lamia and Otho the Great, a play which Brown encouraged as a
way for he and Keats to enter the playwriting business. It was their
hope that plays might be more profitable than poetry. Keats enjoyed
visiting the theater with his friends and especially admired the great
English actor Edmund Kean. He was willing to try his hand at drama.
Unfortunately, Otho was never completed. As for Lamia, it is a beautiful
work, and starkly embodies Keats's comment to Woodhouse: 'Women love
to be forced to do a thing, by a fine fellow.' The poem is a realistic
depiction of love as a violent and destructive force, often contradictory
and inexplicable. The treatment of sexuality is also striking. For those
later shocked by the intensity of Keats's love letters to Fanny Brawne,
Lamia reveals a poet reveling in the complexities of love.
In August, Keats
left the Isle of Wight for Winchester. Here he wrote the second part
of Lamia and the beautiful ode To Autumn. The latter remains one of
his most famous works:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen
thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs
of spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, -
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breat whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
Keats also began
The Fall of Hyperion; however, he became unsatisfied with the concept
and abandoned the work. The momentous year 1820 would end as it had
begun, in thrall to the story of Hyperion. Reading the two works now,
one realizes the enormous growth of Keats's talent in a single year.
It is important
to remember that he was just twenty-three years old, and already composing
at a rapid pace while further developing his poetic philosophy. His
love of the extravagant wordplay of the Elizabethans was now tempered
by his own maturity. Personal grief and worry had made him older than
his years. But he also possessed an innate love of life, the Wordsworthian
celebration of the natural world which Haydon had noted. Keats was now
able to draw these disparate influences together and create his own
unique philosophy. In him, the school of life, with all its troubles
and triumphs, had an apt pupil. Rarely has a poet so beautifully captured
the natural world in all its glory.
Yet this ability
to translate an affinity for nature into lasting art is not Keats's
only claim to greatness. The natural world of human emotion was also
fertile ground for his imagination; indeed, he claimed all of Creation
as his playing-field. It is both touching and awe-inspiring to take
stock of his ambition - and to realize how often, against impossible
odds, he claimed victory. In our own time as well, it is useful to note
that Keats never attended a creative writing class nor a poetry seminar;
he was never taught how to write poetry, just as his hero Shakespeare
never attended a playwriting course. The word 'genius' is used very
casually these days, but it is a precious and rare commodity. Keats
possessed it, that spark of intuition and imagination which made his
But the adulation
of later generations was not Keats's concern in the autumn of 1819.
He returned to Hampstead in October and was soon officially engaged
to Fanny Brawne. Their meeting after his three months' absence overwhelmed
Keats; 'you dazzled me', he wrote to Fanny. She was still a tease and
deliberately stoked his jealousy. The poet remained torn between his
work and his love. The holiday peace which had aided his poetry disappeared
the moment he saw Fanny. Marriage was now their only option.
The prospect of
marriage brought fresh scrutiny of his financial woes. He had to make
money from writing; even a small success would be welcome. He met with
his publishers again in November and plans were made for another book
of poems. Keats also borrowed numerous works of sixteenth-century history
from Taylor to research the Earl of Leicester. Brown's earlier push
towards playwriting for profit had helped spark a new ambition in Keats.
Now he planned to write a play about Elizabeth I's true love, and the
choice of Shakespeare's time was perhaps deliberate. Above all else,
Keats admired Shakespeare's universality, his realism, the ability to
create high drama from human emotion rather than outlandish deeds. He
now intended to become a playwright like his idol, using the years of
poetry as a school of sorts, preparation for the real achievements which
lay ahead. He wrote to Taylor that he hoped to finish soon, 'if God
should spare me.'
In January, his
brother George returned from America to borrow more money from Keats,
who could ill afford it. He came to an agreement with Abbey over the
final settlement of his grandmother's estate; the end result was very
little, and Keats gave most of it to George. There was a new distance
between the brothers. Though younger, George was married and settling
into his own business while Keats could not afford to marry Fanny. 'George
out not to have done this,' Keats remarked to Fanny about the loan,
'he should have reflected that I wish to marry myself - but I suppose
having a family to provide for makes a man selfish.' To Brown he was
more bitter: 'Brown, he ought not to have asked me.' George himself
told his brother, 'You, John, have so many friends, they will be sure
to take care of you!' Keats was careful to keep his own troubles secret,
not wishing to add to George's worries. His letters to George and Georgiana,
both before and after George's January 1820 visit to England, are wonderful
documents - engaging, witty, profound, but rarely does Keats admit to
any depression and worry. His protective instinct towards his siblings
would never disappear.
THE FINAL YEAR
The trauma of Keats's boyhood prepared him for the anxieties which marked
the last year of his life. The fact that much anxiety was of a financial
nature, and thus completely unnecessary (since his inheritance was actually
greater than Abbey revealed), is sadly ironic. But the problems and
distractions which would have destroyed a lesser poet merely spurred
Keats on, driven by his ambition and the stark need for success. In
February 1820, however, this drive was checked by something more ominous
The next month began
badly, with a portent of worse to come. Brown's maid told him that Keats
was taking laudanum; when confronted, Keats promised to stop. But while
Brown believed Keats took it 'to keep up his spirits', the truth was
that he used it as a normal pain-killer. The occasional sore throat
and cough which had troubled him was still dismissed as a mere cold;
but a new tightness in his chest had begun. And on 3 February, Keats
had his first lung hemorrhage. The story of this tragic event was later
recalled by Charles Brown, who never forgot it. Keats had gown into
the city to visit friends and returned at 11 o'clock; it was cheapest
to ride outside the stagecoach, which he did, but he lacked a warm coat
and the night was bitterly cold and windy. He arrived at Brown's house
in a sort of fever. His friend immediately realized Keats was ill and
sent him upstairs to bed. Brown then brought him a glass of spirits;
as he entered the room, he heard Keats cough. It was just a slight cough,
but Keats said: 'That is blood from my mouth.' There was a drop of blood
upon his bedsheet. He said to Brown, 'Bring me the candle, Brown, and
let me see this blood.' Both men looked upon it for a moment; then Keats
looked up at his friend calmly and said, 'I know the color of that blood;
it is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that color. That drop
of blood is my death warrant. I must die.'
Brown never forgot
those words, nor the otherworldly calm with which Keats spoke. His friend's
apothecary training and nursing of Tom revealed the illness for what
it was; there could be no doubt, no comforting pretense.
Later that evening
there was a second hemorrhage, far greater and more dangerous than the
first. This was typical of tubercular patients and the second bleeding
was often fatal. Keats could not help but cough violently; the cough,
in turn, enlarged the area of bleeding and the spread of blood into
his mouth was so sudden and thick that he thought he would die then.
He said to Brown, 'This is unfortunate.' Luckily, he survived the bleeding
and was able to rest at Brown's home for the next several weeks.
The illness could
not help but remind him of the responsibilities he still bore. He wrote
a batch of letters to his younger sister Fanny, still a ward in Abbey's
home. George had not even visited Fanny while in England, but Keats
thought of her often. Now that he was ill and reflective, he felt guilty
for not visiting her more. 'You have no one in the world besides me
who would sacrifice any thing for you - I feel myself the only Protector
you have,' he wrote to her. He kept both she and Fanny Brawne apprised
of his illness, though he was careful to be cheerful and light-hearted.
He was being treated by the surgeon GR Rodd, whom Brown had summoned
that fateful night. Rodd prescribed a light diet and bleeding. Keats
noted the weakness caused by the bleeding, but followed orders.
At this point, he
feared the worst but tried to believe the best. It had been an unusually
cold winter; many of his friends had fallen ill. Perhaps there was a
possibility he would recover. But the weakness which had settled into
him was too pervasive and heavy; it laid upon him. Within a week, he
could only manage a quarter of an hour in the garden. And his medical
training countered any optimism; he had bled so heavily that first night
that his lungs must be damaged. It was realistically impossible to believe
There was no hope
for it and so he wrote to Fanny Brawne, telling her she was free to
break their engagement. Of course, she did not and Keats could not deny
his relief: 'How hurt I should have been had you ever acceded to what
is, notwithstanding, very reasonable!'
Still, they were
advised by friends and the doctor to keep their visits to a minimum.
Keats was to avoid any heightened emotion, any upset, and Fanny might
be susceptible to his illness. Also, Brown disliked Fanny and was always
possessive of Keats. He now nursed him diligently, and did his best
to keep the poet calm and Fanny safely next door.
Keats wrote to his
friend James Rice, who had also experienced serious illness:
does the chance of leaving the world impress a sense of its natural
beauties on us. Like poor Falstaff, though I do not babble, I think
of green fields. I muse with the greatest affection on every flower
I have known from my infancy - their shapes and colours are as new to
me as if I had just created them with a superhuman fancy -.... It is
because they are connected with the most thoughtless and happiest moments
of our Lives.'"
And in an undated
note from the same period, he mused: '"If I should die", said
I to myself, "I have left no immortal work behind me - nothing
to make my friends proud of my memory - but I have lov'd the principle
of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself
There was new impetus
for poetry, then, including a gift from BW Procter, whom Hunt had compared
to Keats. And Taylor pushed him to select and revise poems for the press.
Keats turned to the task with some of his old enthusiasm. But this proved
to be too much for his precarious health. The contrast between the powerful
writing of a mere few months before with his now weakened and helpless
state depressed him. It could not be otherwise. His ill health, the
endless fever and weakness, could not be ignored. And Brown's dislike
of Fanny was now open and unavoidable. Part of this stemmed from Brown's
own scandalous behavior; his housemaid was pregnant with his child.
He did not want female visitors to his home. But Fanny, who quickly
realized the situation, was determined to visit Keats. She did so as
often as possible and, against the advice of even her mother, sent him
a brief note every night.
The emotional situation
would have been difficult even for someone in perfect health. But on
6 March, Keats had a new and dangerous symptom. That night, he experienced
violent palpitations of the heart. Rodd recommended a specialist, Dr
Robert Bree, who declared Keats to be suffering from a primarily hysterical
illness. He did not dismiss the earlier bleeding, but believed it was
caused by anxiety. Brown wrote in relief to Taylor that 'there is no
pulmonary affection, no organic defect whatever, - the disease is on
Whether Keats believed
this is unclear. He had close experience with tubercular patients and
extensive medical knowledge of his own. But he could not help but wonder
if Bree was correct. Certainly it was a more optimistic diagnosis than
he expected. And Bree removed him from the starvation diet, prescribing
wine and meat to build strength. He also gave Keats sedatives for his
anxiety, primarily opium. This helped ease the pain and tightness of
A normal diet and
pain medication gave Keats back some of his old strength. He was able
to work on the volume of poems for Taylor and passed some two months
of relative peace. His letters to Fanny Brawne were more confident and
playful. He was even able to attend an exhibit of Haydon's work in Piccadilly,
walking over eight miles there and back..
rented out his home during the summer when rents were highest. He was
especially eager to do so that summer; the impending birth of his child
and support for its mother put a strain on his finances. He cast about
for somewhere for Keats to stay, but it was Leigh Hunt who came to the
rescue. Hunt's wife was also a consumptive; it is probable that he understood
the seriousness of Keats's condition. But he also realized that everyone,
including Keats, had committed to pretending that Keats was not truly
ill, and rest and emotional tranquility would cure him. Hunt's own financial
problems had driven him just outside Hampstead, and he arranged for
Keats to live just a few doors away. The rent was much cheaper than
in Hampstead proper but still within a mile of Fanny's home. It was
also still close to town, so that Keats could continue to advise Taylor
and Hessey on his book. Hunt promised to keep close watch upon his friend.
And Brown, despite his own troubles, lent Keats £50 for summer
expenses; he borrowed the money from his lawyer. He also paid moving
expenses and the first weeks' rent. All of this was on top of forgiving
Keats's household expenses for the last several weeks at his home. Brown
then left for Scotland, with Keats accompanying him to Gravesend. They
never met again.
The new lodgings
had one unbearable defect for Keats - they lacked Fanny Brawne. She
was just a mile away, but it might as well have been ten miles. She
could not visit his lodgings without a chaperone, and they could not
meet at Hunt's noisy home. During his illness at Hampstead, even when
apart, he could still glimpse her occasionally, going about her errands.
And they had met quite often and exchanged notes. Now she was too far
away to glimpse or hear. Her mother came to check on him, but we have
no evidence that Fanny came. Keats himself returned to Wentworth Place
just once, to pick up letters for Brown. The strain of seeing Fanny
and then parting was too great. He wondered ceaselessly if her feelings
had changed, if she still loved him; this emotional distress was exacerbated
by his physical decline. And his long-standing distrust of women, his
disdain for their flirtatious and teasing behavior, reawakened old suspicions.
He now played the role of jealous lover.
His mood darkened
so that even occasional visits to town went badly. The young artist
Joseph Severn paid the most visits to Keats. But their walks on the
Heath grew short as Keats's depression lingered. At the end of May,
he learned of Fanny's unchaperoned visit to the Dilke home for a party
and dance. He could not bear it, and wrote accusatory letters to her.
Fanny responded with lively good sense and Keats was soon contrite.
"Do not believe me such a vulgar fellow," he wrote to her.
"I will be as patient in illness and as believing in Love as I
am able." But this new resolve could not hold; his own nature worked
He spent June correcting
the proofs of his new book. It was a cause to be happy, but as he wrote
to Brown, "My book is coming out with very low hopes, though not
spirits on my part." In mid-June he visited the city and was invited
to a dinner with Wordsworth. Keats did not dare risk the night air,
but he would have been pleased to hear Wordsworth's praise. Keats was
"a youth of promise too great for the sorry company he keeps",
the older poet remarked. On 22 June, a letter arrived from his sister
Fanny; there was a new problem with the Abbeys. Keats prepared to visit
but, on the way to the town coach, a new fit of bleeding occurred. Dr
Bree was wrong after all. This was not a nervous condition, but a real
and serious physical problem. With a mouth full of blood, he returned
to his rooms. He later went to Hunt's home but told them nothing. He
returned home that night to a replay of the February bleeding; he had
a second and far more dangerous hemorrhage. Keats's landlady summoned
Hunt and Keats was moved to the Hunt household at 13 Mortimer Terrace.
Dr George Darling was summoned to his bedside. Darling believed Keats
was consumptive, and he prescribed the same light diet and blood-letting
as Rodd. Bree's treatment, despite its false emphasis upon Keats's emotional
health, had at least allowed him solid meals and no bleeding. He had
regained some of his old strength. But now regular bleeding and scanty
diet took their toll anew.
Hunt attempted to
lift his spirits but it was hopeless. His household was too noisy and
troublesome. The poet's despondency found echo in his beloved Shakespeare;
as he wrote to Fanny:
always sums up matters in the most sovereign manner. Hamlet's heart
was full of such Misery as mine is when he said to Ophelia 'Go to a
Nunnery, go go!' Indeed I should like to give up the matter at once
- I should like to die. I am sickened at the brute world which you are
His thoughts dwelt
constantly upon thwarted love, at happiness snatched away just as it
"If my health
would bear it, I could write a Poem which I have in my head, which would
be a consolation for people in such a situation as mine. I would show
some one in Love as I am, with a person living in such Liberty as you
could be alleviated by something which Keats neither expected nor dared
to dream - positive critical reviews of his new book. The book was printed
in the last week of June 1820 and was a far greater success than his
earlier work; indeed, its reception was as positive as any poet could
wish. Even Blackwood's was somewhat impressed. Taylor had recognized
Keats's genius, writing to his father, 'Next week Keats's new Volume
of Poems will be published, and if it does not sell well, I think nothing
will ever sell again - I am sure of this that for poetic Genius there
is not his equal living, & I would compare him against any one with
either Milton or Shakespeare for Beauties.' His friends were equally
voluble in praise, but it was the outside reviews which mattered most.
After all, Keats needed to impress more than his small circle of companions.
He knew of the strong
sales, writing, 'My book has had a good success among literary people,
and, I believe, has a moderate sale.' But his ill health prevented any
real celebration. Recognition and praise for his poetry was a sweet
torment. He was seriously ill, possibly dying, at the moment of triumph.
His friends had
long suggested a trip to Italy to recover his health. At first, it had
been viewed as a chance to calm his spirits and allow needed rest. But
now it was recognized as a last chance at recovery. Such trips to warmer
climates were common for tubercular patients.
An experience at
Hunt's drove Keats back to Hampstead, but in a most heartbreaking way.
A letter from Fanny Brawne was mistakenly opened before being given
to Keats. He was immediately and irrationally upset; he cried for hours
and told a shocked Hunt that his heart was breaking. His battle with
the world had finally broken his spirit. Keats left for Hampstead, walking
along Well Walk and past the rooms where Tom had died. He was glimpsed
at the end of the street, sobbing into his handkerchief. Finally, he
arrived at the Brawnes' rented rooms at Wentworth Place. He was so ill,
exhausted and emaciated that Mrs Brawne flouted society and admitted
him. He would spend the next month there and later say it was the happiest
time of his life.
That weekend he
sent an apology to Hunt and notes to his sister and Taylor. He asked
his publisher for any information about a trip to Italy, its cost and
when boats sailed; he also sent Taylor a will of sorts, leaving all
his things to Taylor and Brown. In this way, he hoped to settle his
debts with both men.
Taylor was generous
as always, and more than eager to help Keats. He researched the matter
and found that Rome was the best place for medical care. A kind Scottish
doctor, James Clark, practiced there and Taylor could write ahead to
secure his services. Clark already owned Endymion and the 1820 volume
of poems. He knew of and admired Keats.
The success of the
last volume of poems allowed Taylor to advance money for the trip. He
visited Keats on Friday, 18 August and they discussed matters. Keats
both dreaded and anticipated the trip. He did not dare believe he would
return. The parting from Fanny, with whom he now lived, would be heartbreaking.
He wrote to Brown,
asking his closest friend to accompany him to Rome. Some biographers
have implied that Brown refused, remaining in Scotland until it was
too late to accompany Keats. In truth, he left Scotland early and hurried
back to London only to discover his friend already departed. Whether
he wrote to Keats to accept his offer or tell him of his acceptance,
we do not know.
The journey was
made more pressing by the end of August. Keats had another severe hemorrhage
and was now confined to bed, nursed diligently by Fanny. Haydon visited
and found his friend 'to be going out of the world with a contempt for
this and no hopes of the other.' The ironic fulfillment of his poetic
and romantic dreams - success at last, and the chance to marry Fanny
- consumed him. Happiness could be his at last, if not for this inherited
illness. Memories of Tom's lingering end fought with the desire to stay
near Fanny. In the end, he could only take his friends' advice and the
final hope of a recovery in Italy.
But who would accompany
him? Brown had not returned. His other friends had ready excuses; Hunt,
Haslam, and Dilke had families and Haydon was busy. On 12 September,
Severn was approached. The young painter had always admired Keats. He
had just won the Academy Gold Medal which would allow for a traveling
fellowship. A season in Rome could benefit Keats's health and Severn's
painting. With the enthusiastic and impulsive kindness which marked
his character, Severn accepted the charge. Though young and inexperienced
in life, he proved to be an admirable nurse for the ailing poet.
The final goodbye
to Fanny can only be surmised. But it is clear from surviving letters
that she and Keats had fallen even more deeply in love during that last
month. The task of nursing him could have destroyed her affection, but
instead it was deepened and strengthened. They exchanged gifts; she
included a journal and paper so he could write to her and lined his
traveling cap with silk. She also gave him an oval marble which she
used to cool her hands while sewing; it could also be used by a fevered
patient. This marble, which Fanny herself had clasped so often, would
rarely leave Keats's hands in Rome. He did not write to her - he dared
not - nor would he open her letters; the pain was too near. But he held
the marble constantly.
They sailed on 17
September. Severn had not grasped the seriousness of Keats's illness;
he believed the trip to Rome was a chance for recovery. They shared
quarters with two women, with a screen dividing the beds. One of the
women, eighteen year old Miss Cotterell, was the classic consumptive,
wasted, weak, and glassy-eyed, pale but with a feverish blush on her
cheeks and racked by a brutal cough. In contrast, Keats was still not
officially diagnosed and often seemed the picture of health. It was
only a week or so into the voyage that Severn began to suspect the truth.
For all of his outward signs of bonhomie, the poet grew feverish during
the night, coughed hard and brought up blood. Perhaps most disturbing
to the gregarious and cheerful Severn, Keats's physical anguish was
consuming him mentally. He often stood by himself, staring silently
over the dark water. As Severn wrote, 'He was often so distraught, with
moreover so sad a look in his eyes, sometimes a starved, haunting expression
that it bewildered me.'
Severn was torn. He regarded Keats with something approaching awe, well
aware of the younger man's talent - aware, too, that a few London friends
thought he may become a rival to Shakespeare. But during the voyage
Severn found Keats withdrawn and difficult to reach. The silence reminded
Severn of the lack of true friendship between the men. Yet the silence
was better than Keats's sudden and unexpected outpouring of feeling
when they arrived at Naples. Suddenly, Severn became aware of another
reason for Keats's mental anguish - it wasn't simply his ill health,
it was also an ill-fated love affair with a young woman in London named
Fanny Brawne. Severn knew of Fanny and Keats's flirtations with her,
but he did not know that she and Keats were engaged. The engagement
was known only to Fanny's mother, who had helped nurse the poet in London.
The first night
in Naples (also Keats's birthday) found both Severn and Keats writing
letters home. Severn interrupted his, to their mutual friend William
Haslam, when Keats wished to talk again. There are oblique references
in Severn's letter of Keats's 'heavy grief', but nothing more. The conversation
soothed Keats but gave Severn fresh cause for concern. Keats's own state
of mind can be further guessed by reading his letter from that evening,
to Charles Brown. "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 could bear,"
he told his friend. His "imagination" was "horridly vivid
about her - I see her - I hear her...."
It is clear Keats was thinking only of Fanny Brawne, and she was undoubtedly
the focus of his conversation with Severn.
made Severn believe that the poet's problems were caused as much by
love as physical disease. This opinion was already shared by Keats's
friends and doctor, and indeed the poet himself came to believe it.
In the text of the letter to Brown, Keats had written:"'My dear
Brown, I should have had her when I was in health, and I should have
remained well". He also believed his younger brother Tom had died
as much from a broken heart as consumption. The power of love in Keats's
universe was thus life-altering, and life-threatening. This belief gave
Severn some optimism since heartache was not as alarming as consumption.
But he was disturbed by the intensity of Keats's feelings and their
affect upon his health.
They were entertained
at Naples by Miss Cotterell's brother, a city banker. The passengers
waited under quarantine before they would be allowed to travel further;
the kindly Mr Cotterell shared the quarantine. Later, he took them about
the city and gave a farewell dinner party. Their visas arrived from
the British Legaton on 6 November and from the Papal Consul General
the next day; they left for Rome on the 8th. With an effort at economy,
they hired a small carriage and stayed at poor inns along the way. It
took a week to cover the 140 miles. Severn often walked alongside the
carriage so that Keats could rest inside. He gathered armfuls of wildflowers
from the roadside, filling the carriage with their bright colors and
scents for the poet. They finally arrived in Rome on 15 November.
Their first stop
was at Dr James Clark's office in the Piazza di Spagna. By coincidence,
Clark was writing to Naples for word of his patient. He took an instant
liking to Keats, but thought Severn an immature companion. Severn's
light-hearted kindness often made others suspect a lack of practicality,
an inability to cope with anything serious. His care of Keats soon proved
Clark had arranged
for rooms beside the staircase which led to the Church of the Trinita
dei Monti, what is now called the Spanish Steps. It was a well-known
boarding house. Keats and Severn would share the second floor, which
was well-furnished; its only drawback was that it opened directly into
the landlady's rooms on the mezzanine floor. There were three rooms
- a large sitting-room which overlooked the piazza, a smaller bedroom
with one window overlooking the piazza and the other the steps, and
a tiny room in the back which Severn used for painting.
letters from Rome are the definitive account of Keats's final months.
Please click here to read a selection.
Keats and Severn both fell instantly under Rome's spell. The constant
crowd below their windows, the hub of the market and mingle of foreign
voices, were lively distractions for the poet. At night, he fell asleep
listening to Bernini's fountain outside. Clark's diagnosis was at first
optimistic. He noticed that Keats had trouble with digestion; he also
noted his heightened emotions. A firm believer in healthy food and fresh
air, Clark prescribed both to Keats. He encouraged the poet to take
short walks around the neighborhood; Keats did so and soon met other
English visitors. These gentle distractions proved helpful. But his
illness had progressed far more than Clark suspected. The trip to Rome
could not offer Keats physical health, but it could give him some measure
of calm, a respite from the anguish and worries of England.
That Keats did secure
some calm can be proven in the last letter he wrote, to Charles Brown
on 30 November:
My dear Brown,
'Tis the most difficult thing in the world 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 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 **** 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 **** tomorrow,
or next day. I will write to **** 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 **** 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 made an awkward bow.
God bless you!
note: the asteriks
mark names which were omitted by the copyist.
The calm acceptance of this letter was a reflection of his new spirit.
But it is also worth noting Keats's profound description of poetry;
'the knowledge of contrast, feeling for light and shade, all that information
(primitive sense) necessary for a poem' - this description has never
been equaled. Poetry could not be forgotten, but he was all too aware
that beginning another poem, so tempting to do when confronted with
the new experience of Rome, would shatter his fragile calm. This was
yet another aspect of the final tragedy - his poetic impulse was stirred
and he was forced to deny it. Severn later remarked that this was his
friend's greatest pain. Soon enough, Keats could not 'bear any books'
either, for they were painful reminders of immortality. Severn would
occasionally read to him (Keats requested Jeremy Taylor's Holy Living
and Holy Dying for 'some faith - some hope - something to rest on now')
but the poet would not read himself, nor write to anyone.
This new calm impressed
both Severn and Clarke; the doctor remarked that Keats was 'too noble
an animal to be allowed to sink.' But there was little to do for him
now. There were occasional flashes of his old humor and wit. Their dinners
were purchased from a nearby restaurant and always badly cooked. One
day, with a mischievous smile at Severn, Keats took the dishes and proceeded
to empty them out the sitting-room window. 'Now you'll see, we'll have
a decent dinner.' Barely half an hour passed before a new - and delicious
- dinner was delivered. Afterwards, their meals were prompt and edible.
But on 10 December,
Severn returned from an early walk and woke Keats. Immediately, the
poet began to cough and then vomit blood, about two cupfuls. Clark was
summoned and promptly bled him. The loss of blood dizzied and confused
Keats. When Clark had left, he left his bed to stumble around the rooms,
telling Severn, 'This day shall be my last.' His companion feared suicide
and immediately hid all the sharp objects he could find as well as the
laudanum Clarke prescribed. Keats remained delirious for the rest of
the day, until finally another violent hemorrhage and bleeding weakened
him into calm. Over the next nine days, he suffered five severe hemorrhages
and continued bleedings by Clark. The doctor visited constantly and
put Keats on a strict diet, mostly fish. Keats begged for food, saying
they were starving him.
Severn tried to
comfort his friend, but Keats was now past comfort. He rambled on about
Tom's illness and death, and - even more troubling to the devout Severn
- denied any Christian comfort. The painter described the scenes for
eager friends in England: '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 deny'd me in my last moments - why is this
- O! I have serv'd every one with my utmost good - yet why is this -
I cannot understand this" - and then his chattering teeth.' And
later, 'I think a malignant being must have power over us - over whom
the Almighty has little or no influence - yet you know Severn I cannot
believe in your book - the Bible. ...Here am I, with desperation in
death that would disgrace the commonest fellow.' When Severn finished
a letter to Keats's publisher Taylor, the poet told him to add a postscript:
'I shall soon be in a second edition - in sheets - and cold press.'
The slow, sad death
in a foreign city was breaking Keats's wonderful spirit. The frantic
months of losing his brothers, falling in love, writing perfectly at
last and knowing it - they were too painful to contemplate. All the
time spent reflecting upon 'the vale of soul-making' had led to nothing
but a poverty-stricken death far from everything he loved. Poor Severn
could not hope to break this depression.
By now, Clark held
no hope of recovery and admitted as much to Keats. The poet's thoughts
turned to suicide once more, driven by his own suffering and memories
of Tom's lingering end. 'Keats see all this - his knowledge of anatomy
makes it tenfold worse at every change - every way he is unfortunate,'
Clark wrote. Keats begged Severn for the laudanum, at first appealing
to Severn's self-interest. He described Tom's death in all its depressing
detail, - the loss of bodily control, the constant blood and vomit and
diarrhea. Severn would be forced to nurse him; he would also neglect
his own work, the reason he had come to Rome. But the painter refused
the request. Keats grew angry; he raged at his companion. Severn was
keeping him alive against his will. When Severn, not trusting himself,
gave the bottle to Clark, Keats turned on the doctor. 'How long is this
posthumous life of mine to last?' he asked plaintively.
The next month was
a slow and steady decline into the final stage of tuberculosis. He coughed
hard and constantly, was wracked in sweat, his teeth chattered uncontrollably.
Severn nursed him devotedly. Once, Keats awoke while Severn slept at
his side. The candle had gutted; in the dark, he cried out. Severn devised
a clever solution; he connected a string of candles so that as one went
out, the flame spread to the next. The next evening, he awoke to hear
Keats exclaim, 'Severn! Severn! here's a little fairy lamplighter actually
has lit up another candle.' On 28 January, Severn sketched Keats as
he slept. The poet would sometimes cry upon waking to find himself still
Though Keats refused
to pray himself, Severn prayed beside him. Keats's calm was broken only
by a letter from Charles Brown from which fell a note in Fanny Brawne's
handwriting; the sight shook his nerves. He did not read it, but asked
Severn to place it in his coffin along with a purse made by his sister
and a lock of Fanny Brawne's hair. His thoughts now turned to his final
resting-place, the Protestant Cemetery beside the pyramid of Caius Cestius.
He asked Severn to visit and describe the place for him. Even today,
it remains a place of peace and beauty. Severn told him of the daisies
and violets which grew there, and of the flocks of goats and sheep which
roamed over the graves. The description pleased Keats. He asked that
one phrase be put upon his tombstone: 'Here lies one whose name was
writ in water.' The phrase was taken from Beaumont and Fletcher's Philaster:
"all your better deeds / Shall be in water writ."
The constant handling
of Fanny's marble seemed to calm him. But more importantly, he achieved
a kind of peace by considering Severn's suffering rather than his own.
He worried about the effect his illness and death would have on his
friend, and tried to cheer him as best he could. '[T]hese bursts of
wit and cheerfulness were called up on set purpose - were, in fact,
a great effort on my account. I could perceive in many ways that he
was always painfully alive to my situation,' Severn later recalled.
As he rushed about caring for Keats, the poet reassured him: 'Now you
must be firm for it will not last long.'
He also - suddenly
and surprisingly - wanted books nearby. Severn did not understand why
'this great desire for books came across his mind' but 'I got him all
the books on hand'. By now, Keats was unable to read but the very presence
of the books acted as a 'charm', Severn wrote, and he gladly collected
all he could find.
It seemed he would
die on Wednesday, 21 February; a new fit of coughing began and he asked
Severn to hold him up so he could breathe. But he lingered on for another
day. On Friday the 23rd, around four in the afternoon, Severn was roused
by Keats's call: 'Severn - I - lift me up - I am dying - I shall die
easy - don't be frightened - be firm, and thank God it has come.' But
it did not come for another seven hours, as he rested in Severn's arms,
holding his hand. His breathing was deep and difficult, but he seemed
beyond pain. Only once did he speak again, whispering, 'Don't breathe
on me - it comes like Ice.' Finally, near 11 o'clock he died, as though
he were going to sleep. He was buried just before dawn on Monday 26
Clark had performed
an autopsy on Sunday, which revealed Keats's lungs to be completely
destroyed. He also commissioned a death mask. It took three weeks for
news of his death to reach home. Later that spring, Fanny Brawne wrote
to Keats's sister about his death: 'I have not got over it and never
shall.' She wore mourning for several years and spent many long nights
walking along the Heath or reading Keats's love letters. He had given
her his precious folio copy of As You Like It; against the FINIS on
its last page, she wrote 'Fanny April 17 1821.'
created a rift amongst his friends. As his fame as a poet grew, they
told competing stories of his life and often exaggerated their influence
upon his work. It became commonplace to view Keats as a tragic soul,
too sensitive for this world and driven from it by harsh critical reviews.
Keats himself would have been furious at such a description. Rarely
has a poet so thoroughly captured life in all its natural glory, without
affectation or exaggeration. And rarely, too, has a man lived such an
admirable and passionate life. He once remarked hopefully, 'I think
I shall be among the English Poets after my death.' At a mere twenty-five
years of age, John Keats achieved this dream.