An Exchange of Letters

‘your anxious Friend’

- Joseph Severn to Charles Brown, 17 July 1821

An Exchange of Letters Between Rome and London

Keats’s friend Joseph Severn, who had nursed him through the last days of his illness, remained in Rome after Keats’s death. He was an artist, and throughout the summer was working on a commission for the Royal Academy.  

On 17 July 1821 he wrote a letter to Charles Brown, Keats’s friend and former housemate, in London, desperate to hear news from London and distressed that he had received so little from friends back home. This arrived in London on 11 August.

This exchange of letters provides an insight into matters after Keats’s death, including Severn’s concern about the deadline for this painting, Brown’s frustration about the behaviour of Keats’s publisher John Taylor, and the debate around what should be written on Keats’s grave.

Severn mentions in his letter of 17 July ‘a small whole length of my poor Keats’. This is his portrait known as ‘Keats at Wentworth Place’ which is now in the National Portrait Gallery.

Letter from Severn to Brown

Rome July 17th 1821 –

My dear Brown

  I begin to be sadly anxious to hear from you – I have written to you – and about you in full 3 Letters – yet the long looked for answer does not come – I fear the Post is jilting me – You see on the approach of the hot and dangerous weather I shall be obliged to go away – and that's without placing a Stone on poor Keats’s Grave. – All his papers I have sent to you – packed for safety in a Case of divers things belonging to my old friend and Master Mr Bond – I chose this from many as the safest way – they will arrive in London about August or September –

  Mr Taylor has written me of his intention to write some remembrances of our Keats – this is a kind thought of his – & I reverence this good man – nothing can be more interesting than to have the beautiful character of Keats – described and appreciated. – If it can be made known to the English his memory will be cherished by them – not more for his Genius than for his English nature – I begin to think of him without pain – all the harsh horror of his death is fast subsiding from my mind – sometimes a delightful glance of his life about the time when I first knew him – will take possession of me and keep me speculating on and on to some passage in the Endymion – (I am fortunate to have a Copy of this – it is Dr Clarks) – […] here I find many admirers – (Aye – real ones) of his Poetry. – this is a very great pleasure to me – I have many most agreeable conversations about him – but that only with Classical Scholars – The “Lamia” is the greatest favorite –

  I have been most sadly harassed about my picture for the Royal Academy – [...] I have received notice to send it by the 10th of August – now this is a month sooner than I expected – in the last letter I received from Mr Taylor – […] who sent me word that I must send the picture in September for the inspection of the Council – […] when a week since my Sister Maria wrote that she had seen a Notice in the Hall of the R.A. requiring the picture by the 10th of next Month – so that I have sent it unfinished without any delay – Now this has been an unfortunate point – more particularly as I am ill – out of spirits – and friendless – most of the kind fellows here – have gone to Naples or elsewhere – so that I am left to brood over the loss of poor Keats’s company and above all – his advice – […] I have certainly gain’d much in my Painting from coming here – I have taken a liking to this Rome – […] I hope to God I may be able to stay here – until I have made my gain – as yet I have done little else than look – altho I have worked very hard – yet my only time has been occupied on this picture and illness […] Above all things pray answer my letters – tell me how the sad finish of poor Keats affected his enemies – tell me about his friends – tell me about Miss B – I have been once or twice almost writing to her – Only think my dear Brown I have known nothing from England since poor Keats’s death – O yes one very kind letter from Mr Taylor – which I answered – Haslam does not write me

  Respecting my money affairs – I have not yet exhausted the money gained here from my Miniatures – […] I wait the answer to a favor from Mr Taylor – I have by me 34£ the remainder (after all payings) from the last 50£ – […] since I began to write this I have consulted the expence of visiting Florence – and find it will be too great – so that I must remain in Rome – I am now studying in the Vatican […] I am likewise preparing for another picture – it is to be a single figure the size of Life – I shall rest very much on this – I have likewise got in a small whole length of my poor Keats – it is from a recollection of him at your house – I think the last time I saw him there – he was reading – the book on his knee  Remember me to Mrs Brawn – how I should like to receive another letter from this kind Lady – present my Respects to Miss B. – and speak of me to any of the fine fellows who visit you – if they would write me it would be an English treat – […]

                                               believe me your anxious
                                     Friend – Joseph Severn

I conclude both Mr Taylor and your self are in the Country – luxuriating in your English comforts - remember me to Mr Taylor – and pray him to write me to my last – how does Richards. – pray him to write me – I would go without a dinner a day to pay for Letters – […]
A self-portrait profile drawing by Joseph Severn, showing his head and shoulders. He has dark curly hair and is facing to the right.
Self-portrait of Joseph Severn (detail). Joseph Severn (1793 - 1879). Pencil drawing. About 1822. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/PZ/02/003.

Letter from John Taylor to Severn, August 1821

[…] I find by your letter to Mr. Haslam that you have designed a tomb in the form of a Grecian altar, with a lyre, &c. This is said to be executing, I think, by some English sculptor, but you want an inscription. I can conceive none better than our poor friend’s melancholy sentiment, ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’ It is very simple and affecting, and tells so much of the story that none need be told. Neither name nor date is requisite. These will be given in his life by his biographer. So, unless something else is determined on, let this line stand alone. I foresee that it will be as clear an indication to posterity as the plainest, every-day inscription that one may find in Westminster Abbey. I imagine the expense will not be great at Rome. You must excuse me that I have not replied sooner […] I shall be very glad to receive the portrait, &c., of poor Keats. In the course of the winter I hope to get on with the Memoir.
A black and white drawing of the head and shoulders of the publisher John Taylor. He has dark wavy hair and long sideburns. He is facing slightly left and looking at the viewer.
John Taylor. Unknown artist. Photograph of a drawing. About 1818. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/PH/03/184.

Letter from Brown to Severn

Wentworth Place, 13th Augt 1821

My dear Severn,

  You asked Mr Taylor to consult with me about Keats' Epitaph, – or I believe to let you know what Epitaph I wished; he did not allow me to see that letter for a long time; I then talked to him about it, & he behaved as if he thought it was no concern of mine, changing the topic as soon as he could. It was not till the other day that I discovered he bears me no good will for claiming in return for MSS & information, a sight of his Memoir before it went to press. I confess I could not trust him entirely; now & then he is a mere bookseller, – somewhat vain of his talents, & consequently self willed; my anxiety for poor Keats' fame compelled me to make this request, – for, in my opinion, – Taylor neither comprehended him nor his poetry. I shall always be the first to acknowledge Taylor's kindness to Keats, – but towards me his conduct has been ungracious and even unmanly. Reynolds is the secret spring, – it is wished he should shine as the dear friend of poor Keats, – (at least I suspect so,) – when the fact is he was no dear friend to Keats, nor did Keats think him so. This however might be borne, – but there are other points where I fear Taylor may do Keats an injustice, – not knowingly, but from the want of knowing his character. He has sent no answer to my yesterday's note. […] I will write again, & give you my ideas of an Epitaph for our beloved Keats. […] I thank you for intrusting me with Keats' papers, – the sight of them will renew many painful thoughts. My next door neighbours are quite well; Miss B had been growing (I thought alarmingly) thin, but of late she has looked more cheerful, & better. I delivered your messages to them, & they sent some of the same nature. Do not imagine I am in a peevish mood about Taylor; to give my aid to a thing of so momentous a description as the fame of Keats without being satisfied on every point is more than I can do in duty to the memory of the dearest friend I ever had. Still I promised Taylor my aid, provided I might be allowed to approve or condemn in particular passages, which he assented to, & praised my solicitude; but lately I have heard that having got the chief things from me, he resolves to laugh at my opinion. I am afraid it will be made a job, – a mere trading job, – & that I will lend no hand to, further than what I have done. You must feel with me that I should be culpable as Keats' friend even to run a risk. If Taylor choose, on my conditions, (which he himself has approved of), my assistance will be given most willingly. I heard yesterday that Clarke is thinking of writing a memoir, – to tell the truth I would rather join him, but at present I am (conditionally) promise bound.
A white plaster bust of Keats’s friend Charles Brown, showing his head and shoulders. He has a balding head with wavy hair at the sides above his ears.
Charles Brown. Plaster bust. Signed ‘S. W.’ 1828 or 1831 – 1832. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/AR/01/042.

Letter from Brown to Thomas Richards

Wentworth Place. / 15th Augt 1821.

My dear Richards,

  On Saturday evening I received a letter from Severn, dated Rome 17th July. He was harassed and perplexed about his picture, and not very well in health. Mr Hilton sent him word, thro’ Mr Taylor, that his picture, in order to obtain the pension, must be in the Academy on some particular day in September […] he instantly dispatched it, partly unfinished, for London by the King’s Messenger, and time enough for the purpose, but some untoward chances have detained the Messenger or the Picture, so that it had not arrived on 13th […] It is feared that from this circumstance he never can get the pension, which is £130 per ann: for three years, & his travelling expenses to Italy and back.

  Now, Richards, write to Severn as soon as you can, to cheer him. […] He complains seriously of the neglect of his friends in England, and, among the rest, your name is not forgotten. Mark that! Write, an you love him, with all speed. Keats’ papers, in the destruction after his death, were fortunately saved, and Severn has confided them to my care; they are not yet arrived. This I am rejoiced at. I gave him a hint that I feared Mr Taylor’s Memoir would be a bookseller’s job […] Indeed I have great reason to think so, from what has been buzzed abroad since I saw you. It appears that any interference on my part is conceived to be ridiculous. Putting these rumours together with Mr Taylor’s late conduct I find my eyes beginning to open. Still he has my conditional promise of assistance, to which I must abide, but I guess he will not accept it under such conditions, believing he has got out of me every thing essential for his purpose. So I hear. […] I am told that Clarke is thinking of writing a memoir of Keats. […]
The address, date and opening lines of a hand-written letter.
Letter from Charles Brown to Thomas Richards. Part of page 1. 15 Aug 1821. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/MS/02/052.

Brown wrote again to Severn on 21 August

  When I mentioned to you my fears about Mr. Taylor’s memoir, I omitted to make known the original cause of those fears. It was this. Immediately on receipt of your letter announcing poor Keats’s death, almost in the same newspapers where there was a notice of his death, even before Mrs. Brawne’s family and myself had got our mourning, in those very newspapers was advertised “speedily will be published, a biographical memoir of the late John Keats, &c.,” and I, among others, was applied to by Reynolds to collect with all haste, papers, letters, and so on, in order to assist Mr. Taylor. This indecent bustle over (as it were) the newly covered grave of my dear friend shocked me excessively. I told Mr. Taylor it looked as if his friends had been collecting information about his life in expectation of his death. This, indeed was the fact. I believe I spoke warmly, and probably gave offence. However, as I was jealous of my own feelings upon such a subject, I took the precaution to sound those of Hunt, Dilke, and Richards, who were all equally hurt with myself at such an indecorous haste. I then came to this conclusion, that Messrs. Taylor and Reynolds, who could show such a want of feeling at such a moment, ought not to be confided in by me unreservedly, and since I came to that conclusion, I have had cause to believe myself correct. I will not consent to be a party in a bookseller’s job. Perhaps it my turn out otherwise, but in justice to the memory of Keats, I dare not run a risk. Mr. Taylor expected to be trusted implicitly, and takes dudgeon. Now, on such a point I know of none whom I could trust implicitly. He says no one understood Keats’s character so well as himself; if so, I who knew him tolerably well, and others of his friends, greatly mistook him, judging from what has dropped from Mr. Taylor – for he is one from whom things drop – he cannot utter them boldly and honestly, at least he never did to me, and I have heard Keats say the same of him. What I have written, I have written, and I leave you to judge if you think me right or wrong. I rejoice you sent me the papers, and under the circumstances, I think you will rejoice likewise. He is welcome, according to my promise, to any information I can afford, provided he, according to his promise, allows me a voice on the occasion. In my opinion, Taylor would rather decline the information. If you differ from me in my claim of having a voice, still I have Dilke, Richards and Hunt on my side. Hunt has some poems, &c., of Keats, and offers them unreservedly to me, stipulating, however, that Taylor must not be possessed of them without the memoirs passing under my eye. Why should it be denied to me? Any sort of hesitation will make the business suspicious. […]

  I had written thus far on 21st, expecting every minute a knock by Hunt at the door with an epitaph for Keats. He did not come till the evening, and then with an apology, promising, however, to let me have it on the following post-day (Friday last), and then he again disappointed me. I can wait no longer, but am resolved to send you this letter without it. Why, you will ask, set Hunt about this affair? The truth is, I have tried, but can do nothing for the epitaph to my own satisfaction, and Hunt is one, if I am not mistaken, who could word it with feeling and elegance. He has sadly disappointed me, but the trouble he is in must be his excuse. I like your idea of the lyre with the broken strings. Mr. Taylor sets his face against that, and against any words except what Keats himself desired to be put on his tombstone, viz.: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” This I contend is scarcely proper, insomuch as an epitaph must necessarily be considered as the act of the deceased’s friends and not of the deceased himself. Still, in obedience to his (Keats) will, I would have his own words engraven there, and not his name, letting the stranger read the cause of his friend’s placing such words as “Here lies one, &c.,” somewhat in the following manner; – “This grave contains all that was mortal of a young English poet, who, on his death-bed, in bitter anguish at the neglect of his countrymen, desired these words to be engraven on his tomb-stone: ‘HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER.’” Something expressive of this, and surmounted by your emblem of Grecian lyre, I think would be proper. But mind, I am not satisfied with my wording, and therefore pray delay the epitaph for a while. If, however, you are of the same opinion as Mr. Taylor, I give up mine instantly. I find it a difficult subject. […]

Severn replied on 19 September

Rome Septr 19th 1821

My dear Brown

  I have got both your Letters – […] “you drop manna in the way of starved people” you cannot think my satisfaction in the 2 Letters from you – and for their ample contents I will thank you for a long time to come – […]  

  Why my dear Brown – what sad affair is this? I know not what to say in it – except this – that you are the only one to write Keats’s memoir – at least to describe his character – I have the greatest respect for the talent and good heart of Mr Taylor – his exertions for poor Keats when all was hopeless – the publication of his Books &c set him down as most noble friend – [that] he loved Keats is certain – to have made all these sacrifices – but did not feel the delicacy of his mind – I hope and trust you will reconcile this dispute – it seems to me your seeing the memoir is the only way to compleat it – that Mr Taylor’s and your own idea of Keats character will be compleat – but certainly not one without the other – I would say consult Richards too – he was inferior to no one in the estimation of Keats – he will give some valuable scraps – Keats genius and character must make a most beautiful book – as a book alone – not in making a compleat poet, or even comparing him to others – but in describing and tracing the progress of Genius – from nature to Art and then to their union – I can see all this with immense pleasure – I can recollect him before he had that delicate perception for Art – when he talked and felt only nature – and I can recollect his knowledge of Art to have been greater than any one I ever knew – Then his English nature is a subject most grateful – I don’t know whether to prefer his heart or his soul – but pardon me I can only think of him and paint him – you must not ask me for communications for this work – except it be from my painting – I am not master of words to show what I feel or think – I recollect a point – which may be known to you – perhaps – Keats mentioned to me many times in our voyage – his <hope of> desire to write the story of Sabrina and to have connected it with some point in the English history and character – he would sometimes brood over it with immense enthusiasm – and recite the story from Miltons Comus in a manner that I will remember to the end of my days – do you [know] the sonnet beginning – “Bright star – would I were stedfast as thou art” – he wrote this down in the ship – it is one of his most beautiful things – I will send it if you have it not – at present I have lent the book in which he wrote it – or I would send it – Why how singular that none of you can [agree about] his Epitaph – I agree with you that more should be written – than the line he desired – This Morning my friend and myself visited poor Keats’s grave – it is still covered with grass and flowers – and remains quiet and undisturbed – the place where he lies is one of the most romantic I know – but I won't send you my bungling descriptions – but I will send a small picture of it – on our return home I thought of another “record” to him – a Greek seat – with his solitary lyre standing against it but I will draw it – you see this is a seat vacant – […] it would say – Here is his seat and his Lyre – […] tell me how you like this – I am delighted with it – […] farewell my dear Brown – the candle-wax and post are all ready […]

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