An Exchange of Letters about Keats’s Death

On 6 March 1821, Joseph Severn wrote to Keats’s publisher John Taylor, detailing the events after Keats’s death in Rome. The letter was received in London on 3 April and Taylor immediately wrote a reply.  

Letter from Joseph Severn to John Taylor

This extract is read by Ryan O’Grady for the #Keats200 bicentenary programme.

Rome March 6th 1821

My dear Sir

  I have tried many times to write to you – but no – I could not; it has been too much for me to think on it – I have been ill from the fatigue and pain I have suffered – the recollection of poor Keats hangs dreadfully upon me – I see him at every glance – I cannot be alone now – my nerves are so shattered – These brutal Italians have nearly finished their monstrous business – they have burned all the furniture – and are now scraping the walls – making new windows – new doors – and even a new floor – You will see all the miseries attendant on these laws – I verily think I have suffered more from their cursed cruelties than from all I did for Keats – These wretches have taken the moments when I was suffering in mind and body – they have enraged me day after day – until I trembled at the sound of every voice – I will try now once more to write you on our poor Keats – you will have but little for I can hardly dare to think on it – but I will write at intervals – and pray you to take it as my utmost endeavour – when I am stronger I will send you every word – the remembrance of this scene of horror will be fresh upon my mind to the end of my days –  

  Four days previous to his death – the change in him was so great that I passed each moment in dread, not knowing what the next would have. He was calm and firm at its approaches – to a most astonishing degree – he told me not to tremble, for he did not think that he should be convulsed – he said “did you ever see any one die?” no – “well then I pity you poor Severn – what trouble and danger you have got into for me – now you must be firm, for it will not last long – I shall soon be laid in the quiet grave – thank God for the quiet grave – O! I can feel the cold earth upon me – the daisies growing over me – O for this quiet – it will be my first” – when the morning light came and still found him alive – O how bitterly he grieved – I cannot bear his cries –  

  Each day he would look up in the doctor’s face to discover how long he should live – he would say – “how long will this posthumous life of mine last” – that look was more than we could ever bear – the extreme brightness of his eyes – with his poor pallid face – were not earthly – These four nights I watch him – each night expecting his death – on the fifth day the doctor prepared me for it –  

23rd. At 4 o’clock, afternoon – the poor fellow bade me lift him up in bed – he breathed with great difficulty – and seemed to lose the power of coughing up the phlegm – an immense sweat came over him so that my breath felt cold to him – “don’t breathe on me – it comes like Ice” – he clasped my hand very fast as I held him in my arms – the mucus was boiling within him – it gurgled in his throat – this increased – but yet he seemed without pain – his eyes looked upon me with extreme sensibility, but without pain – at 11 he died in my arms –  
The English Nurse had been with me all this time – this was something to me – but I was very bad – no sleep that night – The next day the doctor had me over to his house – I was still the same – these kind people did every thing to comfort me – I must have sunk under it all – but for them – On the following day a cast was taken – and his death made known to the brutes here – yet we kept a strong hand over them – we put them off until the poor fellow was laid in his grave –  

On Sunday, the second day, Dr Clark and Dr Luby with an Italian Surgeon opened the body – they thought it the worst possible Consumption – the lungs were entirely destroyed – the cells were quite gone – but Doctor Clark will write you on this head – This was another night without sleep to me – I felt worse and worse – On the third day, Monday 26th, the funeral beasts came – many English requested to follow him – those who did so were Dr Clark and Luby, Messers Ewing – Westmacott – Henderson – Pointer – and the Reverend Mr Wolf who read the funeral service – he was buried very near to the monument of Caius Cestius – a few yards from Dr Bell and an infant of Mr Shelley’s – The good hearted Doctor made the men put turfs of daisies upon the grave – he said – “this would be poor Keats’s wish – could he know it” – I will write again by next post but I am still but in a poor state – farewell

Joseph Severn

– The expense I fear will be great – perhaps £50 - I owe still on the Doctor – I have not received the £50 you mention – The Doctor pays everything for me and would let me have any money I need.

Letter from John Taylor to Joseph Severn

This letter is read by Paul Hurstfield for the #Keats200 bicentenary programme.

London 3 April 1821

My dear Sir

  Your first interesting Letter since our dear Friend’s Death has just reached me, but I was previously aware of the melancholy issue of this deplorable Trial to which you have been subjected, by your short letter to Brown about 3 weeks ago, & to us here who had sympathised most sincerely with you in all our poor Friend’s affliction, it really came like a Relief at last to hear that all was over; … indeed I was afraid of your sinking under the protracted Exhaustion which his long lingering occasioned you – and had your Health so failed at the last that you could not attend upon him I was afraid of his last moments being passed in deepest misery. Thank God it was not so...

You will greatly oblige me by continuing to relate as often as you can find Time & Inclination every particular of our lamented poor Fellow’s Life and Conversation – giving me as nearly as possible the identical words used by him. I have been requested by several of our friends to write a short account of his Life, and for this purpose the most valuable of my Materials will be those communications which you are able to make me. Did you ever remember my wish to have a Portrait of him. I hope you have one for me. That which Mr. Brown has is an admirable Likeness, & will do better than any perhaps to engrave from, but as a picture I would rather have a sketch in anything taken from the Life than a copy merely. If there are any papers left by our poor Friend which you think will be interesting please to take care of them, as well as of his Books.

In a little will, or Memorandum of what he wished to be done after his Death, which he sent me in a Letter previous to leaving Hampstead, and which so far at least as this one particular goes constitutes me a kind of Executor, he desired me to divide his Books among his friends – and states in what order his Debts are to be paid if ever there should be Money forthcoming to discharge them. I have written to George to ask him for some of that Money which John lent him. In the meantime I was compelled to try among a few friends here to raise Money after that was gone which we promised to advance. Five of those who had seen poor Keats sufficiently to feel much interested for him have told me to apply to them for 10£ each whenever it is wanted – and the Earl Fitzwilliam to whom I wrote on the same subject sent me 50£. For this 100£ you will please to draw if you have not done it already. Should it prove enough to defray the Expenses of the Funeral &c. and to repay the kind Dr. Clarke I shall be very glad. When I wrote to you before on this Subject I did not say how this Money was to be used, for fear of poor Keats being aware of the circumstances, & I knew it would so hurt his feelings as to accelerate his Death. I have told George of the manner in which it has been raised & I hope he will enable me to return it.

  Reynolds I find did not send the 50£ after all. I did not know this till very lately – he wrote to me of his desire Keats would draw upon him for that Sum. You will oblige me by sending me an account of what is still owing beyond what the 100£ above mentioned will enable you to pay.

Pray give my kindest to Dr. Clarke for his Humanity to my poor departed friend. Will you make me a Drawing of the spot where Keats is buried. And the Mask, Hand, & Foot will you also send me – All Friends are well. We hope to hear of your perfect Restoration to Health in a short time.

Believe me, my dear Sir
Your truly obliged & sincere friend
John Taylor
A half portrait of a man seated at a desk, leaning on his left arm, with an open book in front of him.
Portrait miniature of John Keats. Charles Brown after Joseph Severn. Indian ink drawing on ivory. About 1820. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/PZ/05/001.

In his letter, Taylor refers to Brown having a portrait of Keats which is ‘an admirable likeness’. This is believed to be Brown’s copy of Severn’s miniature of Keats in the Keats House collection. 

The Keats200 bicentenary is a celebration of Keats’s life, works and legacy, beginning in December 2018 through to February 2021 and beyond. It is led by three major partners – Keats House, Hampstead, The Keats Foundation and the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association – and is open to all individuals and organisations who have an interest in Keats or poetry. The bicentenary of Keats’s most productive years as a poet, and the period when he found inspiration, friendship and love, is an exciting opportunity to (re)discover and enjoy his works as well as engage with poetry and its ongoing relevance to us all today.

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