On 6 March 1821, Charles Brown received a letter from Joseph Severn, who was with Keats in Rome. Severn had started this letter on 8 February, before completing it just after midnight on 15 February. Due to the time it took for post from Italy to reach England, Brown did not know that Keats had already died when he received this letter. He would not learn of his death for another 11 days.
Severn’s letter is full of sadness, lamenting that Keats ever left England, and includes the first reference to the inscription that Keats had chosen for his gravestone.
Once Brown had received the letter, news of Keats’s condition quickly circulated amongst his friends in London, including Mrs Brawne, Leigh Hunt and Taylor and Hessey. John Taylor passed the news on to his father the following day: ‘I have this Evng received a letter from Severn at Rome saying that Keats is still alive, but not expected to last many Days longer. He is very calm he says –‘
The letter has had a confused history. Fanny Brawne made a copy of part of it some time after 27 March 1821, but later forgot that it was addressed to Brown, and assumed it was addressed to her mother. In the 1840s she showed her copy to Thomas Medwin, who included it in his book ‘The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley’, published in 1847. Charles Brown’s included his own transcript in his unpublished ‘Life of John Keats’, and Richard Monckton Milnes used this version in his ‘Life, Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats’, published in 1848. This led some editors to assume there must have been two letters.
Rome. 8 February 1821.
My dear Brown,
I have just got your letter of 15th January. The contrast of your quiet friendly Hampstead with this lonely place and our poor suffering Keats brings the tears into my eyes. I wish many, many times that he had never left you. His recovery must have been impossible whilst he was in England, and his excessive grief since has made it more so. In your care he seemed to me like an infant in its mother’s arms; you would have smoothed down his pain by varieties; his death might have been eased by the presence of his many friends. But here, with one solitary friend, in a place savage for an invalid, he has one more pang added to his many; – for I have had the hardest task in keeping from him my painful situations. I have kept him alive by these means, week after week. He had refused all food; but I tried him every way. I left him no excuse. Often I have prepared his meals six times a day, and kept from him the trouble I had in doing it. I have not been able to leave him, – that is, I have not dared to do it, but when he slept. Had he come here alone, he would have plunged into the grave in secret; – we should never have known one syllable about him. This reflection alone repays me for all I have done. It is impossible to conceive what the sufferings of this poor fellow have been. Now – he is still alive, and calm; – if I say more, I shall say too much. Yet, at times, I have hoped he would recover, – but the doctor shook his head, – and, as for Keats, he would not hear that he was better. The thought of recovery is beyond every thing dreadful to him. We now dare not perceive any improvement; for the hope of death seems his only comfort. He talks of the quiet grave as the first rest he can ever have. I can believe and feel this most truly.
In the last week a great desire for books came across his mind. I got him all the books at hand; and, for three days, this charm lasted on him, – but now it has gone. Yet he is very calm. He is more and more reconciled to his horrible misfortunes.
14th February. Little or no change has taken place since the commencement of this, – except this beautiful one, that his mind is growing to great quietness and peace. I find this change has its rise from the encreasing weakness of his body; but it seems like a delightful sleep to me, – I have been beating about in the tempest of his mind so long. To-night he has talked very much to me, but so easily, that he, at last, fell into a pleasant sleep. He seems to have comfortable dreams, without the nightmare. This will bring on some change, – it cannot be worse, – it may be better. Among the many things he has requested of me to-night, this is the principal one, – that on his grave-stone shall be this, –
HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER.
You will understand this so well, that I need not say a word about it. But, is it not dreadful that he should, with all his misfortunes on his mind, and perhaps wrought up to their climax, end his life without one jot of human happiness? When he first came here, he purchased a copy of Aliferi, – but put it down at the second page, –
“Misera me! sollievo a me non resta
“Altro che il pianto, – ed il pianto è delitto”
He was much affected at this passage; and now that I know so much more of his grief, I do not wonder at it.
Such a letter has come! I gave it to Keats, supposing it to be one of your’s, – but it proved sadly otherwise; – the glance of that letter tore him to pieces, – the effects were on him for many days! – he did not read it – he could not – but requested me not to place that letter in his coffin, but only his sister’s purse and letter, with some hair. Here he found many causes of his illness in the exciting and thwarting of his passions, but I persuaded him to feel otherwise on this delicate point. In his most irritable state, he sees a friendless world, with every thing that his life presents, particularly the kindness of his friends, tending to his untimely death.
I have got an English nurse to come two hours every other day, so that I have quite recovered my health; but my nurse, after coming five times, has been ill to-day; this is a little unfortunate as Keats seems to like her. Another and greater misfortune is the cursed rumpus betwixt the Neapolitans and the Austrians. We are daily fearing that the thievish Neapolitans will arrive and ransack Rome. They are on their way hither; and, from the grudge betwixt them and the Romans, we have little to hope for. Rome might be taken with a straw – it is only defended by its relics. At twelve last night they rumbled all their artillery by here to the Porta Santa Giovanna. The Pope was on his legs all night, trusting any thing rather than heaven. If the Austrians do not arrive in time, our P’s and Q’s are likely to be altered. The English are very numerous here. Farewell.
In a little back-room I get chalking out a picture. This, with swallowing a little Italian every day, helps to keep me up. The Doctor was delighted with your kindness to Keats. He is a most worthy man; we must ever respect him for his unremitting kindness to Keats.
P.S. The post does not go for another two hours. To my great astonishment, I found it half past three this morning when I had done writing. You see I cannot do any thing until poor Keats is asleep. This morning he has waked very calm. I think he seems somewhat better. He has taken half a pint of fresh milk. The milk here is beautiful to all the senses – it is delicious –for three weeks he has lived on it, sometimes taking a pint and a half in aday. <Your’s>
You astonish me about x x x xx x x
The Doctor has been; he thinks Keats worse. He says the expectoration is the most dreadful he ever saw. Keats’s inward grief must have been beyond limit. His lungs are in a dreadful state. His stomach has lost all its power. Keats himself says he has fretted to death – from the first little drop of blood he knew he must die – he says no common chance of living was for him.
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.