On 30 November 1820 Keats wrote his last known letter, having been in Italy for a month. It was addressed to his friend Charles Brown at Wentworth Place, Hampstead and arrived on 21 December 1820. By the time Brown received this letter Keats had suffered a major relapse from which he would never recover.
Unaware of this, Brown immediately wrote back with all the news and gossip from Hampstead, including about his former servant ‘Abby’, who was the mother of his son Carlino.
Although the original letter from Keats is lost, Charles Brown transcribed the contents for his neverpublished biography of Keats.
Rome. 30 November 1820.
My dear Brown,
’Tis the most difficult thing in the world for me to write a letter. My stomach continues so bad, that I feel it worse on opening my book, – yet I am much better than I was in Quarantine. Then I am afraid to encounter the pro-ing 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 &, walking with her – and now – the knowledge of contrast, feeling for light and shade, all that information (primitive sense) necessary for a poem are great enemies to the recovery of the stomach. There, you rogue, I put you to the torture, – but you must bring your philosophy to bear – as I do mine, really – or how should I be able to live? Dr Clarke is very attentive to me; he says, there is very little the matter with my lungs, but my stomach, he says, is very bad. I am well disappointed in hearing good news from George, – for it runs in my head we shall all die young. I have not written to x x x x x yet, which he must think very neglectful; being anxious to send him a good account of my health, I have delayed it from week to week. If I recover, I will do all in my power to correct the mistakes made during sickness; and if I should not, all my faults will be forgiven. I shall write to x x x to-morrow, or next day. I will write to x x x x x in the middle of next week. Severn is very well, though he leads so dull a life with me. Remember me to all friends, and tell x x x 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!
Hampstead. 21st Decr 1820.
My dear Keats,
Not two hours since your letter from Rome 30th Novr came to me, – and as to-morrow is post night, you shall have the answer in due course. And so you still wish me to follow you to Rome? and truly I wish to go, – nothing detains me but prudence. Little could be gained, if any thing, by letting my house at this time of the year, and the consequence would be a heavy additional expense which I cannot possibly afford, – unless it were a matter of necessity, and I see none while you are in such good hands as Severn’s. As for my appropriating any part of remittances from George, that is out of the question, while you continue disabled from writing. Thank God, you are getting better! Your last letter, which I so gravely answered about 4th Decr, showed how much you had suffered by the voyage & the cursed quarantine. Keep your mind easy, my dear fellow, & no fear of your body. Your sister I hear is in remarkably good health, – the last news from George (already given to you was so far favourable that there were no complaints. Every body next door is quite well. Taylor has just returned to Town, – I saw him for a few minutes the other day, & had not time to put some questions which I wished, – but I understand your poems increase in sale. Hunt has been very ill, but is now recovered. All other friends are well. I know you don’t like John Scott, but he is doing a thing that tickles me to the heart’s core, and you will like to hear of it, if you have any revenge in your composition. By some means (crooked enough I dare say) he has got possession of one of Blackwood’s gang, who has turned King’s evidence, and month after month he belabours them with the most damning facts that can be conceived; – if they are indeed facts, I know not how the rogues can stand up against them. This virulent attack has made me like the London Magazine, & I sent the 1st chapter of my tour for Scott to publish, if he would pay me 10 Gns per sheet, & print the whole chapters monthly, without my forfeiting the copyright in the end. This would have answered my purpose famously, – but he won’t agree to my stipulations. He praises my writing wondrously, – will pay the 10 Gns & so on, – but the fellow forsooth must have the chapters somewhat converted into the usual style of magazine articles, & so the treaty is at an end. O, – I must tell you Abby is living with me again, but not in the same capacity, – she keeps to her own bed, & I keep myself continent. Any more nonsense of the former kind would put me in an awkward predicament with her. One child is very well. She behaves extremely well, and, by what I hear from Sam, my arrangements prevent the affair from giving pain next door. The fact is I could not afford to allow her a separate establishment. Mrs Brown at first (I thought) behaved tolerably well, – I can’t say so much for her now; – her husband knows nothing of the matter yet, as she says. In the mean time the child thrives gloriously, – but I’m not going to be fondly parental, for, between you & me, I think an infant is disagreeable, – it is all gut and squall. I dined with Richards on his wedding day, – he had just recovered from breaking his leg, – how could he be so brittle? – and it was done in a game at romps with his children! – Now I’ve something to make you ‘spit fire, spout flame’, –the batch of Brag players asked me to town, hoping to fleece me, – it was at Reynolds’ lodging, – & I carried of £2. 10/–, – when will they be sick of these vain attempts? Mrs Dilke was next door yesterday, – she had a sad tumble in the mud, – (you must not laugh,) – her news was that Martin is to be married this year, – that Reynolds & Mrs Montague correspond sentimentally, – & that Barry Cornwall is to have Miss Montague, – there’s some interesting small talk for you. Oh! Barry C has a tragedy coming forth at the Theatre, – christened Mirandola, – Mire and O la! – What an odd being you are, – because you & I were so near meeting twice, yet missed each other both times, you cry out “there was my star predominant!” – why not mine (CB’s) as well? But this is the way you argue yourself into fits of the spleen. If I were in Severn’s place, & you insisted on ever gnawing a bone, I’d lead you the life of a dog. What the devil should you grumble for? Do you recollect my anagram on your name? – how pat it comes now to Severn! – my love to him & the said anagram, – “Thanks Joe!” If I have a right guess, a certain person next door is a little disappointed at not receiving a letter from you, but not a word has dropped. She wrote to you lately, & so did your sister. Your’s most faithfully,
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.