Keats200 - Keats and Consumption

2021 marks the bicentenary of the death of Romantic poet John Keats. This online exhibition by Keats House, Hampstead celebrates his life and works for the #Keats200 bicentenary programme.

Keats and Consumption – ‘The weariness, the fever and the fret’

‘On entering the cold sheets, before his head was on the pillow, he slightly coughed, and I heard him say, – “That is blood from my mouth.” I went towards him; he was examining a single drop of blood upon the sheet. “Bring me the candle Brown; and let me see this blood.”After regarding it steadfastly, he looked up in my face, with a calmness of countenance that I can never forget, and said, – “I know the colour of that blood; – it is arterial blood; – I cannot be deceived in that colour; – that drop of blood is my death-warrant; – I must die.”’

          
‘Life of John Keats’, Charles Brown,1836-1841.

In February 1820 Keats realised he had consumption, now known as tuberculosis or simply TB. There was no known cause, though many believed it was hereditary and that sensitive or creative people were more likely to be affected.

Keats probably contracted the illness in 1818 while nursing his brother Tom, but the disease lay dormant throughout 1819 allowing time for his most creative and brilliant writing. However, from February 1820 his health deteriorated,destroying his hopes for literary success.

Keats was initially prescribed rest, a starvation diet and bloodletting, but this only made him weaker. He was also told to stop reading or writing poetry in case it over excited him.

‘The Doctor assures me that there is nothing the matter with me except nervous irritability and a general weakness of the whole system which has proceeded from my anxiety of mind of late years and the too great excitement of poetry’
          
          
Keats to Fanny Brawne, 21 April 1820.

As was common practice, Keats was advised to go abroad where a warmer climate could relieve his symptoms.

‘This journey to Italy wakes meat daylight every morning and haunts me horribly. I shall endeavour to go...’
         
          
Keats to his publisher John Taylor, 13 August 1820.

On 17 September 1820, Keats sailed on the Maria Crowther to Italy where he intended to stay the winter. Joseph Severn, a friend and painter, accompanied Keats on his journey.

The ship made slow progress along the English Channel and the passengers had to endure being seasick as well as a violent storm. In the Mediterranean Keats suffered another haemorrhage, followed by a fever.

A painting of a sailing ship on a choppy sea, with a cloudy sky lit by sunlight on the horizon.
The Maria Crowther, Sailing Brig. Joseph Severn. Watercolour painting. 1820. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation, K/PZ/02/002.

On 21 October they finally arrived in the Bay of Naples but were forced to quarantine on board for two weeks before they could disembark. More than six weeks after leaving London they finally set foot in Italy on 31 October 1820. It was Keats’s 25th birthday.

‘for death would destroy even those pains which are better than nothing. Land and Sea, weakness and decline are great separators, but death is the great divorcer for ever.’
           
          
Keats to Charles Brown, 30 September 1820

Discover more about ‘This Journey to Italy’ and listen to extracts from Keats’s poetry read by the Keats House Poetry Ambassadors.

Find out more

Each day until 23 February, marking 200 years since Keats's death, we will share a new story related to periods in his life.

Introduction to Keats and Keats200

Early life

Medical Training

Wentworth Place

Fanny Brawne

Poems of 1819

Critical Responses

Keats and Consumption

Death and Legacy

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.

Find out more about #Keats200 by following Keats House on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.