Remembering Keats

After the news of Keats death arrived in England on 17 March 1821, and after the announcements of Keats’s death had begun to appear in the newspapers, his friends in England began to consider how best to remember him. While some expressed their immediate feelings in their letters or in newspapers and magazines, others felt that something more lasting was needed.  

The first substantial tribute came from someone who hardly knew Keats. Keats’s publisher John Taylor met Bryan Waller Procter on the day the news of his death arrived. Procter, who had only met Keats for the first time early in 1820, composed a tribute that was published in the ‘London Magazine’ for April 1821. Procter’s article can be read online.

The magazine also included an announcement of Keats’s death:

The text of an obituary notice in a magazine.
Notice of the death of John Keats in the ‘London Magazine’ for April 1821.

Procter’s wife, Anne, only saw Keats twice, but she remembered his face as ‘one of singular beauty and brightness’ with ‘an expression as if he had been looking upon some glorious sight.’

John Taylor’s first thought was to try and recover some of the money that had been advanced to Keats, but he also intended to write his life. On 28 March 1821 he wrote to his brother:

I believe I shall try to write his Life – it is the wish of his friends, and was Keats’s wish also – in that case I shall Occasion to speak of the Treatment he was met with from the Race of Critics & Lampooners.
The text of part of a handwritten letter
Part of a letter from John Taylor to his brother James. 28 March 1821. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/MS/02/016.


Taylor also made announcements in several newspapers, of his forthcoming ‘Memoirs and Remains of John Keats’, and he began making preparations. He wrote to Joseph Severn on 3 April 1821 for material and a portrait:

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... 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, 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 please to take care of them, as well as of his Books...he desired me to divide his Books among his friends.

Taylor made another announcement of his proposed ‘Memoirs’ in June 1822, and was still considering writing something in 1832, but nothing appeared. Charles Brown thought Taylor ‘a mere bookseller’, ‘incompetent for the task’ and that he ‘neither comprehended Keats nor his poetry’. Taylor however passed his material to Brown, but Brown too struggled with his own ‘Life of John Keats’. Before he emigrated to New Zealand in 1841 he passed his material to Richard Monckton Milnes for use in his ‘Life and Letters’, which appeared in 1848. Brown’s ‘Life of John Keats’ can be read online.

Keats’s artist friend Benjamin Haydon made an entry in his journal and then wrote some rambling reminiscences to his friend Mary Russell Mitford in April 1821:  

  Keats was a victim to personal abuse and want of nerve to bear it. Ought he to have sunk in that way because a few quizzers told him that he was an apothecary’s apprentice? A genius more purely poetical never existed! In conversation he was nothing, or if anything, weak and inconsistent; he had an exquisite sense of humor, but it was in the fields Keats was in his glory. … His ruin was owing to his want of decision of character and power of will, without which genius is a curse. He could not bring his mind to bear on one object, and was at the mercy of every petty theory Leigh Hunt’s ingenuity would suggest… Leigh Hunt was the great unhinger of his best dispositions. Latterly, Keats saw Leigh Hunt’s weakness. I distrusted his leader, but Keats would not cease to visit him, because he thought Hunt ill-used. This shows Keats’s goodness of heart.

  … Fiery, impetuous, ungovernable and undecided, he expected the world to bow at once to his talents as his friends had done, and he had not patience to bear the natural irritation of envy at the undoubted proof he gave of strength. Goaded by ridicule he distrusted himself, and flew to dissipation. For six weeks he was hardly ever sober…

  The death of his brother wounded him deeply, and it appeared to me that from that hour he began to droop. He wrote his exquisite “Ode to the Nightingale” at this time, and as we were one evening walking in the Kilburn meadows he repeated it to me … He had great enthusiasm for me, and so had I for him, but he grew angry latterly because I shook my head at his proceedings… The last time I saw him was at Hampstead, lying on his back in a white bed, helpless, irritable, and hectic. He had a book, and, enraged at his own feebleness, seemed as if he were going out of the world with a contempt for this, and no hopes of a better. He muttered as I stood by him that if he did not recover he would “cut his throat.” I tried to calm him, but to no purpose. I left him in great depression of spirit to see him in such a state. Poor dear Keats!
The text of part of a handwritten letter
Part of a letter from Benjamin Robert Haydon to Mary Russell Mitford. 21 April 1821. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/MS/02/110

Mitford had also written to her friend Mrs Hofland:

Were you not very much shocked at the death of John Keats? In my mind he would have been, if spared, the next name in poetry to Wordsworth.

In Italy, Percy and Mary Shelley also received news of Keats’s death. Mary wrote to Leigh Hunt on 17 April:

  We have been much shocked to learn of Keats’ death – and sorry that it was in no way permitted us to be of any use to him since his arrival in Italy.

John Taylor sent several of Severn’s letters to their mutual friend Isabella Jones, who was not impressed:

  I return the letters with many thanks for your kind indulgence. I began to read them, with a heartfelt interest – a favourable impression towards the author and with feelings well calculated to fulfil your prediction – “that I should be much affected” – What will you say when I confess that I am greatly disappointed – that I could not shed a single tear – and that I do not like Mr. S––. I never saw so much egotism and selfishness displayed under the mask of feeling and friendship … My temper and patience “broke down under the trial” of the third letter, which I will not comment upon or you will think me the veriest shrew alive – Of all the cants, in this canting world the cant of sentiment is the most disgusting and I never saw better specimens than these letters afford …you will require some sweets to qualify, the bitterness of this angry letter – pray pardon me, I sat down to the task, with a mind prepared to sympathise with all poor K–– sufferings – and ones best feelings are checked by an elaborate account of sweeping rooms – making beds and blowing fires! I feel a relapse taking place – my ears tingle – my pen shakes – I shall be a stiffened corpse if I do not conclude- ...

Lord Byron, who had never met Keats, heard of his death from Percy Shelley. He wrote to his publisher, John Murray:  

  Is it true, what Shelley writes me, that poor John Keats died at Rome of the Quarterly Review? I am very sorry for it, though I think he took the wrong line as a poet, and was spoilt by Cockneyfying, and suburbing, and versifying Tooke’s Pantheon and Lempriere’s Dictionary. I know, by experience, that a savage review is hemlock to a sucking author; and the one on me […] knocked me down – but I got up again. Instead of bursting a blood-vessel, I drank three bottles of claret, and began an answer … However, I would not be the person who wrote the homicidal article for all the honour and glory in the world, though I by no means approve of that school of scribbling which it treats upon.

Another anonymous verse tribute appeared in the ‘London Magazine’ (Baldwin’s) in May 1821:

The text of a poem in a magazine
Sonnet, on the Death of the Poet J. Keats’. Anonymous poem printed in ‘The London Magazine’ (Baldwin’s) for May 1821.

There was also a tribute in the May issue of ‘The Literary Gossip’ magazine, ‘On Reading Lamia, and Other Poems, by John Keats.’ by ‘G.V.D.’

Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, enemy of Leigh Hunt and Keats, included a brief notice of his death in their May issue, but under the month of March rather than February.

The text of an obituary notice in a magazine
Notice of the death of John Keats in ‘Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine’ for May 1821.

Keats’s close friend John Hamilton Reynolds, who had given him the copy of Shakespeare’s poems that he took with him on the voyage to Italy, mentioned his death in his preface to ‘A Garden of Florence’, published in July 1821:

He, who is gone, was one of the very kindest friends I possessed, and yet he was not kinder perhaps to me, than to others. His intense mind and powerful feeling would, I truly believe, have done the world some service, had his life been spared – but he was of too sensitive a nature – and thus he was destroyed!

One of the last of Keats’s friends to hear of his death was Charles Cowden Clarke, and he composed his own tribute, from ‘a School-fellow and Friend’, as a long letter to the ‘Morning Chronicle’ in July. In it, Clarke proposes a more obvious cause of his death, but even so couldn’t wholly reject the suggestion that he had been killed by criticism:

I find by the Daily Papers, that the young Poet, John Keats, is dead… It is not impossible that his premature death may have been brought on by his performing the office of nurse to a younger brother, who also died of decline; for his attention to the invalid was so anxious and unwearied, that his friends could see distinctly that his own health had suffered in the exertion. This may have been one cause, but I do not believe it was the sole cause. It will be remembered that Keats received some rough and brutal usage from the Reviews about two years since… To what extent the treatment he received… operated upon his mind I cannot say; for Keats had a noble – a proud – and an undaunted heart; but he was very young, only one and twenty. … If it be any gratification to the critics to know how much he contributed to the discomfort of a generous mind, I can so far satisfy it by informing him, that Keats has lain awake through the whole night talking with sensitive bitterness of the unfair treatment he had experienced… He had a “little body,” but he too had a “mighty heart,” as any one of them would have discovered, had the same impertinences been offered to him personally … 

  I hope his friends and admirers… will raise a monument to his memory on the classical spot where he died… And now farewell, noble spirit! You have forsaken us, and taken the long and dark journey towards “that bourne from whence no traveller returns;” but you have left a memorial of your genius which “posterity will not willingly let die.” You have plunged into the gulf, but your golden sandals remain. The storm of life has overblown, and, “the rest is silence.”