’T is not yet Consumption I believe, but it would be were I to remain in this climate all the Winter: so I am thinking of either voyageing [sic] or travelling to Italy.
- John Keats to his sister Fanny Keats, 13 August 1820
This Journey to Italy wakes me at daylight every morning and haunts me horribly. I shall endeavour to go...
- John Keats to his publisher John Taylor, 13 August 1820
In September and October 1820, Keats sailed on the Maria Crowther to Italy where he intended to stay the winter. Everyone hoped this would improve his health.
The journey down the River Thames and along the south coast of England took him past many place he had visited in happier times. Follow his journey and listen to the poems Keats may have recalled as he progressed on ‘This Journey to Italy’.
After leaving his home at Wentworth Place for the last time on Wednesday 13 September, Keats spent the first few days of his journey at his publisher’s office in Fleet Street. It was here he received his passport and sold the copyright to his poems to pay off debts and help fund his journey.
Fleet Street was close to the River Thames, where Keats was due to board the Maria Crowther and sail to Naples in Italy. Joseph Severn, a friend and painter, was accompanying Keats on his journey. With a view of the Tower of London opposite, they left from Tower Wharf early on Sunday 17 September. It was an easy morning’s journey downriver to Gravesend, where they docked and the passengers spent their first night aboard in their tiny, shared cabin.
In the rush of departure, Severn had forgotten his passport and it had to be sent for before they could leave Gravesend. He used the day to go ashore and buy a few things for Keats from the ‘Chymists’, as well as a ‘1/2 hundred apples and 2 Dozen Biscuits’.
Along with John Taylor and his apprentice, and Severn’s brother Tom, Keats’s friends Richard Woodhouse and William Haslam accompanied him for this first part of the journey and as they disembarked and made final farewells, they each took a lock of Keats’s hair. Keats’s close friend Charles Brown arrived back from Scotland too late to see him leave.
This journey was not the first time Keats had travelled down the River Thames. Back in 1816, after passing his medical exams at the age of 20 years old, he escaped London with his brother Tom to visit Margate, a small town in Kent which was fast becoming a popular resort downriver from London. This was Keats’s first view of the sea and he stayed for two months.
The verses he wrote while there addressed two of the people closest to him: his brother George and his friend Charles Cowden Clarke. They contain both expressions of gratitude and his thoughts on his poetic development so far.
Keats liked Margate and returned there the following year while working on part of his 4000 line epic poem ‘Endymion’.
As he was sailing around the coast of Kent on 19 September 1820, Keats likely thought of his childhood friend, Charles Cowden Clarke, who had moved to the coastal town of Ramsgate. Clarke was the son of the master of the school Keats attended and they remained close friends after Keats left to begin his medical apprenticeship. Clarke introduced Keats to Leigh Hunt and, through him, a group of controversial and literary friends who shaped the start of Keats’s writing career. Keats admiration for Clarke can be heard in the verse letter he wrote in 1816, praising Clarke for his early inspirational friendship.
As the Maria Crowther passed Dover, the motion of the boat made the passengers seasick. Severn described them as ‘four faces bequeathing to the mighty deep their breakfasts’.
The following day, as they passed Brighton on 20 September 1820, the weather turned against them. Severn wrote in a letter to his friend Haslam:
‘at 2 Storm came on furiously – we retired to our beds – the rolling of the ship was death to us– towards 4 it increased and our situation was alarming – the trunks rolled across the Cabin – the water poured in from the sky-light and we were tumbled from one side to the other of our beds’
Two other vessels were driven ashore by this storm and though the Maria Crowther withstood the waves, they were pushed back to Dungeness where they were becalmed. Severn described 22 September 1820 as ‘A Flat day – waiting for wind…’.
It was an uncomfortable space in which to endure these extra, frustratingly unnecessary days of travel. The two-masted vessel was built for trade rather than passengers and the only cabin was dark, cold and split between five people including a young woman also suffering with consumption.
The lack of wind meant it took them a week to crawl further along the coast to Portsmouth. Docking there for a night on 28 September 1820 gave Keats and Severn the opportunity to travel the short distance to Bedhampton and spend the night with their friends, Mr and Mrs Snook. This must have brought back memories of a happy visit there nearly two years before, in January 1819, when Keats found inspiration for his poem ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’.
While in Bedhampton, Keats discovered Charles Brown was staying in nearby Chichester but, as had also happened at the start of the voyage when the ships they were on were moored near each other at Gravesend, the two friends missed seeing each other. Keats had to return to the Maria Crowther the next day and they sailed on the afternoon of Friday 29 September.
Mr and Mrs Snook wrote to their friends in London of this visit:
‘I have had some very unexpected visitors, Mr Keats and Mr Severn. They had been beating about with a contrary wind ever since they left London, and at last put into Portsmouth. I think Mr Keats much better than I expected and Mr Severn said he was sure that notwithstanding the hardships they had undergone, he was much better than when he left London.’
As the Maria Crowther passed the Isle of Wight, Keats must have been reminded of his solitary stay in 1817, where he wanted to concentrate on starting his ambitious poem ‘Endymion’. The coastline of that region also inspired him to write a sonnet on the sea.
The island would have also brought back memories of Charles Brown. The two had spent the summer there the year before, writing an ultimately unsuccessful play but enjoying each other’s company and their hopes for the future. Brown took the opportunity to draw a portrait of his friend.
While waiting off the Isle of Wight, Keats wrote a letter to Charles Brown, expressing his disappointment at missing him in Bedhampton and admitting his grief at leaving Fanny Brawne. He writes of seeing ‘her figure eternally vanishing’ and thinks of death to ease this pain but ‘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.’
After leaving Portsmouth the Maria Crowther faced contrary winds. Progress was slow and on 1 October the ship again landed its passengers somewhere along the Dorset coast.
Severn made two sketches and recorded that Keats wrote out a version of his 1819 ‘Bright Star’ sonnet in his copy of Shakespeare’s Poetical Works. At the time, Severn believed that Keats composed his ‘Bright Star’ sonnet there, and that it was his last poem. Keats may have been thinking of his recent parting from Fanny Brawne as he wrote it on a blank page opposite Shakespeare’s poem ‘A Lover’s Complaint’.
Joseph Severn did not say exactly where the Maria Crowther landed. Today, we believe it was likely to be at Holworth Bay but, by the 1880s, it was generally thought to be at Lulworth Cove. Thomas Hardy memorialised the 100th anniversary of the event in his poem, 'At Lulworth Cove a century back', written in September 1920.
As he left the English coast for the last time, Keats may have thought back on a visit he made to Teignmouth in Devon with his brothers in March 1818. Describing it as ‘a splashy, rainy, misty, snowy, foggy, haily, floody, muddy, slipshod county’, he wrote some entertaining verses about Devon and a more serious verse letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds. While there he also finished copying out Book IV of ‘Endymion’ and completed ‘Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil’.
After sailing along the Dorset coast, the Maria Crowther headed out of the English Channel and across the Bay of Biscay, where it endured a three-day storm, and was fired upon by a Portuguese warship. On 16 October they entered the Mediterranean. Soon after this Keats suffered a haemorrhage, followed by a fever.
On 21 October they finally arrived in the Bay of Naples but were forced to quarantine onboard for two weeks before they could disembark. During this time Severn wrote to Haslam detailing their voyage and his concerns over Keats’s health.
Writing in his memoirs much later, Severn attempted a description of the scene:
...to the left the splendid city of Naples, terraced up & up with gardens & vineyards, in the centre Vesuvius with its clouds of smoke opening & extending all along the horizon, the clouds edged with golden light, then the lovely deep blue sea making the foreground. All this was an enchantment...
-Joseph Severn, ‘My Tedious Life’, September 1873
Keats wrote to Mrs Brawne saying that he no longer felt that he was a ‘Citizen of this world’ and was unable to describe what he saw. He ended his letter with what were to be his last words to his beloved Fanny Brawne: ‘Good bye Fanny! god bless you’.
More than six weeks after leaving London they finally set foot in Italy on 31 October 1820. It was Keats’s 25th birthday.
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.