This Journey to Italy: Two Letters from Naples 

At the end of their journey to Italy, Keats and Severn arrived in the Bay of Naples on 21 October but were forced to quarantine on their ship. They finally set foot in Italy on 31 October 1820, Keats’s 25th birthday.  

On their release from quarantine, Keats and Severn both wrote to their friends in England. Keats wrote to Charles Brown at Wentworth Place and Severn wrote to their mutual friend, William Haslem. 

A month later, on 1 December, the letters arrived in England. Desperate for news, their friends read, copied and replied to them over the next four days. Haslam sent Severn’s letter to Brown, who read both letters but would not show them to the Brawnes next door at Wentworth Place. Brown replied at once to Keats, and then sent the letters back to Haslam for copying and forwarding. Fanny Brawne also wrote to Keats and to Fanny Keats in Walthamstow to pass on the news.

John Keats to Charles Brown, Wednesday 1 and Thursday 2 Nov 1820

Naples. Wednesday first in November. 

My dear Brown, 

Yesterday we were let out of Quarantine, during which my health suffered more from bad air and a stifled cabin than it had done the whole voyage. The fresh air revived me a little, and I hope I am well enough this morning to write to you a short calm letter; – if that can be called one, in which I am afraid to speak of what I would the fainest dwell upon. As I have gone thus far into it, I must go on a little; – perhaps it may relive the load of WRETCHEDNESS which presses upon me. The persuasion that I shall see her no more will kill me, I cannot q–––– My dear Brown, I should have had her when I was in health, and I should have remained well. I can bear to die – I cannot bear to leave her. Oh, God! God! God! Every thing I have in my trunks that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear. The silk lining she put in my travelling cap scalds my head. My imagination is horribly vivid about her – I see her – I hear her. There is nothing in the world of sufficient interest to divert me from her a moment. This was the case when I was in England; I cannot recollect, without shuddering, the time that I was prisoner at Hunt’s, and used to keep my eyes fixed on Hampstead all day. Then there was a good hope of seeing her again – Now! – O that I could be buried near where she lives! I am afraid to write to her – to receive a letter from her – to see her hand writing would break my heart – even to hear of her any how, to see her name written would be more than I can bear. My dear Brown, what am I to do? Where can I look for consolation or ease? If I had any chance of recovery, this passion would kill me. Indeed through the whole of my illness, both at your house and at Kentish Town, this fever has never ceased wearing me out. When you write to me, which you will do immediately, write Rome (poste restante) – if she is well and happy, put a mark thus + , – if – Remember me to all. I will endeavour to bear my miseries patiently. A person in my state of health should to not have such miseries to bear. Write a short note to my sister, saying you have heard from me. Severn is very well. If I were in better health I should urge your coming to Rome. I fear there is no one can give me any comfort. Is there any news of George? O, that something fortunate had ever happened to me or my brothers! – then I might hope, – but despair is forced upon me as a habit. My dear Brown, for my sake, be her advocate for ever. I cannot say a word about Naples; I do not feel at all concerned in the thousand novelties around me. I am afraid to write to her. I should like her to know that I do not forget her. Oh, Brown, I have coals of fire in my breast. It surprised me that the human heart is capable of containing and bearing so much misery. Was I born for this end? God bless her, and her mother, and my sister, and George, and his wife, and you, and all! 

Your ever affectionate friend, 

John Keats. 

Thursday. I was a day too early for the courier. He sets out now. I have been more calm to-day, though in a half dread of not continuing so. I said nothing of my health; I know nothing of it; you will hear Severn’s account from x x x x x x. I must leave off. You bring my thoughts too near to –––––

God bless you! 

This original letter no longer exists, but Brown transcribed it for his never published biography of Keats. 

The first page of a hand-written transcription of a letter. 
Letter from John Keats in Naples to his friend Charles Brown in Hampstead, 1 November 1820. The first page of Charles Brown's transcript of Keats's letter, prepared for Brown's 'Life of John Keats'. Image courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., MS Keats 4.3.27.

The second page of a hand-written transcription of a letter. 
Letter from John Keats in Naples to his friend Charles Brown in Hampstead, 1 November 1820. The second page of Charles Brown's transcript of Keats's letter, prepared for Brown's 'Life of John Keats'. Image courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., MS Keats 4.3.27

The third page of a hand-written transcription of a letter. 
Letter from John Keats in Naples to his friend Charles Brown in Hampstead, 1 November 1820. The third page of Charles Brown's transcript of Keats's letter, prepared for Brown's 'Life of John Keats'. Image courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., MS Keats 4.3.27. 

Joseph Severn to William Haslam, Wednesday 1 and Thursday 2 Nov 1820

Naples – Novr 1 – 1820 

My dear Haslam 

   We are just released from the loathsome misery of Quarantine – foul weather and foul air for the whole 10 days kept us to the small Cabin – surrounded by about 2000 ships in a wretched Mole not sufficient for half the number, – yet Keats is still living – may I not have hopes of him? – he has passed what I must have thought would kill myself – Now that we are on shore and feel the fresh air – I am horror struck at his sufferings on this voyage, – all that could be fatal to him in air and diet – with the want of medicine – and conveniences he has weather’d – if I may call his poor shattered frame – and broken heart – weathering it. – For myself I have stood it firmly until this Morg when in a moment my spirits dropt – at the sight of his suffering – a plentiful shower of tears (which he did not see) has relieved me somewhat – but what he has passed still unnerves me. – But now we are breathing in a large room – with Vesuvius in our view – Keats has become calm – and thinks favourably of this place – for we are meeting with much kind treatment on every side – more particularly from an English Gentleman here (brother to Miss Cotterell one of our Lady passengers) – who has shown unusually humane treatment to Keats – unasked – these – with very good accommodations at our Inn (Villa da Londra) have kept him up through dinner – but on the other hand – Dr Milne is at Rome (wither Keats is proposing to go) – the weather is now cold – wet and foggy – and we find ourselves on the wrong side – for his hope-for recover, – (for the present I will talk to him – he is disposed to it – I will talk him to sleep – for he has suffered much fatigue) ––– 

Novr 2nd – 

  Keats went to bed much recover’d – I took every means to remove from him a heavy grief that may tend more than any thing to be fatal – he told me much – very much – and I don't know whether it was more painful for me or himself – but it had the effect of much relieving him – he went very calm to bed – Poor fellow! – he is still sleeping at 1/2 past nine – if I can but cure his mind I will bring him back to England – well – but this I fear it never can be done in this world – the grand scenery here effects him a little – but he is too infirm to enjoy it – his gloom deadens his sight to every thing – and but for intervals of something like ease he must soon end it –  

  You will like to know how I have managed in respect to self – I have had a most severe task – full of contrarieties – what I did one way – was undone another – the lady passenger though in the same state as Keats – yet differing in constitution required almost every thing the opposite to him – for instance if the cabin windows were not open she would faint and remain entirely insensible 5 or 6 hours together – if the windows were open poor Keats would be taken with a cough (a violent one – caught from this cause) and sometimes spitting of blood – now I had this to manage continually for our other passenger is a most consummate brute – she would see Miss Cotterell stiffened like a corpse for I have sometimes thought her dead – nor ever lend her the least aid – full a dozen times I have recovered this Lady and put her to bed – sometimes she would faint 4 times a day yet at intervals would seem quite well – and was full of spirits – she is both young and lively – and but for her we should have had more heaviness – though much less trouble. – She has benefited by Keats advice – I used to act under him. – and reduced the fainting each time – she has recovered very much and gratefully ascribes it to us – her brother the same – The Captain has behaved with great kindness to us all – but more particularly Keats – every thing that could be got or done – was at his service without asking – he is a good-natured man to his own injury – strange for a Captain – I wont say so much for his ship – it’s a black hole – 5 sleeping in one Cabin – the one you saw – the only one – during the voyage I have been frequently sea-sick – sometimes severely – 2 days together. –––– We have had only one real fright on the sea’s – not to mention continued squalls – and a storm – “All's well that ends well” and these ended well – our fright was from two Portuguese Ships of War – they brought us too with a shot – which passed close under our stern – this was not pleasant for us you will allow – nor was it decreased when they came up – for a more infernal set I never could imagine – after some trifling questions they allowed us to go on to our no small delight – our captain was afraid they would plunder the ship – this was in the Bay of Biscay – over which we were carried by a good wind Keats has written to Brown – and in quarantine another to Mrs Brawn – he requests you will tell Mrs Brawn what I think of him – for he is too bad to judge of himself – this Morg he is still very much better – we are in good spirits and I may say hopeful fellows – at least I may say as much for Keats – he made an Italian Pun today – the rain is coming down in torrents – When you write – direct Post office Rome.

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.

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