On This Day in 1821: Severn’s Accounts of Keats’s Final Days

The BARS ‘On This Day’ Blog series celebrates the 200th anniversary of literary and historical events of the Romantic period. Want to contribute a future post? Get in touch.

John Keats died on 23 February 1821. Today we’re marking the end of #Keats200 with a post by Ana Stevenson, a writer and independent scholar based in Paris. Ana specialises in English Romanticism with a focus on the life and works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, currently exploring personal accounts recorded by his contemporaries in order to gain an insight of the development of his philosophy. She also writes essays and reflections which are shared on her page. You can also read her previous post for BARS on the ‘Immortal Dinner’ here.

In the evening of the 23rd of February 1821, John Keats quietly passed away in his Roman lodgings by the Piazza di Spagna (‘The Spanish Steps’). The last tortured months of his life were recorded in intimate detail by the painter Joseph Severn, a close friend who accompanied the poet on his last voyage from London to Rome. As sad as these accounts may be, they illustrate the very real horror of Keats’s demise; as we reach the bicentennial of this sorrowful event, I have reviewed Joseph Severn’s reports of Keats’s final months and thus consider the dying Keats as a real man, not just a literary figure.

Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep,
He hath awaken’d from the dream of life

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, XXXIX
Keats-Shelley House, Rome. Wikipedia

On the 17th of September 1820, John Keats and Joseph Severn boarded the Maria Crowther on their way to Italy. Keats’s health had been deteriorating rapidly since his lung haemorrhage earlier in the year, and he believed that the warmer Italian climate would assist his recovery. Keats had also suffered emotionally following the harsh reviews of his poetry. In a letter to John Taylor, Keats’s publisher, Severn wrote:

Would that his enemies could see this martyrdom of the most noble feeling and brightest genius to be found in existence. I only wish this for their punishment.[i]

In the preface to Adonais, Percy Bysshe Shelley made a similar assertion, accusing the Quarterly Review’s ‘savage criticism’ of having a ‘violent effect on his susceptible mind; the agitation thus originated ended in the rupture of a blood-vessel in the lungs’[ii]. Lord Byron, who had previously stated ‘[w]hy don’t they review & praise “Solomon’s Guide to Health” it is better sense – and as much poetry as Johnny Keates’[iii], would also question if the Quarterly Review was not to blame for Keats’s end, for ‘a savage review is Hemlock to a sucking author’.[iv]

Keats, however, knew the symptoms of consumption; not only was he a trained physician, but the condition had caused the death of his mother and brother before him. Yet Severn, and Keats’s doctor Dr Clark, believed he could still recover. In a letter to Charles Armitage Brown, a close friend and fellow poet, Severn provides a detailed report:

I had seen him wake on the morning of this attack, and to all appearance he was going on merrily and he had unusual good spirits, when in an instant a Cough seized him and he vomited near two Cupfuls of blood. In a moment I got Dr Clark, who saw the manner of it, and immediately took away about 8 ounces of blood from the Arm; it was black and thick in the extreme.[v]

Severn tended to Keats’s every need, and for three weeks did not leave his side – although he wanted to be of use, he also feared Keats would take his own life. On one occasion:

He rush’d out of bed and said, “this day shall be my last,” and but for me most certainly it would. At the risk of losing his confidence I took every destroying means from his reach, nor let him be from my sight one minute.[vi]

After leaving England, Severn oversaw all correspondence, for news of London agitated Keats’s nerves excessively. ‘He will not bear the idea of living, much less strive to live’ he notes mournfully, ‘I seem to lose his confidence by trying to give him this hope’.[vii] On another occasion he writes that Keats ‘says no more letters for him’ and notes in tones of weary resignation that:

Even good news will not lift him up. He is too far gone. But he does not know I think this, nor does he know Dr C’s opinion, but his own knowledge of Anatomy is unfortunate.[viii]

Severn was also troubled by the Italian bureaucracy: the laws regarding consumptive patients were strict due to the contagiousness of the disease. All that was touched by Keats would have to be destroyed upon his death. Although this was not communicated to him, the idea of having traces of his existence terminated with his life was his desire. ‘Keats has just said it is his last request that no mention be made of him in any manner publicly – in Reviews, Magazines or Newspapers – that no Engraving be taken from any Picture of him’. He also wished for no name to mark his gravestone.[ix]

Early in 1821, Severn wrote to Mrs Brawne, the mother of Keats’s fiancée, Fanny. They had been neighbours at Wentworth Place, Hampstead (now Keats House), and had rapidly fallen in love. Keats did not possess the means to marry and support a family, but was well-loved by the Brawnes. When his health started to deteriorate, Mrs Brawne recognised his engagement to her daughter, either in hope that it would help with his recovery, or because she knew he would not survive.[x] In the letter to Mrs Brawne, Severn expresses his initial concerns, yet he saw Keats’s current calmness as a sign of improvement. He believed that the fact that Keats mind was ‘in a state of peace from the final leave he has taken of this world and all its future hopes’[xi] meant that he should recover after all. ‘I have just looked at him. He is in a beautiful sleep. In look he is very much more himself. I have the greatest hopes of him.’[xii]

Keats House, Hampstead. Ana Stevenson

These hopes did not last, and days later Severn wrote to his friend, William Haslam, about how he attempted to comfort Keats, assuring that nothing bothered him but the dullness of the uneventful days, ‘but they are all lies; my heart almost leaps to deny them, for I have the veriest load of care that ever came upon these shoulders of mine. For Keats is sinking daily. He is dying of a consumption, of a confirmed consumption’.[xiii] Severn once hoped for Keats’s recovery; now he prayed for death to come in haste. Keats lamented:

Miserable wretch I am. This last cheap comfort which every rogue and fool have is denied me in my last moments. Why is this? O! I have serv’d everyone with my utmost good, yet why is this? I cannot understand this.[xiv]

Severn asked Haslam not to appeal for any further updates, for all days were wretched and letters were no longer a source of comfort. Keats requested for those addressed to him to remain unopened – these would later rest in his grave.

John Keats, Joseph Severn (1821)

John Keats passed away on the 23rd February 1821, aged just 25. In the afternoon he uttered his last words ‘Severn-I–lift me up–I am dying–I shall die easy–don’t be frightened–be firm, and thank God it has come!’[xv] That night he expired, ‘so quiet’ that Severn ‘still thought he slept’.[xvi] 200 years later, the man who believed that his name was unworthy of a gravestone still lives, admired around the globe. His body rests at the Cimitero Acattolico di Roma, where thousands of admirers make the pilgrimage every year to honour the poet. It is cruel for one to suffer such a harrowing end, but thanks in part to Severn’s accounts, Keats ceases to be the idealised, unreal literary figure and is instead transformed into a much-beloved friend who met a tragic and untimely end. As per his request, Keats’s grave bears no name and instead honours him with the quote ‘Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water‘.

John Keats’s grave, Giovanni Dall’orto

References:

Joseph Severn, Letters from Rome – from 17th December 1820 -27th February 1821.

Nicolas Roe, Keats: A New Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

Percy Bysshe Shelley. Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats. 1821. Oxford University Press, 1921.


[i] Letter from Joseph Severn to Charles Armitage Brown, 17 December 1820.

[ii] Percy Bysshe Shelley, Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, 1821.

[iii] Letter from Lord Byron to John Murray, 18 November 1820.

[iv] Letter from Byron to Murray, 26 April 1821.

[v] Letter from Severn to Brown, 17 December 1820.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Letter from Severn to John Taylor, 24th December 1820.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Roe, Nicholas. Keats: A New Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

[xi] Letter from Severn to Mrs Samuel Brawne, 11th January 1821.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Letter from Severn to William Haslam, 15th January 1821.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Letter from Severn to Brown, 27th February 1821.

[xvi] Ibid.

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