Cover image for Darkling I listen : the last days and death of John Keats
Darkling I listen : the last days and death of John Keats
Walsh, John Evangelist, 1927-2015.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
208 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 22 cm
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PR4836 .W275 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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On October 21, 1829, John Keats set foot in Rome for what he hoped would be a swift convalescence. One hundred days later he succumbed to consumption, dead at the age of 25. Keats' love affair with Fanny Brawne has fascinated biographers, and this volume discusses how complex their love affair was, and how the events at the end of Keats' life illuminate the whole affair. Walsh also discusses Keats' views on religion, and the exact nature of the disease that killed him. This biography brings to life the last days of his life, describing what he experienced in his room overlooking the Spanish steps, and his tragically unrealized ambitions.

Author Notes

John Evangelist Walsh was born in Manhattan, New York on December 27, 1927. He enlisted in the Army and served in the infantry in Italy in the mid-1940s and as a reporter and photographer for military newspapers. When he returned home, he enrolled in Iona College, but before graduating he was hired as a reporter for The Oneonta Daily Star in upstate New York. It was the start of a career that took him to Prentice-Hall, Simon and Schuster, and Reader's Digest, where he headed condensed-book projects.

He wrote several books during his lifetime including Into My Own: The English Years of Robert Frost, This Brief Tragedy: The Unraveling of the Todd-Dickinson Affair, and Unraveling Piltdown: The Science Fraud of the Century and Its Solution. He was also the project editor on the condensation of the Reader's Digest Bible from 850,000 words to 510,000 words. He died on March 19, 2015 at the age of 87.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

The last year of Keats's life, 1820, was a time of great triumph and, as Walsh writes in this gripping but irritatingly melodramatic book, one of great pain. The year before, he had written such extraordinary works of literature as "On a Grecian Urn," "To a Nightingale," "On Melancholy" and "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," and when those poems appeared, in July 1820, they were immediately hailed by the British press. But by that time, Keats was already coughing up blood, having contracted, in February of that year, the tuberculosis that was to kill him. In September, accompanied by Joseph Severn, a loyal friend and a painter who in joining the poet damaged his chances of winning a prestigious fellowship, Keats sailed to Rome, where he installed himself in a room overlooking the famous Spanish Steps, hoping to get well, soon preparing to die. Walsh, whose previous books include Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, draws back the curtain on the 100 days that followed, a long sad scene that has only been glimpsed in other biographies. He is adept at explaining Keats's passions and the deep-rooted morbidity that may have played a role in his much debated relationship with Fanny Brawne, Keats's young lover. Walsh's prose can be grandiloquently banal, but he does evoke the scene, and the reader will be relieved to learn that the pseudo-poetic narration is accomplished without poetic license, as even such phrases as "the morning sun glinting off the houses" comes directly from the description of a witness. Walsh is evenhanded and convincing in his account of Keats's last days, a chapter of literary history that certainly belongs on shelves alongside the classic tragedies. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Walsh (Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allen Poe) believes that the last days and death of John Keats have never been thoroughly documented or interpreted. Here he reexamines Keats's relationship with his great love, Fanny Brawne; his connection with religion; and the diagnosis and treatment of his illness. When Keats became ill, his doctor sent him to Rome with a companion, John Severn, to recover from what may or may not have been consumption. It was, at the time, theorized that Keats was made sick by his consuming need to write poetry and his jealous and possessive love of that seemingly shallow and outrageous flirt, Fanny. Drawing on the 39 letters from Keats to Fanny (along with a few written by Severn and friends), Walsh argues that Keats's love for Fanny did inspire his poetry, which in turn led to his everlasting literary fameÄbut that Keats probably died of consumption just the same. Of particular interest, as well, is Walsh's profile of Severn, who stood by and served Keats throughout his incapacitating confinement. Of benefit to anyone who wants to know more about John Keats, this book is recommended for public and academic libraries.ÄRobert Kelly, Fort Wayne Community Schs., IN (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Although virtually every biography of Keats offers an account of the poet's final days, Walsh is the first to provide a full-length study of this period. During this time, Keats was full of intense anguish and suffering, intensified by his unfulfilled love for Fanny Brawne. Walsh probes beneath letters and other revealing documents to tell the frank story of this relationship, and he also brings new insight into another area of Keats's life that scholars neglect: religion. The author emphasizes Keats's spiritual yearning and the pivotal role painter Joseph Severn played during those final days, when everything in Keats's life seemed lost. Finally, Walsh investigates the nature and progress of Keats's disease, showing how his physicians viewed and treated his case as one of "nervous irritability and general weakness" aggravated by overwork. This is an impressive book. The author's honesty, captivating style, and astute scholarship are worthy of the highest praise. Because the book focuses on the end of Keats's life, one cannot compare it to the full-length biographies of Walter Bate, Aileen Ward, and Robert Gittings. Nevertheless, it is a must read for anyone interested in the supremely gifted and tragic poet. All collections. M. S. Johnston; Minnesota State University, Mankato



Chapter One DESTINATION ROME A forest of bare masts, sails furled and cordage hanging slack, arose from the calm waters embraced within the wide-sweeping curve of busy Naples harbor.     By the hundreds, sailing craft lay crowded motionless together, bulky square riggers, tall schooners, and shallow sloops, down to slim fellucas with their angled sails. Awaiting berths ashore or the arrival of a port official, or off-loading freight or passengers into the tenders and skiffs that hurried up alongside, many ships were anchored literally within yards of each other. At intervals here and there a departing or arriving vessel moved slowly, its reduced canvas flapping noisily as it caught a stray wind.     Low on the horizon glowed the morning sun burning its way through the shimmering mist that hung on the mounting green terraces strung along the shoreline, not quite veiling the high, graceful cone of Vesuvius. Through the haze flashed the whitewashed walls of scattered buildings as they picked up sudden stabs of sunlight.     Off a point of land jutting into the harbor on the left, near imposing Castel d'Uovo, appeared a small, two-masted brig, a British flag flying at its mainmast peak. Moving carefully it slipped past vessel after vessel, slowing as it entered a vacant area, then with a great splash let go an anchor. Spindly masts and drooping yardarms naked, it came to a drifting halt, the broad stern circling lazily round the taut anchor cable, one more weathered wooden hull lost in the maze. Along its bow a string of letters spelled out the name Maria Crowther . In his cabin, Captain Thomas Walsh took down the ship's log and noted his safe arrival, adding the date: 21st October in the year of Our Lord 1820.     The brig had stood at rest only a few minutes when a launch was rowed up alongside carrying a port official. Alerted hours before by telescope to the Crowther 's approach, the authorities on shore were intent on reaching the new arrival before debarkation could begin. Making no effort to go aboard but standing in his launch and shouting up to Captain Walsh at the rail, the official delivered what proved to be a thoroughly unwelcome message. Some days before reports of a typhus epidemic in London had reached them. If the Crowther had set sail from that port less than two months ago, then she was declared to be in medical quarantine.     Captain Walsh replied that he'd been at sea only three weeks since leaving England, but had departed London more than six weeks before. He hoped that that amount of time would be considered sufficient. No, said the official, in that case an additional ten days in isolation were required. Until the afternoon of October 31st, no goods or passengers could be allowed off. Food and other necessary items could be sent aboard from shore. Mail would be delivered every other day if there was any. Outgoing letters would be permitted to leave the ship but were subject to fumigation, a process that did no damage, only yellowed the paper. He was sorry for the inconvenience. Those were Port's strict regulations.     The Crowther carried freight, not primarily passengers. It had accommodations for no more than five paying guests, and on this trip only four of the berths had been filled, two by women and two by men. Traveling separately, the women were a Mrs. Pidgeon, middle-aged and motherly, and a Miss Cotterell, a pretty eighteen-year-old on her way to join her brother, an English banker in Naples. The two men, both young, were friends traveling together. One was a London artist of great promise named Joseph Severn, who at the young age of twenty-six had, only the year before, been awarded a gold medal by the Royal Academy (the prize picture, a large original oil, depicted the "Cave of Despair," a scene from Spenser's Faerie Queen ). The other man was a published poet named John Keats, who at an even younger age, twenty-four, had three slim volumes to his credit (he would turn twenty-five the very day quarantine ended). At first destined for the medical profession, after several years' formal training Keats had left school. He was now fully committed to the life of writing, mainly poetry but eventually, he hoped, plays as well. He'd already finished one play--Drury Lane had been prompt to show interest--and had made a good start on another.     Dedicated and ambitious, both young men enjoyed much esteem within a restricted circle of London artists and writers, though neither man's name was at all familiar to the public at large. Of the two, Keats was the better known, his books having attracted some limited review attention (part of it harsh indeed) in a range of leading periodicals.     The dismal prospect of another ten days' confinement on board the small ship was not received gratefully by any of the four but for two in particular, Keats and Miss Cotterell, the news brought severe disappointment. Both were ailing and in some degree invalids. Neither had found the voyage from home to be an uninterrupted pleasure.     Miss Cotterell was a consumptive. Still in the early stages of the disease, like so many unfortunates before her, she had been ordered by her physician to seek the healing warmth of the Italian sun rather than chance another of England's wet, icy winters. Keats, also, had been sent to Italy by his doctor--living arrangements had been made for him at Rome, extending through the following spring--but his case was more problematic. Consumption might be involved, and it might not. A stomach impairment of some kind was thought to be equally possible or even a weakened heart. Aside from the worrying fact that a younger brother had died of consumption two years before (perhaps his mother as well, who had died a decade before that), there was no way to choose with certainty among the various symptoms.     During the past year, Keats had coughed up blood several times, indicating the rupture of a vessel in either stomach or lungs. But as every doctor was all too unhappily aware, in dealing with diseases of the lungs, or almost any of the internal organs, the medical practice of the day was very nearly helpless. Diagnosis was never more than tentative, a blind groping among a bewildering overlay of external signs, faint and equivocal. Treatment was no surer, resting on little more than each physician's instinct, more or less improvised. Medicines also were few, mostly ineffective narcotics in dilution along with an array of innocuous salts and syrups, none of them specific. But on one thing all were agreed, the insidious harm that could be inflicted on a weakened or unstable constitution by damp houses, cold winds, chilling rain, and bone-penetrating fog.     Miss Cotterell looked and frequently acted like the accepted picture of a consumptive: painfully frail, cheeks often flushed, moods alternating from gaiety to gloom, bursts of energy sinking into lassitude, occasional harsh coughing, wasting of flesh despite a regular diet. Keats on the other hand most of the time showed few outward signs of any disease. A man of short stature with a physique trimly compact and muscular, his movements were vigorous when required and displayed the easy grace of an athlete, which he'd been at school (well under the average male height of the day, he stood no more than an inch or two over five feet). His face, almost classically handsome though somewhat marred by a slightly prominent upper lip, reflected a vivid if controlled temperament. The large hazel eyes beamed a subtle combination of intelligence and strength and were devoid of the hectic glow that betrays the presence of a wasting fever. The portrait of health and well-being--curiously deceptive--was completed by thickly curling hair of a dark reddish brown that fell just below the ears.     Signs of Keats' ill health, beginning six months before, though apparently signaled well before that by a nagging sore throat, had never been more than intermittent, and usually of brief duration. On the interminable voyage to Italy he had experienced several bad turns, bringing up blood at each attack. Ample reason for these bad spells, however, was found in the cramped discomfort and annoyance of the ship's accommodations, suffered through six miserable weeks. Leaving London on September 18th, the ship had been much delayed in quitting English waters, held back by calms and contrary winds.     A single cabin, not large, housed all the passengers and the captain as well, the women's bunks being partioned off by a wide screen. Frequently during the voyage, because of the rough, squally weather the four had been forced to remain indoors, with the air in the shuttered cabin soon turning stale. This created a trying situation in which poor Miss Cotterell needed to have everything just the opposite of Keats. When the cabin windows were closed for any length of time, lamented Severn later, "she would faint and remain entirely insensible" for hours. Yet if the windows were thrown open, very rapidly Keats "would be taken with a cough ... spitting up blood." Such worrisome attacks were brief enough in duration, but they tended to bring on some fever and troublesome night sweating.     To make matters a bit worse, in these emergencies the older Mrs. Pidgeon in a mild panic simply refused to help, even when Miss Cotterell "lay stiffened like a corpse." Between them, Keats and Severn would manage to get the prostrate young woman into her bunk--fully clothed, since Mrs. Pidgeon resolutely kept her distance--and would then stay by her giving what aid and sympathy they could. On these occasions Keats' medical training came in handy allowing him to relieve the worst of the lady's distress rather quickly. "Full a dozen times I have recovered this Lady and put her to bed," wrote Severn of the three-week crossing. Still, he added with a proper sense of fairness and gratitude, all the annoyance and inconvenience caused by Miss Cotterell when afflicted had been more than made up by her womanly charm and pleasant personality when well. Then she proved a delight for all, witty and "full of spirits ... but for her we should have had more heaviness" on the long trip.     In this praise of Miss Cotterell's sprightly presence Keats gladly joined, though he did so with some reservations of a sort only he could really appreciate. Conscious every minute of his own uncertain state of health, in a letter home he admitted his utter distaste at being confronted daily and hourly by the young woman's pathetic condition. In the end he'd shown himself seriously upset and annoyed by it, though he never complained, not even privately to Severn. "All her bad symptoms have preyed upon me--they would have done so had I been in good health," he wrote, adding brusquely, "I shall feel a load off me when the lady vanishes out of my sight." The tone was unlike him.     The ten days of quarantine, as it turned out, despite the weather frequently becoming foul with sunless days of drifting mist and chilling rains, were not entirely miserable. On the second day Miss Cotterell's concerned brother showed up and no sooner learned of the quarantine than he surprised everyone by declaring he would join his sister aboard. Then he arranged for supplies of food, delicacies of all sorts along with fancy fruits and fish, to be delivered daily, vastly improving for all what had been the customary bare ship's table. He also expressed to the two young men his deep gratitude for the care and attention they had shown his sister. He would be both guide and host for them, he announced, when they came ashore. The offer was welcome for neither had bothered to arrange accomodations in the city for the few days of their stopover on the way to Rome.     Halfway through the quarantine an even livelier incident occurred when a party of men from a British warship, newly arrived in the bay, came to visit. Alongside the brig floated a launch rowed by ten sailors, and before anyone could issue a warning the naval officer in charge in the launch, a Lieutenant Sullivan, had clambered aboard. Eager for news of home, not waiting for permission, several of his men had followed, and the happy mingling of visitors and passengers on the deck had been in progress only a few minutes when another launch hurried up, this one carrying an excited port official. From the safety of the launch he announced that the naval party on board the brig, having broken quarantine, would have to remain there. The cabin's last empty bunk had been taken by Miss Cotterell's brother, so the abashed lieutenant had to spend his nights sleeping along with his men in the hold.     Never spacious, the little brig was now considerably crowded both day and night. But the added company actually helped the long hours to pass more pleasantly, especially the nights on deck when in good weather there was music and singing provided by the sailors. (Some of the bawdier songs, indulged when the women had gone indoors, considerably annoyed the gentlemanly Keats because he was sure they could be heard in the cabin. But he kept silent.) Some few days proved merry indeed as curious Italian visiters drifted up in small boats and with Cotterell rapidly translating, "all kinds of chaff went on," the steady exchange of jokes and jibes bringing "continued roars of laughter." In these freewheeling sessions not only Captain Walsh, Lieutenant Sullivan, and Cotterell took part, but Keats also as the four vied in firing off a stream of "witty puns and remarks." Keats, notoriously addicted to puns, later recalled, not at all sheepishly, that while in quarantine he perpetrated more puns "in one week than in any year of my life."     Moments of distraction were also found in the colorful activity swirling round the wide bay. Severn, his painter's eye eagerly scanning the unfamiliar scene, was utterly captivated, as he wrote, by "the splendid city of Naples and her terraced gardens and vineyards," and was especially entranced by "majestic Vesuvius, emitting strange writhing columns of smoke, golden at their sunlit fringes," the arresting tableau set off by "the azure foreground covered with all manner of white-sailed craft." There was entertainment, too, in the little boats, piled high with fruit and vegetables, that passed by or came up to barter, their occupants "playing upon their guitars and singing songs," all done in such a smiling, carefree spirit.     Keats was equally caught by these surroundings, so new and strange. Yet nagging worry over his future, as he admitted, had robbed him of the power and even the desire to dwell on it. "There is enough in this port of Naples to fill a quire of paper," he wrote three days after arriving, but he was unable to feel himself part of it. The scene spread around him, he said, "looks like a dream--every man who can row his boat and walk and talk seems a different being from myself." What a graphic account he might give of these wonders, "If I could once more feel myself a citizen of this world ... O what a misery it is to have an intellect in splints!" Some few sights did catch his attention, however, which kept him staring fascinated from the ship's rail and which he did mention in a letter. The random fishermen sitting solitary in rowboats dotted round the bay was one such. Rapidly and repeatedly they would drop a single line into the calm blue surface, in seconds giving a hard yank and bringing up "a little fish much like an anchovy."     In his own first letter home from the ship, Severn duly reported on his friend's condition during the voyage--changeable and at times worrisome--ending with the doleful comment that Keats was just then in "a doubtful state--I cannot guess what this climate will do." He meant that the mere frustrations of quarantine, much worse on an overcrowded, one-cabin ship lying motionless within sight of an inviting shore, might well prove more harmful than expected. But those fears were borne out only in part. For much of the time Keats appeared actually to be enjoying his restricted life, though always with a feeling of reserve, as Severn noted, a sense of unspoken concern not related to his health. It was a relief to see Keats taken out of himself by his sharing in the ship's lighter moments, said Severn later, for hovering in the background was a hint of something disturbingly dark, all too noticeable when he was standing off by himself and staring at the water: He was often so distraught, with moreover so sad a look in his eyes, sometimes a starved, haunting expression that [it] bewildered me. Yet at the time I never fully understood how terrible were his mental sufferings, for so excruciating was the grief that was eating away at his life that he could speak of it to no one. He was profoundly depressed the day we went ashore at Naples, though he had been so eager to leave the ship and explore the beautiful city; indeed, I was more alarmed on his behalf that night than even during the wretched three-days' storm in the Bay of Biscay.     The day the party was at last permitted to leave the ship, Keats' twenty-fifth birthday (about which, it seems, no mention was made by anyone), he was not at all elated by his release. Rather he showed himself to be, as Severn had put it, "profoundly depressed," unwilling as ever to talk of what was troubling him. Even the tireless friend who had watched over him on the voyage, who had so impulsively interrupted his own budding career to act as companion--in the process defying an angry father--couldn't draw him out. Such rigid silence, even toward his only confidante, the sympathetic Severn, in itself was a stark demonstration of how deep-seated was Keats' unspoken agitation. He was well aware of just how much he owed his admiring friend     Up to three days before departure of the Maria Crowther the affable Severn hadn't once thought he might be leaving England for distant shores. In London not counted among the poet's intimates, he was looked on by most in their circle as being of a somewhat immature turn of mind, naive, even shallow, in any case decidedly below Keats intellectually. It was a portrait which Severn's good-natured countenance and cheerful manner seemed to bear out--one acquaintance said that she couldn't imagine anything making him unhappy since she "never saw him for ten minutes serious." He was a lightweight personality, all agreed, unable to provide fit companionship, certainly not moral suport, for the poet regarded by many as destined for greatness (a rival to Shakespeare, his admirers soberly predicted). Who then would accompany the sick man? He had no family of his own available, his father also being dead and a surviving brother gone off to America. An only sister was too young and lived under the strict care of a legal guardian.     Those closer friends, it seems, were unable to arrange a hiatus in their busy lives, amounting to probably six full months. Consequently, as the day of departure neared it seemed unavoidable that Keats must make the depressing move alone. There would be no familiar presence to lighten his exile, no congenial hand to serve him in the difficult days and hours almost certain to occur, even should his convalescence go smoothly. It was in desperation that a last-minute appeal had been made to Severn as the sole hope remaining. Almost eagerly, and full in the face of the elder Severn's disapproval, he agreed, throwing himself into a fever of preparation.     An ugly scene ensued, occurring on the very day Severn left home to join the waiting ship. Ordinarily a considerate, even-tempered man, the anguished father in those final minutes erupted. Shouting so that his voice rang through the house, unnerving his anxious wife and upsetting the other five children, he declared that his son was making a terrible mistake! Bad enough was the setting back of his regular art studies, going so well since the awarding of the gold medal. But to deliberately risk his own health by continued close contact with an ailing companion, someone hardly more than acquaintance! (Not everyone then believed in the contagious nature of disease, not even as to consumption, including most English doctors. Severn's father, apparently, was one who did.) In exasperation the father blocked the doorway, shoving his son back into the room and knocking him to the floor. Only the mother's pleas and the prompt intervention of another son averted further harm. In sore distress of spirit young Severn retrieved his bags and departed, grimly intent on keeping his word.     His sacrifice in going with Keats was real enough. But the interruption to his studies at home, as Severn readily admitted and as his friends understood, was not a complete disadvantage. His winning of the Academy's gold medal gave him the right to try for a coveted traveling fellowship, three years of freedom and independence fully funded, in which to pursue his art. He need only submit an original oil to the Academy and have it accepted by a panel of judges. For this demanding task a lengthy residence at Rome, then indisputably the world's art capital, would prove a great boon and he'd have until the spring of 1821 to complete the picture, shipping it back to London. The six-month interval, even with the added responsibility of a sick friend, seemed to him ample. A subject for his picture he hadn't yet chosen. He'd do that, he decided, after some leisurely viewing of the wealth of art, by history's greatest painters, to be seen in Rome's many museums, galleries, churches, and public buildings.     The long weeks spent aboard ship, inevitably, had sobered the excited Severn, opening his eyes to the true nature and extent of the task he'd assumed: the fevered nights, the sudden hard coughing, the sight of blood on the pale lips, alarming even in small quantities, Keats' moody depression lasting hours or days. Especially disturbing were those mysterious "mental sufferings" noted by Severn and that now and again so painfully etched Keats' expressive face, giving rise to that haunted look. To the loyal Severn, the thought that the poet's physical trials were being seriously complicated by something not quite tangible, some lurking harm, was deeply troubling. Whatever was causing the distress, he felt sure, talking about it would help, yet that was the one thing Keats steadily avoided. All during the voyage he'd shown no sign of wanting to unburden himself, no sign that he was yearning for sympathy, making Severn conscious again of the lack of real intimacy between them. But then, only a day after quarantine ended and the ship's party was released to go ashore, Keats suddenly opened his heart, confessing his worries in a rush of naked feeling. For the surprised Severn it proved an unsettling experience, leaving him quite shaken. Clearly, he saw, his function as sole companion was to be far more difficult than he'd ever expected: Keats' silent suffering, it appeared, centered on a badly vexed love affair.     Leaving the brig, the two had been transported by Cotterell to a hotel favored by the English, the Villa da Londra in the Strada di Santa Lucia. At last they could enjoy a good night's rest in a large, well-appointed room affording, as Severn happily noted, a marvelous view of Vesuvius. Next day, November 1st, Keats began a letter to a friend in London (one of his closest, sometime author and man-about-town, Charles Brown), not completing it till evening. Severn, too, that evening sat down to his letter-writing chores, first to his sister--he'd promised his anxious family he'd write first thing--then to a London crony, William Haslam, a young attorney.     With the two bent over their desks, for a while in the room there was only the sharp, edgy sound of scratching quills. Then Keats finished his letter, turned to Severn, and in a confiding tone began to talk. Up to that point in his own letter Severn had been describing Keats' health. Now he interrupted the flow of his thoughts to jot a hasty parenthesis: "(I will talk to him--he is disposed to it--I will talk him to sleep--he has suffered much fatigue)." How long the conversation lasted isn't mentioned. From all indications it was hours. Then Keats, calmer and more rested than he'd felt for a long time, went gratefully to bed.     Next morning as late as 9:30 Keats was still in bed and slumbering peacefully, a fact Severn noted in resuming his letter to Haslam. Their last night's talk, he explained, had turned quite serious, with Keats confessing to some deeply tangled emotions. He'd done his best to comfort the poet, especially concerning "a heavy grief that may tend more than anything 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." Cryptically, he next penned a comment that revealed the strength of his own disturbed response and which must have left Haslam wondering: "If I can but cure his mind I will bring him back to England well --but I fear it can never be done in this world."     Severn's letter to Haslam, a fairly long one recounting incidents of the voyage, is still preserved. It reports in desultory fashion on Keats' condition but supplies no detail of the secret anguish, the "much--very much" disclosed by the agitated poet the previous evening, nothing about the insidious "heavy grief." The ommission is unfortunate, but not crucial, for it is still possible to discover most of what Keats said to Severn that night, to uncover just what that unnamed "grief" was, and to hear it all expressed in Keats' own words. His letter to Brown, finished only minutes before the start of that frank talk, also still survives. A decidedly stark document, it is of prime importance in the looming tragedy. Passing over some incidental remarks, it must be given at nearly its full length: Naples Wednesday first in Nov. 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 evening to write you a short calm letter--if that can be called one, in which I am afraid to speak of what I would fainest dwell upon. As I have gone thus far into it, I must go on a little--perhaps it will relieve the load of WRETCHEDNESS which presses upon me. The persuasion that I will see Miss Brawne no more will kill me ...     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! Everything I have in my trunks that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear. The silk lining she put in my traveling 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 for a moment ...     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 handwriting 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 ...     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 surprises me that the human heart is capable of containing and bearing so much misery. Was I born for this end? ...     It was obviously in hopes of finding the "consolation" he spoke of, and which at that moment was so badly needed, that the downcast Keats had turned to Severn. He may not, of course, have been as transparent in talking about his feelings for Miss Brawne as he'd been in writing of them. Apparently he came very close to it, for it is plain that Severn was considerably moved by what he heard, for the first time recognizing that his friend's moodiness and disability were not wholly physical. Whether he understood that the wild dejection echoing through the letter to Brown was by no means a thing of the moment, as might seem, the exaggeration of some passing annoyance, is uncertain. Throughout the voyage from England, however, while not mentioned outright, that heavy dejection of spirit had lain as a ponderous weight on Keats' anxious mind, a fact made vividly clear by another letter to Brown, which was then reposing unsent in Keats' trunk. Written at the start of the voyage while the ship lay off Yarmouth, it had not been posted, held back by sudden doubts as to its confessional nature. Had Severn known its contents, with thoughts of death uppermost, he would certainly have felt even greater alarm for his own future and his friend's welfare.     The letter opens with an offhand comment dismissing its seeming low spirits as produced by the frustrations of delay: two weeks of bad weather had blocked the vessel, after leaving London, from getting farther than the Isle of Wight. Nor has he anything very heartening to report about his health, he says, and anyway much prefers just then to avoid topics that are likely to leave him agitated. Yet he couldn't hold himself back, plunging on into the very topic he'd already vowed firmly to shun: ... there is one thing I must mention and have done with it. Even if my body would recover of itself, this would prevent it. The very thing I want most to live for will be a great occasion of my death. I cannot help it ... were I in health it would make me ill ... I daresay you will be able to guess on what topic I am harping ... I wish for death every day and night to deliver me from these pains, and then I wish death away, for death would destroy even those pains which are better than nothing ... death is the great divorcer forever ... I think without my mentioning it, for my sake you would be a friend to Miss Brawne when I am dead. You think she has many faults, but for my sake think she has not one--if there is anything you can do for her by word or deed I know you will do it ... The thought of leaving Miss Brawne is beyond everything horrible--the sense of darkness coming over me--I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing. Some of the phrases she was in the habit of using during my last nursing at Wentworth Place ring in my ears. Is there another life? Shall I awake and find all this a dream? There must be, we cannot be created for this sort of suffering ... a sudden stop to my life in the middle of one of these letters would be no bad thing.     Fanny Brawne was well known to Severn. He also knew, as did most of the group of friends, that Keats found her quite attractive--unfortunately so, most felt, for the two didn't seem at all well-suited. What Severn did not know, what very few at the time knew, was that Fanny and Keats were actually engaged to be married. What was understood by no one--Fanny's mother perhaps excepted--was the peculiarly destructive effect of all this on Keats.     Sadly, in the stricken poet's susceptible heart this vivacious young woman had unwittingly set churning a corrosive turmoil of abundant hope, searing doubt, and unquenchable foreboding.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Second Floor, Front
Destination Rome
Love is Not a Plaything!
Good Spirits and Hopeful Fellows
This Posthumous Life
To Cease at Midnight
Glowing Prospects
The Girl He Left Behind
Epilogue: Rome Again
Notes and Sources
Selected Bibliography