AUGUST 1820-FEBRUARY 1821: VOYAGE TO ITALY: LAST DAYS AND DEATH AT ROME
Resolve to winter in Italy—Severn as companion—The ‘Maria Crowther’—Fellow passengers—Storm in the Channel—Held up in the Solent—Landing near Lulworth—The ‘Bright Star’ sonnets—The voyage resumed—A meditated poem—Incidents at sea—Quarantine at Naples—Letters from Keats and Haslam—Lady passengers described—A cry of agony—Neapolitan impressions—On the road to Rome—Life at Rome—Apparent improvement—Relapse and despair—Severn’s ministrations—His letters from the sickroom—The same continued—Tranquil last days—Choice of epitaph—Spirit of charm and pleasantness—The end.
In telling of the critical reception of Keats’s Lamia volume I have anticipated by three or four months the course of time. Returning to his personal condition and doings, we find that by or before the date of his move from Kentish Town to be under the care of the Brawne ladies at Wentworth Place, that is by mid-August, he had accepted the verdict of the doctors that a winter in Italy would be the only thing to give him a chance of recovery. He determined accordingly, not without sore gain-giving and agitation of mind, to make the attempt. In his letter to Shelley acknowledging receipt of The Cenci and answering Shelley’s invitation to Pisa, he writes:—‘there is no doubt that an English winter would put an end to me, and do so in a lingering, hateful, manner. Therefore, I must either voyage or journey to Italy, as a soldier marches up to a battery’. And again, using the same phrase, he writes to Taylor on August 14th:—‘This journey to Italy wakes me at daylight every morning, and haunts me horribly. I shall endeavour to go, though it will be with the sensation of marching against a battery. The first step towards it is to know the expense of a journey and a year’s residence, which if you will ascertain for me, and let me know early, you will greatly serve me.’ The next day he sends Taylor a note of his wish that in case of his death his books should be divided among his friends and that any assets arising or to arise from the sale of his poems should be devoted to paying his debts—those to Brown and to Taylor himself ranking first. The good publisher promptly bestirred himself to enquire about sailings and make provision for ways and means. For the latter purpose he bought the copyright of Endymion for £100, furnished Keats at starting with a bill on London for £120, and procured promises of eventual help to the extent of £100 more by subscription among persons interested in the poet’s fate; James Rice and the painters Hilton and De Wint being among guarantors of £10 each and Lord Fitzwilliam closing the list with a promise of £50.
The vessel chosen for the voyage was a merchant brigantine, the ‘Maria Crowther,’ having berth accommodation for a few passengers and due to sail from London about the middle of September. The four intervening weeks were spent by the invalid in comparative respite from suffering and distress under the eye and tendance of his beloved. By his desire Haydon came one day to see him, and has told, with a painter’s touch, how he found him ‘lying in a white bed, with white quilt, and white sheets, the only colour visible was the hectic flush of his cheeks.’ Haydon’s vehement, self-confident and self-righteous manner of admonition to friends in trouble seems to have had an effect the reverse of consolatory, and elsewhere he amplifies this account of his last sight of Keats, saying, ‘He seemed to be going out of life with a contempt for this world and no hopes of the other. I told him to be calm, but he muttered that if he did not soon get better he would destroy himself. I tried to reason against such violence, but it was no use; he grew angry, and I went away deeply affected.’ Writing about the same time to his young sister, Keats shows himself, as ever, thoughtful and wise on her behalf and does his best to be re-assuring on his own:—
Now you are better, keep so. Do not suffer your Mind to dwell on unpleasant reflexions—that sort of thing has been the destruction of my health. Nothing is so bad as want of health—it makes one envy scavengers and cinder sifters. There are enough real distresses and evils in wait for every one to try the most vigorous health. Not that I would say yours are not real—but they are such as to tempt you to employ your imagination on them, rather than endeavour to dismiss them entirely. Do not diet your mind with grief, it destroys the constitution; but let your chief care be of your health, and with that you will meet your share of Pleasure in the world—do not doubt it. If I return well from Italy I will turn over a new leaf for you. I have been improving lately, and have very good hopes of ‘turning a Neuk’ and cheating the consumption.
For a companion on his journey, Keats’s first thoughts turned to Brown, who was still away on his second tramp through the Highlands. But the letter he wrote asking whether Brown could go with him missed its destination, and he was left with the prospect of having either to give up his journey or venture on it alone, a thing hardly to be thought of in his state of health. At this juncture Haslam, always the most useful of friends in an emergency, betook himself to Severn, whose prospects in London, in spite of the practice he had found as a miniature-painter and of his success in winning the gold medal of the Academy the previous December, seemed far from bright, and urged him to go out with Keats to Rome. Severn at once consented, his immediate impulse of devotion to his friend being strengthened, on reflection, both by the lure of Rome itself and by the idea that he might be able while there to work for, and perhaps win, the travelling studentship of the Royal Academy. He made his arrangements on the shortest possible notice, while Haslam undertook the business of procuring passports and the like. A weird incident marked Severn’s departure from his home. His father, passionately attached to him but resenting his resolve to go to Italy now as fiercely as he had before resented his change of profession, on being asked to lend a hand in moving his trunk, in an uncontrollable fit of anger struck and felled him. How and with what rending of the heart Keats took his own farewell from the home of his joy and torment at Hampstead—of this we hear, and may be thankful to hear, nothing. He spent his last days in England with Taylor in Fleet Street, having gone thither on Wednesday September 13th to be at hand for the day and hour when the ‘Maria Crowther’ might be ready to sail. On the evening of Sunday the 17th of September he and Severn went on board at the London docks. Here the kind Taylor and the serviceable Haslam took leave of them, and their ship weighed anchor and slipped down tide as far as Gravesend, where she came to moorings for the night. Moored close by her was a smack from Dundee, and on board this smack, by one of the minor perversities of fate, who should be a passenger but Charles Brown? He had caught this means of conveyance as the first available when he at last got news of Keats’s plans, and had hoped to reach London in time to bid him farewell. But it was all unknowingly that the friends lay that night within earshot of one another.
One lady passenger, a Miss Pidgeon, had come aboard at the docks: a pleasing person, the friends thought at first, but found reason to change their minds later. At Gravesend early the next morning there came another, a pretty and gentle Miss Cotterell, as far gone in consumption as Keats himself. Keats was in lively spirits and exerted himself with Severn to welcome and amuse the new comer. In the course of the day Severn went ashore to buy medicines and other needments for the voyage, and among them, at Keats’s special request, a bottle of laudanum. The captain, by name Thomas Walsh, was kind and attentive and did his best, unsuccessfully, to find a goat for the supply of goat’s milk to the invalids while on board ship. That evening they put to sea, and Keats’s health and spirits seemed to rise with the first excitements of the voyage. The events of the next days are best told in the words of the journal-letter written at the time by Severn to Haslam; vagueness of memory having made much less trustworthy the several accounts of the voyage which he wrote and rewrote in after years. Severn was innocent of all stops save dashes, and I print exactly as he wrote:—
19th Sept. Tuesday, off Dover Castle, etc.
I arose at day break to see the glorious eastern gate—Keats slept till 7—Miss C. was rather ill this morning I prevailed on her to walk the deck with me at half past 6 she recovered much—Keats was still better this morning and Mrs Pidgeon looked and was the picture of health—but poor me! I began to feel a waltzing on my stomach at breakfast when I wrote the note to you I was going it most soundly—Miss Cotterell followed me—then Keats who did it in the most gentlemanly manner—and then the saucy Mrs Pidgeon who had been laughing at us—four faces bequeathing to the mighty deep their breakfasts—here I must change to a minor key Miss C. fainted—we soon recovered her—I was very ill nothing but lying down would do for me. Keats ascended his bed—from which he dictated surgically like Esculapius of old in basso-relievo through him Miss C. was recovered we had a cup of tea each and no more went to bed and slept until it was time to go to bed—we could not get up again—and slept in our clothes all night—Keats the King—not even looking pale.
20th Sept. Wednesday off Brighton. Beautiful morning—we all breakfasted on deck and recovered as we were could enjoy it—about 10 Keats said a storm was hatching—he was right—the rain came on and we retired to our cabin—it abated and once more we came on deck—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—my curiosity was raised to see the storm—and my anxiety to see Keats for I could only speak to him when in bed—I got up and fell down on the floor from my weakness and the rolling of the ship. Keats was very calm—the ladies were much frightened and would scarce speak—when I got up to the deck I was astounded—the waves were in mountains and washed the ship—the watery horizon was like a mountainous country—but the ship’s motion was beautifully to the sea falling from one wave to the other in a very lovely manner—the sea each time crossing the deck and one side of the ship being level with the water—this when I understood gave me perfect ease—I communicated below and it did the same—but when the dusk came the sea began to rush in from the side of our cabin from an opening in the planks—this made us rather long faced—for it came by pail-fulls—again I got out and said to Keats ‘here’s pretty music for you’—with the greatest calmness he answered me only by ‘Water parted from the sea.’ (1) I staggered up again and the storm was awful—the Captain and Mate soon came down—for our things were squashing about in the dark—they struck a light and I succeeded in getting my desk off the ground—with clothes and books, etc. The Captain finding it could not be stopped—tacked about from our voyage—and the sea ceased to dash against the cabin for we were sailing against wind and tide—but the horrible agitation continued in the ship lengthways—here were the pumps working—the sails squalling the confused voices of the sailors—the things rattling about in every direction and us poor devils pinn’d up in our beds like ghosts by daylight—except Keats he was himself all the time—the ladies suffered the most—but I was out of bed a dozen times to wait on them and tell them there was no danger—my sickness made me get into bed very soon each time—but Keats this morning brags of my sailorship—he says could I have kept on my legs in the water cabin I should have been a standing miracle.
I caught a sight of the moon about 3 o’clock this morning—and ran down to tell the glad tidings—but the surly rolling of the sea was worse than the storm—the ship trembled to it—and the sea was scarcely calmed by daylight—so that we were kept from 2 o’clock yesterday until 6 this morning without anything—well it has done us good, we are like a Quartett of fighting cocks this morning. The morning is serene we are now back again some 20 miles—waiting for a wind—but full of spirits—Keats is without even complaining and Miss Cottrell has a colour in her face—the sea has done his worst upon us. I am better than I have been for years. Farewell my dear fellow.
J. Severn—show this to my family with my love to them.
When you read this you will excuse the manner—I am quite beside myself—and have written the whole this morning Thursday on the deck after a sleepless night and with a head full of care—you shall have a better the next time.
The storm had driven them back from off Brighton more than half way to the Downs, and then abated enough to let them land for a scramble on the shingles at Dungeness, where they excited the suspicions of the coast guard, and to get the above letter posted from Romney. After this calms and contrary airs kept them beating about the channel for many more days yet. At Portsmouth they were held up again, and to pass the time Keats landed and went to call on Dilke’s sister Mrs Snook at Bedhampton; again by ill chance barely missing Brown, whom he supposed to be still in Scotland but who was actually only ten miles away, having run down to stay with Dilke’s father at Chichester. The next day, while the ship was still hanging in the Solent off Yarmouth, Keats wrote unbosoming himself to Brown of his inward agony more fully than he had ever done in speech:—
I wish to write on subjects that will not agitate me much—there is one I must mention and have done with it. Even if my body would recover of itself, this would prevent it. The very thing which I want to live most for will be a great occasion of my death. I cannot help it. Who can help it? Were I in health it would make me ill, and how can I bear it in my state? I dare say you will be able to guess on what subject I am harping—you know what was my greatest pain during the first part of my illness at your house. 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. Land and sea, weakness and decline, are great separators, but death is the great divorcer for ever. When the pang of this thought has passed through my mind, I may say the bitterness of death is passed. I often wish for you that you might flatter me with the best. 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. I am in a state at present in which woman merely as woman can have no more power over me than stocks and stones, and yet the difference of my sensations with respect to Miss Brawne and my sister is amazing. The one seems to absorb the other to a degree incredible. I seldom think of my brother and sister in America. 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.
That night, (September 28) adds Keats, they expected to put into Portland Roads; but calms again held them up, and again they were allowed to land, having made only some few miles’ headway down the Dorsetshire coast. The day of this landing was for Keats one of transitory calm and lightening of the spirit. The weather was fine, and ‘for a moment,’ says Severn, ‘he became like his former self. He was in a part that he already knew, and showed me the splendid caverns and grottoes with a poet’s pride, as though they had been his birthright.’ These are vivid phrases, that about the caverns and grottoes certainly a little over-coloured for the scene, which was Lulworth Cove and the remarkable, but scarcely splendid, rock tunnels and fissures of Stair Hole and Durdle Door. When Severn says that Keats knew the ground, one half wonders whether the Dorsetshire Keatses may really have been kindred of his to whom he had at some time paid an unrecorded visit: or otherwise, whether in travelling to and from Teignmouth in 1818, taking, as we know he did, the southern route from Salisbury by Bridport and Axminster, he may have broken the journey at Dorchester and visited the curiosities of the coast. But in truth, to understand and possess beauties of nature as a birthright, Keats needed not to have seen them before. On board ship the same night Keats borrowed the copy of Shakespeare’s Poems which he had given Severn a few days before, and wrote out fair and neatly for him, on the blank page opposite the heading A Lover’s Complaint, the beautiful sonnet which every lover of English knows so well:—
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art,
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.
Severn in later life clearly cherished the impression that the sonnet had been actually composed for him on the day of the Dorsetshire landing. Lord Houghton in his Life and Literary Remains distinctly asserts as much, and it had seemed to us all a beautiful and consolatory circumstance, in the tragedy of Keats’s closing days, that his last inspiration in poetry should have come in a strain of such unfevered beauty and tenderness, and with images of such a refreshing and solemn purity. But in point of fact the sonnet was work of an earlier date, and the autograph given to Severn is on the face of it no draught but a fair copy. Its original form had been this—
Bright star! would I were stedfast as thou art!
Not in lone splendour hung amid the night;
Not watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature’s devout sleepless Eremite,
The morning waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores;
Or, gazing on the new soft fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors:—
No;—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Cheek-pillow’d on my Love’s white ripening breast,
To touch, for ever, its warm sink and swell,
Awake, for ever, in a sweet unrest;
To hear, to feel her tender-taken breath,
Half passionless, and so swoon on to death.
The sonnet is copied in this form by Charles Brown, under date 1819, in the collection of transcripts from Keats’s fugitive verses which from the spring of that year he regularly made as soon after they were written as he could lay hands on them. His dates I have found always trustworthy, and I have shown reason (above, p. 334) for holding the sonnet to have been written in the last week of February, 1819, and the first days of Keats’s engagement to Fanny Brawne. All that Keats can actually have done during that evening of tranquillity off Lulworth was to return to it in thought and recopy it for Severn with changes which in the second line heightened the remoteness of the star; in the fourth made an inverted metrical stress normal by substituting ‘patient’ for ‘devout’; in the fifth changed the word ‘morning’ into ‘moving,’ (2) in the tenth cancelled one of his defining and arresting compound participles in favour of a simpler phrase; and in the four concluding lines varied a little the mood and temperature of the longing expressed, calling for death not as the sequel to his longing’s fulfilment, but as the alternative for it. In Severn’s first mention of the subject, which is in a letter written from Rome a few weeks after Keats’s death, he shows himself aware that Brown might be in possession already of a version of the sonnet, which of course could only have been the case if it had been composed before Keats left Hampstead. ‘Do you know,’ he writes, ‘the sonnet beginning Bright Star etc., he wrote this down in the ship—it is one of his most beautiful things. I will send it, if you have it not.’
The rest of the voyage, after getting clear of the English Channel, was quick but uncomfortable, the weather variable and often squally. Signs of improvement in Keats’s health alternated with alarming returns of hæmorrhage, and the painful symptoms of his fellow-traveller Miss Cotterell preyed sometimes severely on his nerves and spirits. At other times his thoughts ran pleasantly on poems yet to be written, and especially on one he had planned on the story of Sabrina. ‘He mentioned to me many times in our voyage’, writes Severn within a few weeks of the poet’s death, ‘his desire to write this story and to connect it with some points in the English history and character. He would sometimes brood over it with immense enthusiasm, and recite the story from Milton’s Comus in a manner that I will remember to the end of my days.’ It is good to think of Keats being thus able to occupy and soothe his fevered spirit with the lovely cadences that tell how Nereus pitied the rescued nymph,
And gave her to his daughters to imbathe
In nectar’d lavers strew’d with Asphodel,
or with those that invoke her in the prayer,—
Listen where thou art sitting
Under the glassie, cool, translucent wave,
In twisted braids of lilies knitting
The loose train of thy amber-dropping hair,—
it is good to think of this and to try and conceive what Keats while he was in health might have made of this English theme which haunted his imagination now and afterwards at Rome, when the power to shape and almost the power to live and breathe had left him.
Severn took during the voyage an opportunity to make a new drawing of Keats as he lay propped and resting on his berth. Such a drawing would have been an invaluable addition to our memorials of the poet: it remained long in the possession first of one and then of another of Severn’s sons, but has of late years unluckily disappeared: stolen, thinks its latest owner, Mr Arthur Severn: let us hope that this mention may perhaps lead to its recognition and recovery. During some rough weather in the Bay of Biscay Keats began to read the shipwreck canto of Don Juan, but presently found its reckless and cynic brilliancy intolerable, and flung the volume from him in disgust. Perhaps something of his real feelings, but certainly nothing of his way of expressing them, is preserved in Severn’s account of the matter written five-and-twenty years later:—
Keats threw down the book and exclaimed: ‘this gives me the most horrid idea of human nature, that a man like Byron should have exhausted all the pleasures of the world so completely that there was nothing left for him but to laugh and gloat over the most solemn and heart-rending scenes of human misery, this storm of his is one of the most diabolical attempts ever made upon our sympathies, and I have no doubt it will fascinate thousands into extreme obduracy of heart—the tendency of Bryon’s poetry is based on a paltry originality, that of being new by making solemn things gay and gay things solemn.’
In a calm off Cape St Vincent, Keats was delighted with the play of silken colours on the sea, and interested in watching the movement of a whale. The next day there came an alarm: a shot was fired over the bows of the ‘Maria Crowther’ from one of two Portuguese men of war becalmed close by; but drifting within hail one of the Portuguese captains explained that there were supposed to be privateers in those waters and that he only wanted to learn whether the Englishman had sighted any such.
On October 21, thirty-four days out from London, the ‘Maria Crowther’ reached Naples harbour and was promptly put in quarantine. In that predicament her passengers sweltered and fumed for ten full days, their number having been increased by the addition of a lieutenant and six seamen, who were despatched from an English man-of-war in the harbour to enquire as to the vessel’s name and status, and having thoughtlessly gone on board her were forbidden by the port authorities to go off again. The friends found some alleviation from the tedium of the time through the kindness of Miss Cotterell’s brother, a banker in Naples, who kept them supplied with all manner of dainties and luxuries, and especially with abundance of fruit and flowers. ‘Keats’, says Severn, ‘was never tired of admiring (not to speak of eating) the beautiful clusters of grapes and other fruits, and was scarce less enthusiastic over the autumn flowers, though I remember his saying once that he would gladly give them all for a wayside dog-rose bush covered with pink blooms.’ The time of detention passed with a good deal of merriment, songs from the man-of-war’s men on board, songs, laughter, and gibes from the Neapolitan boatmen swarming round. In all this Keats would join, feverishly enough it is evident, and declared afterwards that he had made more puns in the course of those ten days than in any whole year of his life beside. Once he flashed into a characteristic heat of righteous wrath, when the seamen took to trolling obscene catches in full hearing of the ladies. On the fourth day of their detention he wrote to Mrs Brawne, (to Fanny he dared not write, nor suffer his thoughts to dwell on her at all), saying what he thought of his own state:—
We have to remain in the vessel ten days and are at present shut in a tier of ships. The sea air has been beneficial to me about to as great extent as squally weather and bad accommodations and provisions has done harm. So I am about as I was. Give my love to Fanny and tell her, if I were well there is enough in this Port of Naples to fill a quire of Paper—but it looks like a dream—every man who can row his boat and walk and talk seems a different being from myself. I do not feel in the world.
It is impossible to describe exactly in what state of health I am—at this moment I am suffering from indigestion very much, which makes such stuff of this Letter. I would always wish you to think me a little worse than I really am; not being of a sanguine disposition I am likely to succeed. If I do not recover your regret will be softened—if I do your pleasure will be doubled. I dare not fix my Mind upon Fanny, I have not dared to think of her. The only comfort I have had that way has been in thinking for hours together of having the knife she gave me put in a silver-case—the hair in a Locket—and the Pocket Book in a gold net. Show her this. I dare say no more. Yet you must not believe I am so ill as this Letter may look, for if ever there was a person born without the faculty of hoping I am he. Severn is writing to Haslam, and I have just asked him to request Haslam to send you his account of my health. O what an account I could give you of the Bay of Naples if I could once more feel myself a Citizen of this world—I feel a spirit in my Brain would lay it forth pleasantly—O what a misery it is to have an intellect in splints!
Once released from quarantine and landed at Naples Severn wrote to Haslam fully his impressions of the voyage and of its effects on his friend.
Naples, Nov. 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 2,000 ships in a wretched hole 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 it, if I may call his poor shattered frame and broken heart weathering it. For myself I have stood it firmly until this morning 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—what he 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 Cottrell one of our lady passengers) who has shown unusually humane treatment to Keats—unasked—these with very good accommodation at our Inn (Villa de Londra) have kept him up through dinner—but on the other hand Dr Milner is at Rome (whither 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 recovery (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).
Keats went to bed much recovered—I took every means to remove from him 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—he went very calm to bed.
Poor fellow! he is still sleeping at half past nine, if I can but ease his mind I will bring him back to England well—but I fear it never can be done in this world—the grand scenery here affects him a little—but he is too infirm to enjoy it—his gloom deadens his sight to everything—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 everything 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 consumate brute—she would see Miss Cottrell stiffened like a corpse—I have sometimes thought her dead—nor ever lend the least aid—full a dozen times I have recovered this lady and put her to bed—sometimes she would faint 4 times in 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’s 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—everything 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 won’t 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 seas—not to mention continued squalls—and a storm. ‘All’s well that ends well,’ and these ended well. Our fright was from two Portugese ships of war—they brought us to 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 Brawne—he requests you will tell Mrs Brawne what I think of him—for he is too bad to judge of himself—this morning 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 to-day—the rain is coming down in torrents.
The confession Keats had made to Severn was of course that of the effects of the passion which had so long been racking and wasting him, and the violence of which he had shrunk till now from disclosing to friend or brother. Writing on the same day to Brown, he could not control or disguise the anguish of his heart.
Naples, 1 November 1820.
My dear Brown,
Yesterday we were let out of Quarantine, during which my health suffered more from bad air and the 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 fainest dwell upon. As I have gone thus far into it, I must go on a little; perhaps it may relieve the load ofWRETCHEDNESS which presses upon me. The persuasion that I will see her 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. O, 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 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 a 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 handwriting would break my heart—even to hear of her anyhow, 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?
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? God bless her, and her mother, and my sister, and George, and his wife, and you, and all!
During the four days they remained at Naples Keats received a second invitation in the kindest possible terms from Shelley to come and settle near him in Pisa, but determined to carry out his original plan of wintering at Rome, where he was to place Taylor’s bill to his credit at Torlonia’s and whither he carried a special introduction to Dr (afterwards Sir James) Clark. Severn was also the bearer of one from Sir Thomas Lawrence to Canova. Keats attempted to amuse himself reading Clarissa Harlowe, and also seeing some of the sights of Naples. After almost a century there has lately come to light a record, set down at second-hand and probably touched up in the telling, of some things noticed and words spoken by the stricken poet in drives about the city and suburbs in the friendly company of Mr Charles Cotterell, the brother of his invalid fellow-passenger. Keats was driving, says the narrator, Mr Charles Macfarlane,—
—he was driving with Charles Cottrell from the Bourbon Museum, up the beautiful open road which leads up to Capo di Monte and the Ponte Rossi. On the way, in front of a villa or cottage, he was struck and moved by the sight of some rose trees in full bearing. Thinking to gratify the invalid, Cottrell, a ci-devant officer in the British Navy, jumped out of the carriage, spoke to somebody about the house or garden, and was back in a trice with a bouquet of roses. ‘How late in the year! What an exquisite climate!’ said the Poet; but on putting them to his nose, he threw the flowers down on the opposite seat, and exclaimed: ‘Humbugs! they have no scent! What is a rose without its fragrance? I hate and abhor all humbug, whether in a flower or in a man or woman!’ And having worked himself strongly up in the anti-humbug humour, he cast the bouquet out on the road. I suppose that the flowers were China roses, which have little odour at any time, and hardly any at the approach of winter.
Returning from that drive, he had intense enjoyment in halting close to the Capuan Gate, and in watching a group of lazzaroni or labouring men, as, at a stall with fire and cauldron by the roadside in the open air, they were disposing of an incredible quantity of macaroni, introducing it in long unbroken strings into their capacious mouths, without the intermediary of anything but their hands. ‘I like this,’ said he; ‘these hearty fellows scorn the humbug of knives and forks. Fingers were invented first. Give them some carlini that they may eat more! Glorious sight! How they take it in!’ (3)
But the political state and servile temper of the Neapolitan people—though they were living just then under the constitutional forms imposed on the Bourbon monarchy by the revolution of the previous summer—grated on Keats’s liberal instincts, and misinterpreting at the theatre the sight of a couple of armed sentries posted (as was the custom of the time and country) on the stage, he broke into a fit of anger and determined suddenly to leave the place. Accordingly on the 4th or 5th of November the friends set out for Rome in a small hired carriage, which jogged so loiteringly on the road that Severn was able to walk beside it almost all the way. Keats suffered seriously at the stopping-places from bad quarters and bad food, and was for the most part listless and dispirited, but would become animated ‘when an unusually fine prospect opened before us, or the breeze bore to us exquisite hill fragrances or breaths from the distant blue seas, and particularly when I literally filled the little carriage with flowers. He never tired of these, and they gave him a singular and almost fantastic pleasure which was at times almost akin to a strange joy.’ Entering Rome by the Lateran gate they settled at once in lodgings which Dr Clark, to whom Keats had written from Naples, had already secured for them, in the first house on the right going up the steps from the Piazza di Spagna to Sta Trinità dei Monti. Here, according to the manner of those days in Italy, they were left pretty much to shift for themselves. Neither could speak Italian, and at first they were ill served by the trattorìa from which they got their meals, until Keats, having bidden Severn see how he would mend matters, one day coolly emptied all the dishes out of the window, and handed them back to the porter: a hint, says Severn, which was quickly taken. For a while the patient seemed better. Dr Clark wished him to avoid the excitement of seeing the famous monuments of the city, so he left Severn to visit these alone, and contented himself with quiet strolls, chiefly on the Pincian close by.
The season was fine, and the freshness and brightness of the air, says Severn, invariably made him pleasant and witty. Clark gave Severn an introduction to Gibson, the then famous American sculptor, and Keats insisted on his delivering it at once and losing no opportunity of making acquaintances in Rome that might be useful to him, and no time in getting to work on his projected competition picture, ‘The Death of Alcibiades.’ In Severn’s absence Keats had a companion he liked in an invalid Lieutenant Elton. In their walks on the Pincian these two often met the famous beauty Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese. Her charms were by this time failing—but not for lack of exercise; and her melting glances at his companion, who was tall and handsome, presently affected Keats’s nerves, and made them change the direction of their walks. Sometimes, instead of walking, they would take short invalid rides, on hired mounts suited to their respective statures, about the Pincian or outside the Porta del Popolo, while Severn was working among the ruins.
The mitigation of Keats’s sufferings lasted for some five weeks, and filled the anxious heart of Severn with hope. Nevertheless he could not but be aware of the deep-seated dejection in his friend which found expression now and again in word or act, as when he began reading a volume of Alfieri, but dropped it at the lines, too sadly applicable to himself:—
Misera me! sollievo a me non resta
Altro che ‘l pianto, ed il pianto è delitto.
I have an habitual feeling of my real life having passed, and that I am leading a posthumous existence. God knows how it would have been—but it appears to me—however, I will not speak of that subject. I must have been at Bedhampton nearly at the time you were writing to me from Chichester—how unfortunate—and to pass on the river too! There was my star predominant! I cannot answer anything in your letter, which followed me from Naples to Rome, because I am afraid to look it over again. I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any handwriting of a friend I love so much as I do you. Yet I ride the little horse, and, at my worst, even in quarantine, summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life. There is one thought enough to kill me; I have been well, healthy, alert, etc., walking with her, and now the knowledge of contrast, feeling for light and shade, all that information (primitive sense) necessary for a poem, are great enemies to the recovery of the stomach. There, you rogue, I put you to the torture; but you must bring your philosophy to bear, as I do mine, really, or how should I be able to live? Dr Clark is very attentive to me; he says there is very little the matter with my lungs, but my stomach, he says, is very bad. I am well disappointed in hearing good news from George, for it runs in my head we shall all die young. I have not written to Reynolds yet, which he must think neglectful; being anxious to send him a good account of my health, I have delayed it from week to week. If I recover, I will do all in my power to correct the mistakes made during sickness; and if I should not, all my faults will be forgiven. Severn is very well, though he leads so dull a life with me. Remember me to all friends, and tell Haslam I should not have left London without taking leave of him, but from being so low in body and mind. Write to George as soon as you receive this, and tell him how I am, as far as you can guess; and also a note to my sister—who walks about my imagination like a ghost—she is so like Tom. I can scarcely bid you good-bye, even in a letter. I always make an awkward bow.Notwithstanding signs like this, his mood was on the whole more placid. Severn had hired a piano for their lodgings, and the patient often allowed himself to be soothed with music. His thoughts even turned towards verse, and he again meditated and spoke of his proposed poem on the subject of Sabrina. Severn began to believe he would get well, and on November 30 Keats himself wrote to Brown in a strain far from cheerful, indeed, but much less desperate than before.
God bless you!
But on the glimmering hopes of these first weeks at Rome there suddenly followed despair. On Dec. 10, ‘when he was going on in good spirits, quite merrily,’ says Severn, came a relapse which left no doubt of the issue. Hæmorrhage followed hæmorrhage on successive days, and then came a period of violent fever, with scenes the most piteous and distressing. To put an end to his misery, Keats with agonies of entreaty begged to have the bottle of laudanum which Severn had by his desire bought at Gravesend: and on Severn’s refusal, ‘his tender appeal turned to despair, with all the power of his ardent imagination and bursting heart.’ It was no unmanly fear of pain in Keats, Severn again and again insists, that prompted this appeal, but above all his acute sympathetic sense of the trials which the sequel would bring upon his friend. ‘He explained to me the exact procedure of his gradual dissolution, enumerated my deprivations and toils, and dwelt upon the danger to my life and certainly to my fortune of my continued attendance on him.’ Severn gently holding firm, Keats for a while fiercely refused his friend’s ministrations, until presently the example of that friend’s patience and his own better mind made him ashamed.
From these relapses until the end Severn had no respite from his devoted ministrations. Writing to Mrs Brawne a week after the crisis, he says ‘Not a moment can I be from him. I sit by his bed and read all day, and at night I humour him in all his wanderings. He has just fallen asleep, the first sleep for eight nights, and now from mere exhaustion.’ By degrees the tumult of his soul abated. His sufferings were very great, partly from the nature of the disease itself, partly from the effect of the disastrous lowering and starving treatment at that day employed to combat it. His diet was at one time reduced to one anchovy and a small piece of toast a day, so that he endured cruel pangs of actual hunger. Shunned and neglected as the sick and their companions then were in Italy, the friends had no succour except from the assiduous kindness of Dr and Mrs Clark, with occasional aid from a stranger, Mr Ewing. The devotion and resource of Severn were infinite, and had their reward. Occasionally there came times of delirium or half-delirium, when the dying man would rave wildly of his miseries and his ruined hopes, and of all that he would have done in poetry had life and the fruition of his love been granted him, till his companion was almost exhausted with ‘beating about in the tempest of his mind’; and once and again some fresh remembrance of his betrothed, or the sight of her handwriting in a letter, would pierce him with too intolerable a pang. But generally, after the first days of storm, he lay quiet, with his hand clasped on a white cornelian, one of the little tokens she had given him at starting, while his companion soothed him with reading or music. The virulence of the reviewers, which most of his friends supposed to be what was killing him, was a matter, Severn declares, scarcely ever on his lips or in his mind at all. Gradually he seemed to mend and gather a little strength again, till Severn actually began to dream that he might even yet recover, though he himself would admit no such hope. ‘He says the continued stretch of his imagination has already killed him. He will not hear of his good friends in England, except for what they have done; and this is another load; but of their high hopes of him, his certain success, his experience, he will not hear a word. Then the want of some kind of hope to feed his voracious imagination’—This is from a letter to Mr Taylor which Severn began on Christmas Eve and never finished. On the 11th January, in one conveying to Mrs Brawne the reviving hopes he was beginning on the slenderest grounds to cherish, Severn writes:—
Now he has changed to calmness and quietude, as singular as productive of good, for his mind was most certainly killing him. He has now given up all thoughts, hopes, or even wish for recovery. His mind is in a state of peace from the final leave he has taken of this world and all its future hopes; this has been an immense weight for him to rise from. He remains quiet and submissive under his heavy fate. Now, if anything will recover him, it is this absence of himself. I have perceived for the last three days symptoms of recovery. Dr Clark even thinks so. Nature again revives in him—I mean where art was used before; yesterday he permitted me to carry him from his bedroom to our sitting-room—to put clean things on him—and to talk about my painting to him. This is my good news—don’t think it otherwise, my dear madam, for I have been in such a state of anxiety and discomfiture in this barbarous place, that the least hope of my friend’s recovery is a heaven to me.
For three weeks I have never left him—I have sat up all night—I have read to him nearly all day, and even in the night—I light the fire—make his breakfast, and sometimes am obliged to cook—make his bed, and even sweep the room. I can have these things done, but never at the time when they must and ought to be done—so that you will see my alternative; what enrages me most is making a fire—I blow—blow for an hour—the smoke comes fuming out—my kettle falls over on the burning sticks—no stove—Keats calling me to be with him—the fire catching my hands and the door-bell ringing: all these to one quite unused and not at all capable—with the want of even proper material—come not a little galling. But to my great surprise I am not ill—or even restless—nor have I been all the time; there is nothing but what I will do for him—there is no alternative but what I think and provide myself against—except his death—not the loss of him—I am prepared to bear that—but the inhumanity, the barbarism of these Italians….
O! I would my unfortunate friend had never left your Wentworth Place—for the hopeless advantages of this comfortless Italy. He has many, many times talked over ‘the few happy days at your house, the only time when his mind was at ease.’ I hope still to see him with you again. Farewell, my dear madam. One more thing I must say—poor Keats cannot see any letters, at least he will not—they affect him so much and increase his danger. The two last I repented giving, he made me put them into his box—unread.
The complaint about the barbarity of Rome and of Italian law was due to a warning Severn had received that on the death of his friend every stick and shred of furniture in the house would have to be burnt. Within a few days the last thread of hope was snapped by fresh returns of hæmorrhage and utter prostration, with renewed feverish agitations of the tortured spirit. Writing to Haslam on January the 15th, Severn shows himself almost broken down by the imminence of money difficulties about to add themselves to his other cares:—
Poor Keats has just fallen asleep—I have watched him and read to him—to his very last wink—he has been saying to me ‘Severn I can see under your quiet look—immense twisting and contending—you don’t know what you are reading—you are enduring for me more than I’d have you—O that my last hour was come—what is it puzzles you now—what is it happens—‘I tell him that ‘nothing happens—nothing worries me beyond his seeing—that it has been the dull day.’ Getting from myself to his recovery—and then my painting—and then England—and then—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—perhaps another three weeks may lose me him for ever—this alone would break down the most gallant spirit—I had made sure of his recovery when I set out. I was selfish and thought of his value to me—and made a point of my future success depend on his candor to me—this is not all—I have prepared myself to bear this now—now that I must and should have seen it before—but Torlonias the bankers have refused any more money—the bill is returned unaccepted—‘no effects’ and I tomorrow must—aye must—pay the last solitary crown for this cursed lodging place—yet more should our unfortunate friend die—all the furniture will be burnt—bed sheets—curtains and even the walls must be scraped—and these devils will come upon me for £100 or £150—the making good—but above all this noble fellow lying on the bed is dying in horror—no kind hope smoothing down his suffering—no philosophy—no religion to support him—yet with all the most gnawing desire for it—yet without the possibility of receiving it….
Now Haslam what do you think of my situation—for I know not what may come with tomorrow—I am hedg’d in every way that you look at me—if I could leave Keats for a while every day I could soon raise money by my face painting—but he will not let me out of his sight—he cannot bear the face of a stranger—he has made me go out twice and leave him solus. I’d rather cut my tongue out than tell him that money I must get—that would kill him at a word—I will not do anything that may add to his misery—for I have tried on every point to leave for a few hours in the day but he wont unless he is left alone—this won’t do—nor shall not for another minute whilst he is John Keats.
Yet will I not bend down under these—I will not give myself a jot of credit unless I stand firm—and will too—you’d be rejoiced to see how I am kept up—not a flinch yet—I read, cook, make the beds—and do all the menial offices—for no soul comes near Keats except the doctor and myself—yet I do all this with a cheerful heart—for I thank God my little but honest religion stays me up all through these trials. I’ll pray to God tonight that He may look down with mercy on my poor friend and myself. I feel no dread of what more I am to bear but look to it with confidence.