Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
Sometime around four in the afternoon, Friday, February 23, 1821, Severn, now part-time painter, full-time nurse, lifted Keats once again from what seemed like drowning. The mild Roman winter had turned early toward a Roman spring. Flower vendors, in greater numbers, had started business in the piazza, and if the windows had been opened even a little, you could have easily heard their hawking above the street noise. But the windows were closed. Keats had to be lifted up because the coughing and “clay-like expectoration” were coming back—“in large quantities,” Severn later said. Yet because the night sweats had also returned, Keats asked Severn not to stay too close. “Don’t breathe on me, it comes like ice.” Since the last heavy hemorrhaging, more than a month ago, the death process had moved with new speed, “a ghastly wasting away”: first the coughing of “a fawn coloured mixture” of blood and phlegm, then diarrhea, then laxity and gripping of the bowels, then food—warm milk and pudding—then the cycle starting over again, with the sweats lasting usually until dawn. The waste itself was mucus, nothing solid, though in the struggle not to go under, the expectorations seemed to thicken and boil in the throat. This is what was happening now, and would happen, off and on, for another six, seven hours. Between his bouts with suffocation, Keats slept or drifted, only to awake still alive, between with pain. Then that night, at eleven o’clock, a prompt year after the very first hemorrhage and near suffocation, Keats let the mess of blood be swallowed and let the pain go. “His eyes looked upon me with extreme sensibility but without pain—at 11 he died in my arms.” Some fifty-eight years later, when he himself was dying in Rome, Severn’s last thoughts returned to this moment and to yet a new picture of Keats he wanted to paint: “Keats lying calm in death, and a beautiful spirit bending over him.” In the end, though, the deathbed drawing would, in the workings-out of time, have to suffice, with Severn as presiding artist-angel, who, in the middle of the night, with barely a candle to see by, would outdo himself in rendering the fatigue and darkness haunting the figure of Keats, whose exposed head and matted hair are saturated, as if having emerged from immersion.
Severn’s biographer and chief apologist, William Sharp, concludes that “throughout life Severn was a strange mixture of childlike vanity, genuine humility, high aims and ambitious efforts, with accomplishment often far short.” He adds that, at the same time, “strangely enough, he was conscious of less fear, of a self-possessed calm, whenever the peril of death was actually imminent.” And while James Clark, Keats’s Roman doctor, thought Severn “not the best suited for his companion”—too lightweight, too excitable, too—in Ruskin’s fine phrase for Severn—“daintily sentimental”—Severn proved, in spite of his highly strung nature, to be a first-rate nurse, if not a first-rate artist. In the four short months between leaving England, arriving in Italy, setting up house in Rome, and ministering to the daily graphic needs of a sick and dying man, Severn grew in the same role Keats himself had filled in his service to his brother Tom, just three years earlier. Sharp suggests two seminal experiences behind Severn’s relative calm in confronting death, perhaps the calm that permitted Severn the clarity to really see Keats the night of the deathbed sketch. First, when Severn was eight years old, he had “gone with a schoolmate named Cole to bathe in some water-filled gravel-pits, and in one of them his companion ventured beyond his depth and was drowned. There was no one near at the time, so the child had to watch his comrade perish, and then to make his way home, carrying the drowned boy’s clothes, and break the news to Mrs. Cole.”
The second experience, at age twenty-one, involves William Haslam, friend to both Keats and Severn, and the friend who talks the young obscure painter into accompanying the young obscure poet on the long voyage to Rome. The men went to the theater together:
When Severn . . . and Haslam reached the doors an hour before the time of opening, the crowd was already large: ere long it became so great that the Haymarket was almost blocked by it. The entrance to the pit was through a small door and along a narrow passage. In the struggle which ensued upon the opening of the doors Severn was separated from his friend and soon afterwards stumbled and fell, with the result that he was speedily trampled into unconsciousness and, indeed, escaped death by little short of a miracle. At last, as the crowd thinned, some one noticed that an unfortunate was being done to death, if not already dead, and gave the alarm. The unconscious body (“thin as a skeleton almost, to start with, and now flattened out like a pancake”) was uplifted and conveyed over the playgoers’ heads to the front of the pit, where there was less risk of suffocation.
Severn, in those days, was an inveterate theatergoer and was determined—short of death—not to miss the actress Sarah Siddons playing Queen Katherine in Henry the Eighth. Thus he “watched the performance in a dazed fashion till Mrs. Siddons appeared, when ‘her impressive demeanour and magical dignity and pathos’ so affected nerves already feverishly excited that he sat as one entranced and conscious of some new and vital influence in his life.” These words referencing awe could be equally applied to Severn’s attitude toward Keats, an attitude that both focuses and blurs Severn’s vision of his friend over the years, making him sometimes a reliable, sometimes an unreliable narrator, which places him, as a witness and memoirist of Keats, between his commitment as a nurse and his middling talent as an artist.
As is obvious in his classic deathbed portrait of Keats, Severn is most trustworthy on the spot, in the living moment. In a fragment of a letter never sent to Keats’s publisher, John Taylor, for instance—dated the day before Christmas, 1820—Severn writes that
Keats is much changed somewhat for the worse—at least his mind has much, very much—and this leaves his state much the same and quite as hopeless. Yet the blood has ceased to come; his digestion is better, and but for a cough he must be improving, that is, as respects his body. But the fatal prospect of consumption hangs before his mind’s eye, and turns everything to despair and wretchedness. He will not hear a word about living—nay, I seem to lose his confidence by trying to give him this hope, for his knowledge of internal anatomy enables him to judge of every change accurately, and adds largely to his torture. He will not think his future prospects favourable. 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 hope to feed his voracious imagination—.
This has a ring of accuracy that Severn’s later, memoir prose never quite achieves; it rides the nerve of an intensity that cannot be resurrected, only imitated or reinvented. The insight that Keats’s singular power of imagination—so gifted in health, so brilliant in dire anticipation (“When I have fears that I may cease to be”)—has turned against him, in fact, “has already killed him,” represents Severn writing and thinking at his best. You can hear in his words his sense of anxiety and compassion, fear and resignation, fantasy and failure. And Keats still has two more months in which to die even further, with Severn attending, commenting, and, occasionally, painting.
Compare this acumen to Severn’s variable memory—one example from the “Reminiscences,” the other from his 1863 Atlantic Monthly article “On the Vicissitudes of Keats’s Fame.”
Poor Keats was ordered to Italy to save his life, threatened by misfortune and consumption. He was going alone, in a merchant-ship, to Naples, and the voyage was all arranged, and he was to sail next day. Haslam said to me, “Severn, why should you not go?” I answered, “Why should I not?” He then said, “How long would it take you to get ready?” “If I can have six hours,” I said, “in that time I’ll be ready.” Straight I went to Sir Thomas Lawrence, who gave me a letter to Canova, and another to a German artist. On my way I went to my dear angel-mother, who was not taken by surprise, but approved, and undertook to get my trunk ready so that I might depart at daylight. During the evening and night I managed to settle all my affairs, and with a solitary £25, fortunately paid me for a miniature of a lady in a white satin bonnet and feathers, I returned to my father’s house just after midnight, to take farewell of my dear family, from whom I had never till then been (definitely) separated.
* * *
Haslam said to me, “As nothing can save Keats but going to Italy, why should you not try to go with him, for otherwise he must go alone, and we shall never hear anything of him if he dies. Will you go?” I answered, “I’ll go.” “But you’ll be long getting ready,” he added; “Keats is actually now preparing. When would you be ready?” “In three or four days,” I replied, “all will set about it this very moment.”
Besides the confusion concerning the amount of time Severn will need to prepare for a journey almost impossible to prepare for, including forgetting his passport, he neglects to mention, at this juncture, that “this determination of mine was almost a death-blow to my poor dear father, who reasoned with me in every way as to the rashness of the step, and pointed out that by thus taking matters into my own hands I might even forfeit my chance of gaining the Academy pension. But I had no ear to his arguments, and as I had certainly the virtue of the donkey—obstinacy—in the highest degree, so my plan went on preparing.” This is a pattern that will obtain until the end of Severn’s life: on the one hand, a talent for the moment; on the other, a need to transform its memory. Only in a letter, much later, does he own up to how really difficult it was to “separate” from his family. “My poor father, in his abstraction, stood in the doorway, and when I attempted to pass him he struck me down to the ground. . . . This made a tragic scene . . . this blow like the act of madness. My dear mother interposed, as also my sister and friends, to protect me. Tom, then nineteen years old and strong, held my father against the door.” Severn had a brother Tom as well, nineteen, but of exceptional health.
On the day before Keats’s death and the day after, Severn writes to Haslam, then Brown, with, essentially, the same message: “My spirits, my intellect, and my health are breaking down”; “I am broken down beyond my strength.” Since that gray morning when they boarded the Maria Crowther, on September 17, 1820, until now, February 23, 1821, Severn had been rarely, almost never, out of Keats’s presence. “I can get no one to change with me—no one to relieve me,” he lamented, and his lament had been close to becoming a self-elegy. From a simple, early friendship, begun in the autumn of 1816, to an absolute connection lasting these last six months, the relationship had become symbiotic, mutually close but not necessarily mutually beneficial. In spite of his apparent iron immunity to consumption, Severn had been incrementally worn down, emotionally, physically, and in every other way he could think of. The final days, with their slow-wheel inevitability, were especially heavy.
At times during his last days he made me go see the place where he was to be buried, and he expressed pleasure at my description of the locality of the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, about the grass and the many flowers, particularly the innumberable violets, also about a flock of goats and sheep and a young shepherd—all these intensely interested him. Violets were his favourite flowers, and he joyed to hear how they overspread the graves. He assured me “that he already seemed to feel the flowers growing over him.” . . . From time to time he gave me all his directions as to what he wanted done after his death. It was in the same sad hour when he told me with greater agitation than he had shown on any other subject, to put the letter which had just come from Miss Brawne (which he was unable to bring himself to read, or even to open), with any other that should arrive too late to reach him in life, inside his winding-sheet on his heart—it was then, also, that he asked that I should see cut upon his gravestone as sole inscription, not his name, but simply “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
This eloquent excerpt, which Sharp calls “a memorable passage,” is from yet another unpublished series of notes that Severn filed under “Recollections.” It may be uncharacteristic in flow and focus, but it is suggestive of the author’s hold on his material granted enough intensity. Sharp’s “biography” of Severn is based on letters and several loose manuscripts—Incidents from My Life (1858), On the Adversities of Keats’s Fame (1861), On the Vicissitudes of Keats’s Fame (1863), Adonais . . . with notes by Joseph Severn (1873), and My Tedious Life (1873)—all of which amount to recollections and reminiscences. Except for Vicissitudes, a rewritten version of Adversities, the thrust of Severn’s prose is journal-like, epistolary, and depending on the state of his memory at the time, episodic, inconsistent, sometimes saccharine. Late in life he even tried fiction—a novel and some stories. Like his painting, his prose is mediocre; like his memory, his grip on the past often tenuous. Keats, in all areas of his life, becomes his redeeming subject, his inspirer. “I owe almost everything to him, my best friends as well as my artistic prosperity, my general happiness as well as my best inspirations.” This comment comes from the perspective of time and realization. But for now an almost speechless Severn had to survive Keats’s death, its immediate aftermath, and the fallout of the stress of the constancy of sickness and difficulty in dealing with a patient at the edge. How many times, in his more lucid moments, had Keats himself expressed his empathy for Severn—“‘What trouble and Danger have you got into for me—now you must be firm for it will not last long.’” Just being a witness was no less painful. “Each day he would look up in the doctor’s face to discover how long he should live—he would say—‘How long will this posthumous life of mine last’—and that look was more than we could ever bear—the extreme brightness of his eyes with his poor pallid face—were not earthly.”
It would take Severn weeks to come back to even a semblance of himself. And in the days, the hours, right after Keats’s death, he, too, had to be nursed. “The first thing Dr. Clark did when he arrived too late to see Keats again in life was to feel my pulse, to command me to keep perfectly quiet, and to order an English nurse to take charge of the sick-room.” It was a full weekend. On Saturday afternoon, Gheradi, Canova’s mask-maker, cast molds of one of Keats’s hands, feet, and the skeletal face: thin, wasted extremities. On Sunday, Dr. Clark, with the help of a friend, Dr. Luby, performed a limited autopsy, enough that Clark could say that this was the worst case of consumption in his experience. Keats’s lungs were “completely destroyed,” the whole chamber of the thorax black. No one could imagine how Keats had lasted this long. “O! I can feel the cold earth upon me,” he had said, quietly, more than once. And in the coffin confines of the sickroom/bedroom in which the autopsy had taken place, his senses had not let him down. Proportionally, the room was exactly like a grave. On Monday, February 26, in the predawn dark, a funeral procession consisting of Clark; Luby; Richard Westmacott, an English sculptor; a Reverend Wolff, who was to preside; William Ewing, an artist friend who had actually had to help Severn get dressed; and, of course, Severn himself, wound its way south the several miles to the so-called Protestant Cemetery, or the Testaccio Cemetery, or “Cimitero Acattolico,” depending. There were about the same number of mourners as there had been well-wishers when Keats and Severn had departed from Gravesend, six months before. Severn was “deeply affected by this last closing scene, particularly as I was the only personal friend present from among the little band of devoted friends whom the poet had left behind in England.” By agreement, the ceremony lasted moments, since non-Catholics (acattolici) were not to be buried in sunlight, though by the time the minimally Christian formalities had been observed, the sun was well risen.
Sheep and goats, daisies and violets—that was about as much religion as Keats could abide. So to that extent he got his wish. He was laid to rest in what was referred to then as the Meadows of the Roman People: large, open fields partly framed by the ruins of the old Aurelian Wall and the Pyramid of Cestius, as far from the houses and churches of the faithful as one could get and still be “in” Rome. The anti-Catholic cemetery—a small section of the greater grounds—was likely no less pagan than the pastures. Keats was the 51st entry in the Register of Burials: “John Keats, English Poet, Died the 24th February 1821, Buried the 25th ditto in the morning at 15 o’clock.” The Romans had their own way of keeping time, ending the day at six p.m. Just a few feet away lay another lost soul, Shelley’s young son William, who the year before had succumbed to malaria, and whose body would be moved in two short years to join the ashes of his father. Also nearby, there was another Englishman, an Oxford graduate named Langton, who in 1738 became the first person buried in the cemetery. He was, like Keats, twenty-five when he died. Green pastures, sheep in the meadows were just about the limit of the fulfillment of Keats’s wishes for his “posthumous existence.” His intended, ironic epitaph, an impulse of both anger and calculation, as if in challenge to the poetry gods, soon became the postmortem subject of discussion, division, and, finally, compromise among friends within the broken Keats circle. Like so much of his original writing, Keats probably synthesized “writ in water” from more than one source, primarily Beaumont and Fletcher’s Philaster, act 5, scene 3, “all your better deeds / Shall be in water writ.” Lying, those last days, in the coffin confinement of his narrow sickroom, staring up at the floral designs on the ceiling and listening to the alien street noise on the Spanish Steps and, in the middle of the night, the undersong of the Bernini fountain, he must have felt as far as possible from anything he knew and valued; certainly as far as possible from his sense of his own and his work’s worth. He had feared, most of all, that he would leave nothing of importance behind, nothing worth remembering, for his friends. Yet “here lies one whose name was writ in water” does not mean that the unnamed name will always be so written. Was is the operative verb. And the fact that Keats did not want his name to appear on the tombstone only adds interest to the mystery of who might be buried so anonymously. The unnamed is, after all, written in stone, not water. If the epitaph resides somewhere between pathos and tragicus, it is also poetry. He feared he had failed, his body brought down by disease, his poems belittled by Tory critics. But he also knew something. Trust the writing.
In that immediate, vulnerable, shadowy time, that extremely emotional, difficult phase we sometimes call the aftermath—in the aftermath of his death, not unlike the fragility of an afterbirth, Keats’s reputation, such as it was, seemed indeed to have been written in water, if not blood. “There were few Englishmen at Rome who knew Keats’s works, and I could scarcely persuade any one to make the effort to read them, such was the prejudice against him as a poet. . . . ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water, and his works in milk and water’—this I was condemned to hear for years repeated, as though it had been a pasquinade.” This social ridicule, Severn would find, would fade with time, particularly since the mocking words were written on air. Less ephemeral, however, were the words added to the belated tombstone by Brown, the 500 lines created by Shelley in Adonais, the words and lines of derision and condescension penned by Byron, Hazlitt, and De Quincey, and the absent words of all the friends, at least a half dozen, who were going to write—while the fire was still fire—Keats’s biography: who were going to but for one good reason or another never got around to it. This aftermath lasted for years, then decades, and threatened to become indelible in 1845, when John Taylor, who had been not only Keats’s publisher but his benefactor in the worst of times, sold the copyright to the poems and unpublished manuscripts for next to nothing, underscoring the fact that the poet’s work was, effectively, out of print in England.
Keats had written, “But, when I am consumed in the fire, / Give me knew Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.” His funeral was hardly history before Italian authorities were in his bedroom stripping the walls, confiscating personal property, and removing furniture, all to be piled in the piazza and burned. The Italians, unlike the English, believed in the communicability of consumption, even if they were not exactly sure of what it was and how it was caused. So right outside the windows from which Keats had thrown an inedible supper, his bed, chairs, and a few borrowed books, whatever, were all purged. Severn had managed to convince the landlady, Signora Angeletti, that Keats had never slept nor spent significant time in any of the other rooms, which saved a rented pianoforte as well as Severn’s painting supplies. “Those brutal Italians have nearly done their monstrous business. They have burned the furniture—they have done their meetings—and I believe, at least hope, no more of these cursed cruelties will take place. They have racked me in my most painful moments.” No doubt, had Keats’s body been among the rented paraphernalia, he, too, would have been purged, burned like paper and wood, or like Shelley’s body, on the beach at Viareggio. And had he written anything, letters or parts of a poem, in his posthumous Italian hours, they would have also likely gone up in flame. Yeats says that poetry is wasted breath. Perhaps. But some words, because of their timing and harmful self-serving associations, are noncombustible, words like Brown’s epitaph for Keats, Shelley’s elegy for Keats, and the words of the many who wanted him to die as a weakling. These words were unburnable and became essential to the lore that is the story of Keats’s unique immortality. Like his writing, they would take on their own posterity.
With the rooms at 26 Piazza di Spagna no longer available to him—because of both their connection to sickness and their memory of Keats—Severn moved around the corner to 18 Via di San Isidoro, which meant that he was still very much a part of the English colony in Rome. In no time, through introductions by William Ewing and Ewing’s friend Seymour Kirkup, both of whom had attended the funeral, he became a charmed member of the English community as well. “The death of Keats, although he was unknown, and my devoted friendship, had become a kind of passport to the English in Rome . . . a ‘treasure-trove’ to me as a young artist, invaluable, as it was my introduction to my future patrons.” Among the mix of his emotions, Severn felt isolated from what he knew and loved—Keats, after all, had been his life, as it were, for the last half year, among strangers in a strange place—and, in addition, he was anxious about his submission—The Death of Alcibiades—to the Royal Academy for its traveling fellowship, money he desperately needed in the wake of all that had happened so far from home. Becoming accepted in the whirl of the Roman English social circle could not, financially or emotionally, compensate for a successful career as an artist, however much such acceptance might help. He was not even sure if his submitted painting—sent by boat from Rome to London—had survived the sea voyage. And true, on arrival, it was misplaced for awhile. Spring had passed, and on good advice, Severn decided to leave Rome and its evil summer air and spend the hot months in the hills. At the end of July, still 1821, he writes to Brown that with “the approach of the hot and dangerous weather I shall be obliged to go away, and that without placing a stone on poor Keats’s grave. All his papers I have sent you, packed safely in a box of divers things … they will arrive in London about August or September. Mr. Taylor has written me of his intention to write some remembrance of our Keats.”
This letter, along with the publication in June of Adonais, marks the beginning of the conflict and a falling-out of friends that would obscure and delay a true picture or accurate portrait of a poet unknown outside their small, imperfect circle. John Taylor, for one, as Keats’s publisher and owner of his copyright, recognized that this moment, in the immediate aftermath of the death, was the time to begin to find the larger audience Keats’s work deserved; the fact that he failed on every count to turn his opinion into action would have a lot to do with his surrendering of his ties to Keats’s poetry and reputation more than twenty-five years later. In his August answer to Severn’s letter of the month before, Taylor writes:
I find by your letter to Mr. Haslam that you have designed a tomb in the form of a Grecian altar, with a lyre, &c. This is said to be executing, I think, by some English sculptor, but you want an inscription. I can conceive none better that our poor friend’s melancholy sentiment, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” It is very simple and affecting, and tells so much of the story that none need be told. Neither name nor date is requisite. These will be given in his life by his biographer. So, unless something else is determined on, let this line stand alone. I foresee that it will be as clear an indication to posterity as the plainest, everyday inscription that one may find in Westminster Abbey.
Thus in Taylor’s eyes, Keats was destined to be among the English poets in Westminster Abbey willy-nilly; the process of recognition required only the right start. And he understood, perfectly, the poetry in Keats’s deathbed desire to appear poignant and anonymous on his gravestone. In Taylor’s mind, the implicit mystery of the singular inscription was the first step in building the biography and immortality of Keats. The idea of the broken-stringed lyre would be Severn’s contribution, based, he claimed, on a conversation he had with the poet back in their waning days in Hampstead when Keats began to be aware of how absolutely ill he was. Keats, according to Severn, had requested that “a Greek lyre with four strings broken” be cut into his stone. Severn had obliged by making a sketch of the image in Brown’s copy of Endymion.
Severn, however, did not send Keats’s effects to his publisher; he sent them to Brown, who felt that Taylor was a “mere bookseller” who comprehended neither Keats nor his poetry. Furthermore, when “I mentioned to you my fears about Mr. Taylor’s memoir”—this from a late summer letter in the same time frame from Brown to Severn—“I omitted to make known the original cause of those fears. It was this. Immediately on receipt of your letter announcing poor Keats’s death, almost in the same newspapers where there was notice of his death, even before Mrs. Brawne’s family and myself had got our mourning, in those very newspapers was advertised ‘speedily will be published, a biographical memoir of the late John Keats, &c.’ and I, among others, was applied to by Reynolds to collect with all haste, papers, letters, and so on, to assist Mr. Taylor.” Brown’s proprietary passion regarding Keats had, doubtless, several sources, and would show itself again and again for the rest of his life. But for the nonce, Taylor—and those associated with Taylor, such as John Hamilton Reynolds, Keats’s first poet friend and the young man who, remarkably enough, first introduced Brown to Keats—was the target. “This indecent bustle over (as it were) the newly covered grave of my dear friend shocked me excessively. I told Mr. Taylor it looked as if his friends had been collecting information about his life in expectation of his death. This, indeed, was the fact. . . . I will not consent to be a party in a bookseller’s job.”
This was, indeed, the fact: that Keats the poet, in his publisher’s view, needed to be tended to immediately in order to place his work before a possible public and before just any memoir of his life, “the biography,” could replace the poetry. Taylor had probably planned to republish the poems and add new ones as the centerpiece of the life, assuming the cooperation of Brown, Severn, and George Keats. Taylor was hardly alone in his announced intention. Almost every friend or acquaintance within the Keats circle would, sooner or later, propose a Keatsian monograph, memoir, or biography—including Charles Cowden-Clarke, Keats’s great boyhood friend; Charles Dilke, his sometime neighbor and supporter; Reynolds himself, in recognition of a colleague; Leigh Hunt, Keats’s early mentor; Richard Woodhouse, correspondent and keeper of much valuable “Keatsiana”; George Keats, surviving brother and legal heir to Keats’s papers; Charles Brown, intimate and advisor, who actually, eventually, got around to writing an abortive memoir; and Joseph Severn, whose various autobiography is the single record of Keats’s last days. Yet before the life of Keats could be seriously considered and the poetry reevaluated, Brown felt—and following the lead, so did Severn—that it was his death that now needed tending, namely the question of his epitaph. The thought that Keats should lie under a line of such annihilating, apparently despairing farewell was more than Brown could bear. And besides, there was no accounting, no blame assigned, no cause designated for the death of Keats. It was a silent stone. What bothered Severn was the anonymity on the face of what should have shone with identity. But Brown, like Shelley, had an affection for conspiracy, which too often cast them both in the role of the didact. Although Brown’s diagnosis—that Keats’s “disease is of the mind”—emphasized a psychosomatic source and Shelley’s diagnosis—that “agitation . . . ended in the rupture of a blood-vessel in the lungs”—emphasized a more “medical” source, both agreed that “savage criticism . . . produced the most violent effect on his susceptible mind.” Hence, he must not have been in his right mind when he told Severn what he wanted his tombstone to say, and only say. Otherwise it looked as if Lockhart and Crocker, of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and Quarterly Review, respectively, the most prominent attackers of Keats, had won a posthumous victory in addition to killing him outright. For their different political and personal reasons, neither Brown nor Shelley could let such a perceived victory stand.
Nevertheless, in the early fall of 1821, a full six months following Keats’s funeral, Severn comments in a letter to Brown, “Why how singular that none of you can lament out his Epitaph. I agree with you that more should be written than the line he desired.” Brown, though, “can do nothing for the epitaph to my own satisfaction.” “Every minute,” he responds, he is “expecting … a knock by Hunt at the door with an epitaph for Keats.” He adds that he likes Severn’s idea “of the lyre with broken strings.” On the other hand, “Mr. Taylor sets his face against that, and against any words except what Keats himself desired to be put on his tombstone.” Then Brown says a remarkable thing: “an epitaph must necessarily be considered as the act of the deceased’s friends and not of the deceased himself,” and, warming to this subject, that “in obedience to his will, I would have his own words engraved there, and not his name, letting the stranger read the cause of his friend’s placing such words as ‘Here lies one, &c.,’ somewhat in the following manner:—‘This grave contains all that was mortal of a young English poet, who, on his death-bed, in bitter anguish at the neglect of his countrymen, desired these words to be engraven on his tomb-stone: HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER.’” So in the course of writing back to Severn, Brown invents, with much hesitation, a draft of an inscription that with some modification will become not only regretted but immortal. Brown concludes that he finds “it a difficult subject,” this epitaph, and that if there is any objection, he will withdraw. Severn, who has more than once excused himself as being “not a master of words to show what I feel or think,” embraces Brown’s suggestion and sets about trying to raise funds for the actual headstone itself as well as the required sculpting of figures and lettering, a process that will take up to two years from the death date to complete. Meanwhile, in a January 21, 1823, letter to Brown, who has well since moved, along with Hunt, to Italy, Severn begins with the news that he has “just returned from the Funeral of poor Shelley,” whose “ashes were not permitted to be placed in the Old Ground where his Child lay, so that we were driven to the alternative of the new place, and of disinterring the Bones of the Child and placing them together”—the “new place” being but a stone’s throw from Keats’s grave, “which is not yet done.”
The long-suffering four-foot marble tombstone, the top half of which is the relief of a four-stringed lyre, was finally set in the winter of 1823. It is supposed to resemble a Greek altar, rectilinear in dimension, cut, at its height, into an arc. The bottom half elaborates Brown’s words a bit, in a combination of script and bold caps:
contains all that was Mortal
YOUNG ENGLISH POET
on his Death Bed
in the Bitterness of His Heart
at the Malicious Power of his Enemies
these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone
“Here lies One
Whose Name was writ in Water”
Feb 24th 1821
The fact that Keats’s name is missing must have offered Brown a certain license to elevate his rhetoric to an implicit counterattack. The politics of the epitaph is just generic enough to cover the liberal sentiments of many. It is, basically, an anti-Tory epitaph and almost totally obscures Keats’s evocative intentions. Brown sensed from the beginning the difficulty of the task of deciding who should have the last word and what it should be. He and Severn wrote back and forth continually on the subject, particularly after Brown had moved to Italy and was pushing Severn to finish the project. “If not too late pray reflect a little more on the inscription for our Keats. Remember his dying request that his name should not be on his tombstone, and that the words ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ should be. I thought you liked my inscription, for you said so. All his friends, Hunt, Richards, Dilke, and every one I showed it to, were greatly pleased with it. You seem to imagine it does not honour him enough, but, to our minds, it says more in praise than if his name were mentioned.” Keats’s missing name was what bothered Severn most.
There is a great deal going on at this moment, at least from Severn’s point of view. In addition to trying to raise Keats’s stone, let alone decide what should be on it, Severn has become involved in the monument business generally. “There is a mad chap come here, whose name is Trelawny. I do not know what to make of him. . . . He comes as a friend of Shelley, great, glowing, and rich in romance. Of course I showed all my paint-pot politeness to him, to the very brim—assisted him to remove the ashes of Shelley to a spot where he himself (when this world has done with his body) will lie. He wished me to think, myself, and consult my friends about a monument to Shelley. The situation is beautiful, and one and all thought a little basso-relievo would be the best taste. I was telling him the subject I had proposed for Keats, and he was struck with the propriety of it for Shelley.” The subject proposed for Keats was a “little Monument . . . more worthy him than ours, to be placed (if it is thought better) in Hampstead Church,” a notion dismissed by Brown because, in 1823, Keats’s “fame is not sufficiently general . . . his name is unknown to the multitude. Therefore I think that proper to his name being somewhat more celebrated, a monument to his memory might even retard it, and might provoke ill-nature, and (shall I say?) ridicule. When I quitted England his words were still unsaleable.” Severn’s notion for the English monument is Severn standard issue for the sentimentality that will follow in the posthumous portraits: “a Basso-relievo of ‘Our Keats sitting, habited in a simple Greek Costume—he has half strung his Lyre, when the Fates seize him. One arrests his arm, another cuts the thread, and the third pronounces his Fate.’”
Keats’s fate. What a curious phrase. Severn’s interim fate will be to remain in Rome for the next eighteen years, establishing himself as an artist, a leader in the English community, a husband and father, and, most of all, a friend of Keats. “Certainly I gained more from poor Keats, who is dead and gone, than from any other source.” He will continue to press for a Keatsian monument, but by 1830, the venue, not surprisingly, will have changed. “Now I have thought a good deal of it, and am going to propose that we erect a monument to his memory here in Rome. . . . I have a subject in my mind for the Basso Rilievo, which I think I once mentioned to you before”—the correspondent is, again, Brown. “It is Keats sitting with his half-strung lyre—the three Fates arrest him—one catches his arm—another cuts the thread—and the third pronounces his end. This would make a beautiful Basso Rilievo, and the gravestone is so unworthy him, and so absurd (as all people say), and as the spot is so beautiful, I hope you will agree to it.” In seven years, Severn’s description of his sculpture idea has remained doggedly identical, suggesting just how focused he could be when the need, in his mind, was imperative. Playing the role of Keats’s nurse, as a much younger man, the need was no less focused. But he understands now, as will Brown, who later refers to the gravestone inscription as “a sort of profanation,” that the words over Keats’s head are a mistake, and that he and Brown are responsible. No wonder he is so committed to a monument alternative, stone against stone, so to speak. The sad part is that Severn’s new idea is worse than the present one, the old idea, since it softens into dream light the honesty and simplicity called for. Early on, in the weeks and months right after the death, Severn was in the habit of making the trip out to the Pyramid of Cestius to spend time at the grave. “I liked the loneliness, as I had so much to commune with myself as regards the future. Among many visits I made to Keats’s grave at Monte Testaccio was one of a very striking nature. In the twilight of the full moon I found a young Italian asleep, his head resting against the gravestone, his dog and his flock of sheep about him, with the full moon rising beyond the Pyramid of Caius Cestius. One long moonbeam stole past the Pyramid and illumined the outline of the young shepherd’s face, and to my eye realized the story of Endymion.” This is “a beautiful Basso Rilievo” in a different guise.
Fearing, perhaps, the fantasy—or fancy—of such a scene, Keats, from the start, tried to place perspective on Endymion by labeling it “a test of Invention.” For him it was a “trial . . . of 4000 lines of one bare circumstance,” to be filled with romance and poetry. It was also an assignment Hunt had made for a competition between Keats and Shelley, a competition that Shelley won by two months with The Revolt of Islam, a long, long poem that, unlike Keats’s Endymion, is seldom paid attention to. Severn, in his invoking of the shepherd, is anticipating the romantic postures of illustration the Pre-Raphaelites will invest in twenty-five years down the road. For him, however, the moment is neither fancy nor fiction; it is real, and no less real than his allegorizing projections of monuments for a beloved Keats—hyped attempts at stays against Keats’s oblivion. Luckily, Severn’s hopes for marble and gilded monuments did not come to life, though, seemingly in no time, Shelley’s “powerful rhyme” in some ninety Spenserian stanzas did. In direct contradistinction to the hesitations and delays regarding the headstone and the decades-long squabbles over whom and what regarding the biography, Shelley’s pastoral elegy for Keats—a warm pastoral, indeed—was written in three months in the spring after the death and published in midsummer. You could say that Shelley began the poem almost upon hearing of Keats’s passing, since it is probable the news did not reach him until March and he began writing in April.
Adonais is a tour de force, no doubt, comparable to Milton’s Lycidas, which it is often placed beside. Its material antecedents go back to the Hellenic laments of Bion and Moschus; its formal and floral antecedents borrow from Spenser and Milton. It moves within a sequence of concentric circles, returning, again and again, to the speaker’s imploration of a shared grief for a young poet lost, nipped in the bud, as it were, not unlike Thomas Chatterton, to whom Keats had dedicated Endymion—thus another circle of connection. The “bud,” the flower analogy, is only one of the ultimate errors the poem subscribes to and perpetuates. By the sixth stanza, Keats has become “Like a pale flower by some sad maiden cherished,” a line that unintentionally paraphrases the “palely loitering” knight-at-arms whom la belle dame sans merci “cherishes.” Or is it the youth who “grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies” in “Ode to a Nightingale”? The point is that in lifting Keats to the status of Adonais, Shelley genericizes him as a “delicate and fragile . . . young flower . . . blighted in the bud,” as he writes in his preface to the poem. In other moments, Keats lies “in dewy sleep” or turns into a “herd-abandoned deer struck by the hunter’s dart.” Or else he “is a portion of the loveliness / Which once he made more lovely,” a “frail Form, / A phantom among men; companionless / As the last cloud of an expiring storm.” Or “His head was bound with pansies overblown.” And so forth. Adonais, intentionally or otherwise, makes of Keats a victim, the poet under pressure, pursued by Eumenides-like enemies and finally done in. Inevitably, Keats, as Adonais and as persecuted figure in the poem, becomes a mask for Shelley himself, expatriated and isolated in Italy. The last fifteen or so stanzas—by far the best and most disciplined writing—seem in fact to absorb Keats into a larger Shelleyan subject, the mortality of poetry itself, the grave of which, as well as the Eternal City, is Rome. By the last stanza, the one most quoted, Shelley is predicating his own death, “Far from shore, far from the trembling throng,” where “I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar.” His spirit, he says, will join Adonais in “the abode where the Eternal are”—but a few feet away in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery.
About a month after Keats had tea with Mr. and Mrs. Gisborne, at Leigh Hunt’s Mortimer Terrace address, he received, from Pisa, a letter from Shelley, dated July 27, 1820. “I hear with great pain the dangerous accident that you have undergone, & Mrs. Gisborne who gives me the account of it, adds, that you continue to wear a consumptive appearance. This consumption is a disease particularly fond of people who write such good verses as you have done, and with the assistance of an English winter it can often indulge its selection. . . . Mrs. Shelley unites with myself in urging the request, that you take up your residence with us.—You might come by sea to Leghorn, (France is not worth seeing, & the sea air is particularly good for weak lungs) which is within a few miles of us. You ought at all events to see Italy.” After complimenting Keats’s “good verses,” Shelley cannot help but play the critic in closing off his letter: “I have lately read your Endymion again . . . and ever with a new sense of the treasure of poetry it contains . . . though treasures poured forth with indistinct profusion—This, people in general will not endure, & that is the cause of the comparatively few copies which have been sold.” On August 16, Keats answers that “If I do not take advantage of your invitation it will be prevented by a circumstance I have very much at heart to prophesy—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.” Rome, not Pisa, would be his destination. Before he quits his letter, however, Keats returns the serve by commenting on Shelley’s most recent poem, Cenci—“as from yourself from Hunt.”
There is only one part of it I am judge of; the Poetry, and dramatic effect, which by many spirits now a days is considered the mammon. A modern work it is said must have a purpose, which may be the God—an artist must serve Mammon—he must have “self-concentration” selfishness perhaps. You I am sure will forgive me for sincerely remarking that you might curb your magnanimity and be more of an artist, and “load every rift” of your subject with ore. The thought of such discipline must fall like cold chains upon you, who perhaps never sat with your wings furl’d for six Months together.
The inherent friendly rivalry between a poet whose father was a lord and a poet whose father started out as a stableman was respectful enough, and Shelley’s Italy offer, for sure, was genuine, since he always had a houseful, but for Keats—about whom Brown had said, “I succeeded in making him come often to my house by never asking him to come oftener”—the Shelley household promised to be too much like Hunt’s that last summer in England when he had nowhere else to go: family chaos. Besides, in spite of the eternal linking of their names, Keats was not all that fond of Shelley. Temperamentally, and in almost every other way, they were poles apart. That last summer, Keats’s appearance went from seemingly robust to consumptive pale in a matter of months, reinforcing the fiction that the “malicious power of his enemies” had finally overtaken him and worn him down to wasting. The rumor was in the air, easy to believe, and too few of his friends disbelieved it. But it is one thing to speak an opinion or note it in a diary; it is another to publish it, which Shelley did, to incalculable effect—once Keats was dead—in his preface to Adonais. The final paragraph reads like a petition.
The circumstances of the closing scene of poor Keats’s life were not made known to me until the Elegy was ready for the press. I am given to understand that the wound his sensitive spirit had received from the criticism of Endymion was exasperated by the bitter sense of unrequited benefits; the poor fellow seems to have been hooted from the stage of life no less by those on whom he had wasted the promise of his genius than those on whom he had lavished his fortune and his care. He was accompanied to Rome and attended in his last illness by Mr. Severn, a young artist of the highest promise, who, I have been informed, ‘almost risked his own life, and sacrificed every prospect to unwearied attendance upon his dying friend.’ Had I known these circumstances before the completion of my poem, I should have been tempted to add my feeble tribute of applause to the more solid recompense which the virtuous man finds in the recollection of his own motives. Mr. Severn can dispense with a reward from ‘such stuff as dreams are made of.’ His conduct is a golden augury of the success of his future career—may the unextinguished Spirit of his illustrious friend animate the creations of his pencil, and plead against Oblivion for his name!
Shelley may be pleading against oblivion for Keats’s name, but he is doing it in a rather left-handed way. Keats has been “hooted from the stage of life no less by those on whom he had wasted the promise of his genius than those on whom he had lavished his fortune and his care”—meaning what? By his enemies, of course, but by his friends as well? Who are those on whom he lavished his fortune and his care? And the word “promise” suggests a career closer to the potential of the boy-poet Chatterton than to the real achievement of a maturing Keats. By honorific association, Shelley also brings Severn and Brown into the Adonais picture—Severn, the companion, who is an artist of “promise” and who, as the years pass, will begin more and more to subscribe to the enemy theory, which will later be melded with the broken-heart or love theory involving Fanny Brawne (“His illness and death were pioneered by despair. He was hurried down a sea of troubles to death.”); and Brown, who uses as an epigraph stanzas 42 and 43 from Adonais to launch his abortive Life of Keats and who opens his narrative with “These lines are from ‘Adonais,’ an elegy by Shelley on the death of Keats. When ‘Adonais’ was sent to me from Italy, I recognized, in these lines, my own every day, involuntary inevitable reflections on the loss of my friend.” In other words, Severn and Brown both accept and implicitly agree with Shelley’s assumption that Keats was “hooted from the stage of life.” The term condescension understates Shelley’s misguided attitude here, though he may be less at fault since he received his impressions second- and thirdhand. Severn and Brown knew better, or should have. But, then, Keats’s doctors themselves tended to be wrong-headed and ill-serving. Shelley’s poem and its preface, because they have the powerful imprimatur of print and because they are the first public words on the scene, carry tremendous weight. One would have had to contradict them, immediately, in print. Furthermore, Shelley is Keats’s perceived friend, and we are very clear who the enemy, regardless of its Tory anonymity, is. The enemy is every liberal’s enemy in Regency England—the Tory press, namely, John Gibson Lockhart and John Wilson Croker.
In a March 1841 letter to Severn—twenty years after Keats’s death—Brown makes the observation that “I am well aware that a poet’s fame is more likely to be injured by the indiscriminate admiration of his friends than by his critics”—a belated but frank admission from the man who composed, as Keats’s closest friend, the burdensome epitaph and who now is “convinced of the error.” “If a dying friend, a good man, leaves strict orders for the wording of his epitaph, he should be obeyed. . . . I have long repented of my fault, and must repeat to you what I said in Rome, ‘I hope the government will permit the erasure of every word, with exception of those words to which he himself limited his epitaph.’” The Italians, of course, declined. In the 11th canto of Don Juan, Byron picks up the theme from Shelley’s and Brown’s immortal words and plays with it.
John Keats, who was killed off by one critique,
Just as he really promised something great,
If not intelligible, without Greek
Contrived to talk about the Gods of late,
Much as they might have been supposed to speak.
Poor fellow! His was an untoward fate;
’Tis strange the mind, that fiery particle,
Should let itself be snuffed out by an article.
Keats’s mind, state of mind, health of mind, again, comes up. Weak mind, weak character, too—weak, here, meaning effeminate, too sensitive, flower-delicate. Or in Hazlitt’s words—and Hazlitt was someone Keats admired—“A canker had blighted the tender bloom that o’erspread a face in which youth and genius strove with beauty; the shaft was sped—venal, vulgar, venomous, that drove him from his country, with sickness and penury for companions, and followed him to his grave.”
Before the end of the decade in which Keats dies, Leigh Hunt decides to anticipate his surviving peers and publish a memoir, a memory book, dedicated to Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries. Its centerpieces concern the three poets who have died too young—Keats at twenty-five, Shelley at twenty-nine, Byron at thirty-six, all within three years of one another, and well before Coleridge and Wordsworth, their seniors. At 440 pages, the book is filled with portraits, impressions, and episodes from the lives, as Hunt recalls them, of all the Romantic anthology poets, plus two final sections: “Recollections of the Author’s Life” and “Visit to Italy.” Hunt’s memory is more coherent but no less self-serving than Severn’s. He has Keats dying having “just completed his four-and-twentieth year,” for example, and promotes several other biographical errors or half-truths, a few of which are unintentionally funny, such as his assertion that Keats’s head—like Byron’s and Shelley’s—“was a particular puzzle for the phrenologist, being remarkably small in the skull.” His description of Keats overall is no less give and take away:
He was under the middle height; and his lower limbs were small in comparison with the upper, but neat and well-turned. His shoulders were very broad for his size: he had a face, in which energy and sensibility were remarkably mixed-up, an eager power checked and made patient by ill-health… . If there was any faulty expression it was in the mouth, which was not without something of a character of pugnacity. The face was rather long otherwise; the upper lip projected a little over the under. . . . Mr. Keats was sensible of the disproportion above noticed, between his upper and lower extremities; and he would look at his hand, which was faded, and swollen in the veins, and say it was the hand of a man of fifty.
In his eighteen-page section on Keats, Hunt is remembering in a jumble of chronology, confusing—as if his four years of friendship were all one time—the early, vital Keats, who wrote “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” with the Keats of the summer of the meeting with the Gisbornes. Hunt’s own lack of self-knowledge enters into the picture, too. In making the point, for instance, that Endymion’s “great fault” is not only its “willfulness of rhymes” (what Keats would later call, in an act of self-criticism, “pouncing rhymes”) but its “unpruned luxuriance,” he seems to have forgotten the fact that these are Huntian faults and are the originating complaints against Cockney verse—and the florid Hunt in particular—by Tory critics. As poetic fallacies, over-luxuriance of imagery and feminine-ending forced rhymes were generally the stuff of Blue Stocking as well as “Cockney” verse. But to conservatives, it was all the same upstart, heart-on-the-sleeve, commoner sensibility. Certainly, twenty years into the future, when the Pre-Raphaelites discover Keats, the sensitivity/sensuality issue will be considered a Keatsian hallmark, but notably in works of romance narrative—such as The Eve of St. Agnes and Isabella—and of a wholly different level of maturity from Endymion: this time, a “pruned” luxuriance. (Keats will spend most of 1819, the year of his best writing, trying to rid himself of Hunt’s early influence, a “weak-sided” rhetoric. He will succeed beyond all expectation.) In confusing time frames and biographical fact, Hunt also implies, through perhaps unconscious innuendo, that Keats’s poetic sensitivity, too much in evidence in the beginning poet, is a handicap to Keats’s growing character, which seems fragile enough without the attacks of illness and enemies. After all, Keats is not the only possible victim of Tory critics and consumption. By definition, “romanticism” in total is grist for Tory mills, while Hunt, Byron, and Shelley each feel, at different times, vulnerable to the wasting disease. Byron is reported to have once snidely said, looking into the mirror, “I look pale. I should like to die of a consumption.” “Why?” asked a guest. “Because the ladies would all say, ‘Look at that poor Byron, how interesting he looks in dying.’”
There is a moment at the close of Hunt’s confused commentary on Keats that is emblematic of his sympathy turned sodden and, wittingly or otherwise, against his young friend. And because he is seen as Keats’s mentor and chief supporter, it is all the more damningly effective. As usual, Hunt’s vagueness (“All this trouble was secretly aggravated by a very tender circumstance, which I can but allude to . . . ”) creates an opportunity for those who would take it.
Mr. Keats had felt that his disease was mortal for two or three years before he died. He had a constitutional tendency to consumption; a close attendance to the death-bed of a beloved brother, when he ought to have been nursing himself in bed, gave it a blow which he felt for months; and meanwhile the rascally critics came up, and roused an indignation in him, both against them and himself, which he could ill afford to endure. All this trouble was secretly aggravated by a very tender circumstance, which I can but allude to thus publicly, and which naturally subjected one of the warmest heart and imaginations that ever existed, to all the pangs, that doubt, succeeded by delight, and delight, succeeded by hopelessness in this world, could inflict. Seeing him once change countenance in a manner more alarming than usual, as he stood silently eyeing the country out of the window, I pressed him to let me know how he felt, in order that he might enable me to do what I could for him: upon which he said, that his feelings were almost more than he could bear, and that he feared for his senses. I proposed that we should take a coach, and ride about the country together, to vary, if possible, the immediate impression, which was sometimes all that was formidable, and would come to nothing. He acquiesced, and was restored to himself. It was nevertheless on the same day, sitting on the bench in Well Walk, at Hampstead, nearest the heath, that he told me, with unaccustomed tears in his eyes, that “his heart was breaking.”
No one, not even Brown and Severn, knew Keats well enough to see the whole twenty-five-year picture; not even George, who emigrated to America before his brother became seriously ill and was absent in the time of Keats’s great creative period. There were carryover and interchange and introductions among all the friends of Keats’s different “eras,” whether childhood, school days, apprenticeship, medical studies, or “the living year” and its consequences. But there was no one, as is true for most of us, who was a direct and complete witness to his growth, his many moves, his changing health. Tom, the slight, sweet youngest brother, had been closest to Keats, emotionally. George had been the practical, almost “older” brother. When George married and left England, Brown had become the surrogate brother; and after Brown, via Italy, Severn, ready or not, had had to play several roles, one of them being like a brother. Each of them saw Keats as he could, but not the whole Keats, as a whole Keats could be, in the immediate years after his death, seen. Thus Hunt, who knew him best in that transitional time between giving up his planned medical profession and entering the unknown, uncertain future of poetry, had little Keatsian background to go on, except rumor and hearsay. So, as regards Keats’s reticent past, Hunt must guess, extrapolate, fill in, and—in the fact of Fanny Brawne—allude. The drift of Hunt’s memory of his young friend has affection behind it, yet, like so much of the warm feeling from too many of Keats’s peers, a quality of condescension too. Hunt’s characterization of Keats as, in effect, another Chatterton, as a greatly talented boy-poet greatly cut off, reinforces the precious image of him as a “bardling”—that is, a five-foot poet—whose precocity got ahead of the reality. Keats will, in some imagined future, be recognized, says Hunt, but as a genius of promise rather than a writer of achievement—achievement on the scale of, say, Byron and Shelley. “I venture to prophesy . . . that Mr. Keats will be known hereafter in English literature, emphatically, as the Young Poet.” Add to this assessment Shelley’s Adonais myth of the fragile, exquisite flower and Brown’s epitaph of the no-name “Young English Poet” killed by “the Malicious Power of his Enemies” and you have a fairly strong argument for an aesthetic sensibility too sensitive for a trivializing, Regency world, a world still caught between the 18th century and revolution. Byron, for one, forced by Hunt to read “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale,” pleads ignorance to Keats’s “poetical concentrations.” How could there be, Byron asks, “music unheard”? And what is the meaning of a beaker “full of the warm south”? “It was Lord Byron, at that time living in Italy, drinking its wine and basking in its sunshine, who asked me.”
Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries, whatever its ultimate merit and motive for being—Hunt likely wrote it as a moneymaker—fills a void. Byron was the literary lion of the age, Shelley the outcast expatriate, Keats the great young poet who almost was; each life suggested a compelling story, worthy of a novel perhaps, and each had ended up dying dramatically in exotic, foreign lands. Byron and Shelley would soon enough find their apologists and testifiers. Keats would have, for the longest time, Hunt’s “brothers in unity” and nothing else except the quarrels of his friends over who would best serve his immortal interests—interests that demanded cooperation and collaboration. Brown and Severn thought Taylor unqualified to write a memoir, let alone an original biography. Taylor, Reynolds, and George thought Brown too self-serving. As Brown’s later editors, Dorothy Hyde Bodurtha and Willard Bissell Pope, put it, in 1937:
Within six months of his death, Keats’s friends present a picture we should gladly efface from the records: the unhappy spectacle of heirs fighting over an estate—in this case, the manuscripts of the poems and letters and the right to make them public. The amazing quality of the performance is that Keats’s friends put so high a value on papers which the literary world had deemed of no value. It was as though they were fighting for the best seats in an empty, dark theatre.
Whatever the value his friends placed on his papers, few of them had faith that in their lifetimes Keats’s memory would be rightfully honored. Mostly they were concerned to get his character cleared up. Sensitivity is one thing, wilting flower another. “Leigh Hunt’s account of him is worse than disappointing; I cannot bear it,” writes Brown. “It seems as if Hunt was so impressed by his illness that he had utterly forgotten him in health.” And again: “I hate Hunt’s account of him, though every sentence, I verily believe, was intended to his honour and fame; but what does that matter when he manages to make him a whining, puling boy?” These quotes are from letters Brown wrote to Fanny Brawne and Charles Dilke, in 1828 and 1829, respectively. As correct as such opinions may be, as judgments they pretty well represent Brown’s sense that no one belonging to the broken Keats circle was up to the task of fully “knowing” his friend, and thereby remembering him as both a man and a poet. No one except him, Brown; though Dilke, Reynolds, Taylor, and, of course, George Keats would forever entertain a contrary view—that the Keats they knew was their Keats, the real Keats, the whole Keats. Each of them would have to die, or be close to death, before his specific hold on memory and material would relax. George would die in 1841, Brown in 1842, Dilke in 1850, Reynolds in 1852, and Taylor, who had since surrendered his copyright to the poems in his and Hessey’s possession, in 1864. (Not long after the Milne biography appeared, Hessey wrote to Taylor: “I always regretted that you did not take Keats’s Name & Fame in hand. You & Woodhouse knew more of him than any one, and you might have made a very interesting Book of his Memoirs.”) Excepting the word-averse Severn, those who had lived within Keats’s lifetime, had seen him on a more or less daily basis, had argued with him and celebrated, worked with him and cared for him, these closest of his friends would have to disappear before a full and fair portrait of him could begin to be put together and appear in print. Each of his friends would leave notes and fragmentary comments, letters and testimonies, details and memorabilia, but nothing—perhaps naturally enough—with narrative perspective, inclusive distance, or dot-connecting coherence.
Keats had written, in an early, prescient letter, that “A Man’s Life of any worth is a continual allegory—and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life—a life like the scriptures, figurative.” It is the figurative part that defeated Brown when, at long last, he sat down and tried to draw from memory his Life of John Keats. It would take him from 1829 to 1836 just to get started, and once he did, what he produced, some fifteen years after Keats’s death, was a lecture delivered at his local “Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts” club in Plymouth (the Plymouth Institution, December 29, 1836) and revised, in three drafts five years later, into a roughly fifty-page monograph. Initially, Brown’s idea was to counter Hunt’s limp-wristed impression of Keats and to supersede those he considered ignorant or inept as possible biographers. But as he procrastinated making good on his promise to remember his friend, year after year, he began to alienate those whose help with information and copyright he needed, including his old school acquaintance Charles Dilke and Keats’s brother George. Dilke, at one point, accuses Brown of trying to “capitalize” on Keats’s death, to, in effect, cash in on the friendship. George, for a variety of reasons, is not ready to give over his rights to unpublished poems—poems both he and Brown, over time, have fair-copied. Even Severn, in 1834, in exasperation, asks: “What are you doing about Keats’s Life? The time has come, and I FEAR THE TIME MAY PASS.” When Brown finally presents his summary life of Keats, quoting a few sample poems and passages, only one person in the Plymouth Athenaeum audience has the slightest knowledge of, let alone more than passing interest in, the work of John Keats, and that is Coleridge’s second son, Rev. Derwent Coleridge, Master of Helston School, Cornwall. Mostly, says Brown, in a self-conscious letter to Hunt, the lecture had a “remarkable reception . . . less on his account as a poet than on account of its interest as a piece of biography, read by the friend of a young poet—no matter who it was. It . . . exalted me as his friend, a compliment which I had endeavoured to avoid, but possibly the endeavour had directly the opposite effect.”
He had only meant, Brown promises Hunt, to write “at greater length than your’s.” Yet while Hunt’s version of a “whining, puling Keats” reinforces, in fact underscores, the Adonais myth and the tombstone inscription, Brown’s abortive biography warps the posthumous vision in the opposite way, but with a similar result. Rationalist, deliberative Brown cannot see the figurative, cannot accept “the Mystery,” the larger implications of Keats’s life. He does remember crucial encounters and episodes: their first meeting, on the Hampstead Road; the summer tour of the North Country; the composition of certain, central poems, such as the nightingale ode and The Eve of St. Agnes; the first hemorrhage, in February 1820, at Wentworth Place; the emerging relationship with Fanny Brawne; the dinners, the plays, the collaboration on Otho the Great. Brown’s memory is like his Shanklin drawing of Keats: straightforward and accurate. He knows what he knows, and in this spirit admits that he is guessing at Keats’s birth date, which he claims to be October 29, 1796, only a year and a couple of days off. In spite of the intimacy of the drafts of his memoir, however, Brown cannot resist the Shelleyan impulse to turn Keats into a martyr.
After twenty years, with all the charity of which my nature is capable, my belief continues to be that he was destroyed by hirelings, under the imposing name of Reviewers. Consumption, it may be urged, was in the family; his father and his younger brother had both died of it; therefore his fate was inevitable. Perhaps it was so; perhaps not. The brother who died was very tall and narrow chested; our Keats was short, with well-proportioned limbs, and with a chest remarkably well-formed for strength. At the most, it comes to this: if an hereditary predisposition existed, that predisposition might not have been called into action, except by an outrageous denial of his now acknowledged claim to be ranked as a poet of England. Month after month, an accumulation of ridicule and scoffs against his character and person, did worse than tear food from the mouth of a starving wretch, for it tore honour from the poet’s brow. Could he have been less sensitive, could he have been less independent, could he have truckled to his self-constituted judges, could he have flattered the taste of the public, and pandered to their will and pleasure—in fact, could he have ceased to be John Keats, he might have existed at this moment, happy as one of the inferior animals of the creation.
Keats’s mother, of course, not his father, died of consumption. This is the penultimate paragraph of the last emendation of Brown’s Life of Keats, and it signals the tone and thrust of the overall argument of the ragged text. It repeats, after nearly two decades, Brown’s implacable epigraphical theme regarding “the Malicious Power” of Keats’s “Enemies,” reinforcing the perceived weakness of character he means to be against. No accident, then, that the epigraph for the memoir comes from Adonais, lines 370 through 383, including the “loveliness . . . made more lovely” passage. Thus Brown, in effect, begins and ends his memory of his friend subscribing to the critics-killed-Keats apologia. But just as he hesitated concerning the script for the stone, Brown is reluctant to commit to his opinion in public. “I knew this task was my duty. . . . Therefore to compel me to my duty, I boldly put down my name at our Institution for a lecture, on 27th December, on ‘The Life and Poems of John Keats.’ Now that it is advertised, the card printed, the members looking forward to it, there is no retreating: it must be done.” A deeper reason for his hesitation is the difficulty, not just the dutifulness, of the task. In his absence, Keats has become for Brown a presiding presence. “As soon as I begin to be occupied with his poems, or with the Life . . . it forcibly seems to me, against all reason . . . that he is sitting by my side, his eyes seriously wandering from me to the papers by turns, and watching my doings. Call it nervousness if you will, but with this nervous impression I am unable to do justice to his fame.” These two quotations are from letters Brown writes to Milne in conjunction with turning over all of the remaining poems and related material he has gathered and held onto all these years. He will send Milne a copy of the memoir as well. In addition to fear of failing “to do justice” to Keats’s fame, Brown’s nervousness might also be conjured as guilt, guilt mixed with lingering grief, guilt that after all this time still seems to burden his behavior toward George, Dilke, the Blackwood’s and Quarterly critics, anyone in the line of fire of his anger, and self-anger. There may or may not be fair and honest justification for Brown’s not being there, in Hampstead, at the end of the summer in 1820, but like it or not, in those terrible, terminal days of quitting England, Keats was essentially alone, just as, in the late spring of that year, he had been excused from the house that now bears his name by Brown’s annual announced need to rent his half of Wentworth Place for the season. Brown had once remarked that Keats, more than most, could not bear too much solitude. And true enough, here he was, all these years after, sitting at Brown’s side, watching Brown’s doings.
On July 1, 1822, not quite eighteen months after Keats had been buried in the acattolico or Protestant Cemetery in Rome, Shelley set out by boat—a new two-masted boat alternately known as Ariel or Don Juan—to sail to Pisa to meet Leigh Hunt, whom he had not seen in four years of exile. His new friend, Edward Williams, with whom he and Mary, along with Williams’s wife, Jane, were sharing Casa Magni on the Gulf of Spezia, went along. The rest of the story is, more or less, history. Mary, who had a mind for foreboding, did not want her husband to make the water journey. “A vague expectation of evil shook me to agony, and I could scarcely bring myself to let them go.” Shelley himself had written, at the close of Adonais, “The massy earth and sphered skies are riven! / I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar.” Shelley, physically and emotionally, may have seemed a blithe spirit, but he was also a determined soul, stubborn, “driven.” Most of his life was about running, moving, disappearing. So on that first day of July, he and Williams sailed south, from the Bay of Lerici to the little port town of Leghorn, just outside Pisa, arriving well before nightfall. Hunt, Marianne, and their brood of children were to occupy half of a large house, Casa Lanfranchi, that Byron had rented for the time being; Byron, no lover of domesticity nor its children, was more than rude to the Hunt family, particularly the mother, who tended to be on edge, always. Shelley’s arrival, therefore, was not only welcomed but necessary to maintain even a modicum of civility. Byron, apparently, had expected Hunt to arrive alone. Shelley stayed on six days as a young uncle to the situation, promising Williams that by Sunday, July 7, they would return to their own families. Hunt later reported that they spent that last day together touring the streets and central part of Pisa, where the Duomo, the Leaning Tower, the Baptistry, and the Campo Santo all congregrate into a jewel. Shelley was still relunctant to leave his friend in such hostile circumstances, but Williams was insistent. As a parting gesture, Hunt placed in Shelley’s hands his only copy of Keats’s final volume, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems; something, he said, to read on the boat ride back. “Keep it,” he added, “till you give it me with your own hands.” And with that, Williams and Shelley left for Leghorn and the Mediterranean.
For a month it had not rained, each day the heat building into clouds from which nothing fell but heaviness and humidity. With the air glaring white and the ground “hard-fired,” sailing the waters offshore must have been inviting, which is what Shelley had been doing since his beautiful new boat, in May, had been delivered. He was not, frankly, much of a sailor, thus not much of a reader of weather. When he went out alone, he would invariably put in at one of several coves (and caves) close to home. He wrote most of Triumph of Life, his last and most mature work, in such settings. When he sailed any distance, Williams, or others with experience, would go out with him. That Monday morning, leaving Leghorn, the sultriness and breathlessness of the heat had turned, at the coastline, into mist, then blind fog. The storm, which everyone hoped for, was finally showing up, or would be soon, a fact that the impatient Williams ignored and the impetuous Shelley could not take seriously. The possible rain and rough seas were less of a worry, it would turn out, than the sea fog, which, once the Ariel was well into it, became the chief concern of those, such as Captain Roberts, who had built Shelley’s boat, and William Trelawny, Byron’s “biographer” and as much of a pirate as he (Byron) was a poet, both of whom were left in Leghorn after the farewells. At about fifteen or more miles out, and after a few hours, in the Gulf of Spezia, in high water and deep fog, Shelley’s boat went under, either because of an encounter with another boat or by its own mishandling. Although the actual storm lasted less than half an hour, far out at sea it lasted long enough. Williams’s body came ashore at the mouth of the Serchio River; the body of Charles Vivian—a young man who had hitched a ride—washed onto the sand at Massa, twenty miles north. Shelley’s body floated for ten days before beaching at Viareggio.
Viareggio, 18 July, 1822. Your excellency, It is my duty to inform you that this morning the rough seas threw up a corpse which had been partly consumed, which, after due inspection by the Tribunal in the interests of Public Health, has been buried on the shore, covered with quicklime in compliance with the Marine sanitary regulations.
We have no information regarding same, but it is thought likely to be one of the young Englishmen who are reported to have drowned on the passage they undertook as far back as July 8th, in a small brig-shaped launch which left Leghorn for the Gulf of Spezia, the sea having thrown up the other body on the Tuscan shore. Your Excellency’s etc.
G. P. Frediani
P. S. A circumstance which confirms my idea that this must be one of the said Englishmen, is that an English book was discovered in the pocket of the double-breasted tweed jacket which he was wearing.
This is the official letter from the Governor of Viareggio to the Secretary for Home and Foreign Affairs. Williams’s body, it was decided, would be borne back to England for burial, Shelley’s to Rome and the Protestant Cemetery, where his son William lay next to Keats. “Adonais,” Mary Shelley would lament, “is not Keats’s elegy, it is his very own.” First, however, and for any number of healthful, useful, and symbolic reasons, it was decided that the bodies should be exhumed from their quicklime graves and burned on their respective beaches. Williams was turned to ash on August 15, on the coast of Tuscany, Shelley the day after, at Viareggio, on pyres of pinewood, frankincense, wine, oil, honey, and salt. The ashes were placed in small oak boxes lined with black velvet and labeled with brass plates with their names in Latin, ages, country, and cause of death. At Viareggio it was all men: Byron, Trelawny, a Captain Shenley, and, of course, Hunt, who brought with him enough guards (dragoons and soldiers) to keep at a distance the growing crowd of sightseers. When the original fuel was inadequate to the task, some of the guards gathered debris of pineta and splintered spars and planks from other shipwrecks. Shelley’s body, in particular, so ravaged by its travels, seemed resistant to reduction, especially his great heart, which Trelawny finally retrieved and later gave to Mary, who lived for thirty more years, though the heart had long since become dust.
The acattolico graves of Keats and Shelley and some of those closest required a certain reconfiguration in the mortal years ahead, each time necessitating dealing with Roman bureaucratic authority. Severn, who had, in the year following Keats’s death, begun to establish himself as an artist and presence in English-speaking Roman society, helped a good deal with funereal negotiations. The Protestant Cemetery, not so long ago a sheep’s meadow and a people’s picnic pasture, was becoming a Poet’s Cemetery. But not without trial and error. On January 23, 1823, six months after his body washed ashore, Shelley’s ashes were at last laid to rest in the new, enclosed portion of the ground still officially referred to as the Meadows of the Roman People, some distance from where Keats and William lay. Two months later, when Trelawny—ever inventive, always looking ahead—arrived to see just where his friend was buried, he wrote to Mary that “the ashes of my noble Shelley” were “mingled in a heap with five or six common vagabonds.” Within a month, with Severn’s considerable help, Trelawny found a more suitable spot set off and up against the old Aurelian Wall. “There is a mad chap come here,” Severn wrote, in April, to Brown. “I do not know what to make of him. . . . He comes as a friend of Shelley, great, glowing, and rich in romance. Of course I showed all my paint-pot politeness to him, to the very brim—assisted him to remove the ashes of Shelley to a spot where he himself (when this world has done with his body) will lie. He wished me to think, myself, and consult my friends about a monument to Shelley.” Severn, naturally, cannot avoid mentioning his idea for a monument to Keats, which Trelawny asserts would be perfect for Shelley as well. Nothing, however, comes of either idea. Instead, as with Keats’s headstone, a sort of compromise is reached, though in Shelley’s case with profoundly more understatement. Hunt’s Latin phrase, COR CORDIUM, would capitalize the stone, with a Trelawny-chosen quotation from The Tempest—Shelley’s favorite Shakespeare—to underwrite: “Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea change / Into something rich and strange.”
Well into the future, in 1881, Trelawny’s body will, in fact, lie next to Shelley, in the same year that Severn’s body will be placed next to Keats, after negotiations Severn can no longer be a part of. Severn died in the late summer of 1879, almost sixty years—a lifetime in those days—from the death of Keats. His final diary entry said, “I begin to feel the loneliness of having lived too long,” a kind of remarkable epitaph in itself. Shelley’s son William would have to be moved and brought to a belated rest just north and west of Keats and the ashes of his father. Death became a means of redressing imbalances and rectifying tragically severed connections; death, and this island of green space, with its odd assortment of ilex and stone pine and palm trees, and a sharply scaled pyramid, like a church steeple or pagan sign, would become oddly exemplary. But for the longest while the high grass would be maintained by sheep and the traffic of picnickers. If you were lucky, some friend or caring soul would replace the grave flowers that were forever disappearing. And the question of epitaphs, like the flowers, had a life of its own. Shelley had the advantage of a straightforward, quick, and mythic death, a death by water that he had, beautifully, predicted. Keats, on the other hand, suffered a confused death by increments, whose cause no one, least of all the doctors, could or would be clear about. Keats himself seemed no more sure of what killed him, though some days he seemed to get it right: a disease of the lungs, not the heart and mind. When Severn’s body was removed from its original grave to its juxtaposition to Keats, the temptation to name this long-dead partner was overwhelming. The script, therefore, under Severn’s name reads, “Devoted friend and death-bed companion of JOHN KEATS.” And since in death, in hindsight, such symmetries are possible, the broken lyre on Keats’s stone is paralleled by a palette with all its brushes intact.