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Cold Pastoral

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.”

Criticism and History

In The Beauty of Inflections, Jerome J. McGann sounds a compelling call for "socio-historical" criticism of literature. His book addresses Keats, Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade," and the poetry and religious beliefs of Christina Rossetti, with concluding chapters on Byron, Crabbe, and "the significance of Rome" for Romantic writers.