Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology

Mapping Keats’s Progress
A Critical Chronology

  • Jan: Keats’s younger brother George returns from America, seeking family money; Upon the whole I dislike Mankind; I am very idle; Otho the Great rejected for early production, now submitted to Covent Garden, to be turned down; T wang-dillo-dee; feels the vapidness of the routine of society; poem: Ode on a Grecian Urn published
  • Feb: George returns to America; hemorrhage: Keats worries it is a death-warrant; to Fanny Brawne: a rush of blood came to my Lungs . . . at that moment thought of nothing but you; thinks about annulling engagement to Fanny; I am recommended not even to read poetry much less write it. I wish I had a little hope; I have left no immortal work behind me—nothing to make my friends proud of my memory—but I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things; claims he has not had a tranquil day for six months; fevered, depressed, and anxious
  • Feb-May: Keats’s longing and sometimes agonizing letters to Fanny Brawne: to Fanny in Feb: all we have to do is be patient; to Fanny: How illness stands as barrier betwixt me and you!
  • March-April: fever, heart palpitations, tight chest, anxiety, nervousness, depression
  • March: Brown: Poor Keats will be unable to prepare his Poems for the Press for a long time; Brown reports that Keats desires to be remembered; poem: works a little on Lamia
  • April: doctor tells Keats there is nothing the matter with me except nervous irritability and a general weakness of the whole system which has proceeded from my anxiety of mind of late years and the too great excitement of poetry
  • April-May: Keats: tight chest; bad medical diagnosis: illness is due to anxiety associated with writing poetry, not a real illness
  • May: poem: La Belle Dame sans Merci published; moves to Kentish Town; to Fanny Brawne: I am greedy of you
  • June: Keats: serious hemorrhages; moves to live with Leigh Hunt, to be taken care of; entertains taking up medical profession; upset with preface to final collection, written by others; increasing money difficulties
  • July: publication of Keats’s last collection; great worries about his health; advised to relocate to Italy
  • July-Aug: jealous, fevered feelings about Fanny Brawne: I have been occupied with nothing but you . . . You are to me an object intensely desirable . . . I cannot live without you; Nothing is so bad as want of health
  • Aug: the world is too brutal for me; acknowledges the kindness of the Hunts; moves back to Wentworth Place, cared for by the Brawnes; in a very anxious condition and precarious health; makes a will; A winter in England would . . . kill me; decides to go to Italy, hopes Brown can go with him July; Shelley invites Keats to winter in Italy with him, Keats declines; has hopes of cheating the Consumption; My Imagination is a Monastery and I am its Monk; to Shelley: an artist must serve Mammon—he must have self concentration selfishness perhaps
  • Sept: positive reviews of Keats’s last volume are appearing; assigns copyright of his three volumes to Taylor & Hessey, receives some money; Keats: I wish for death every day and night to deliver my from these pains; sails to Italy, with Severn; pained by separation from Fanny Brawne, wishes for death
  • Oct: Keats: his condition declining, more hemorrhaging; arrives in Naples, Italy, with Severn; I do not feel in the world; O what a misery it is to have an intellect in splints; his ship quarantined
  • Nov: Keats: fears, anxiety, unrelenting fever; arrives in Rome, takes rooms with Severn; I will endeavor to bear my miseries patiently [ . . . ] It surprised me that the human heart is capable of containing and bearing so much misery; I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence; despair is forced upon me as a habit; last known letter (to Brown) ends, I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow. / God bless you! John Keats
  • Nov-Dec: Ke dats extremely ill, suffering, vomiting blood; Severn, increasingly stressed, exhausted, cares for Keats
  • Dec: according to Severn, Keats says the continued stretch of his imagination has already killed him
  • 1820: death of King George III—his son, the Prince Regent, becomes George IV; trial of Queen Caroline so that George IV can divorce her (acquitted); failure of the Cato Street Conspiracy and other civil unrest, including the Radical War; London Magazine first published; Hunt publishes The Indicator; general election increases Tory majority; Regent’s Canal completed; Shelley publishes Prometheus Unbound and writes To a Skylark; Blake completes his prophetic books; Wordsworth tours Switzerland and Italy, publishes The River Duddon, Miscellaneous Poems (4 vols.), and second edition of The Excursion; Florence Nightingale and Friedrich Engels born; revolts in Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece; Antarctica discovered; first digital mechanical calculator patented (the Arithmometer)

13-16 September 1820: To Italy: Beyond Every Thing Horrible & a Sense of Darkness

93 Fleet Street, London

Click the map to see a fuller view of the neighbourhoodtrue
Click the map to see a fuller view of the neighbourhood

93 Fleet Street, London: the offices of [John] Taylor & [James Augustus] Hessey, publishers of Keats’s last two volumes of poetry (May 1818 and July 1820), and owners to the rights of his first 1817 collection, Poems: Where Keats between 13-16 September stays as he prepares to depart for Italy in an effort to restore his fading health. Keats assigns (sells) copyright of the three volumes to Taylor & Hessey on 16 September, which provides some money for the cash-strapped Keats—money he needs to get to and stay in Italy. Taylor finds him passage to Italy on the brigantine rig (twin-masted) Maria Crowther, a boat suited for trade and not passengers (technically, 127 tons register). Taylor will also place some additional funds in a bank in Rome for Keats to use, ostensibly to cover payment for future publications by Keats. The trustee of the Keats family finances, Richard Abbey, coldly resists releasing any funds (or loaning any) to Keats to help with the trip. Keats is twenty-four years old.

For about two years Keats has shown lingering signs of illness, initially centered in chronic throat problems; but over the last eight or so months, the problem shifts to his chest and lungs and manifests in blood-spitting—hemoptysis. On 23 August, he refers to it as the oppression I have at the Chest. He has a return of hemorrhaging late August. This all points to consumption, something Keats is well aware of, especially given his family history (Keats witnesses his youngest brother and mother die of tuberculosis). Keats writes what will be his last known letter to his sister, Fanny, that the trip is in hope of re-establishing my health (11 Sept), but for the sake of his younger sister, Keats softens the more realistic and darkened prognosis. Keats actually dictates the letter to Fanny Brawne, his betrothed.

While Keats’s very close friend Charles Brown (Keats’s former roommate, travelling companion, and financial supporter) is the best choice to accompany Keats to Italy, another of Keats’s friends, the young painter Joseph Severn (aged twenty-six) generously agrees to accompany Keats, since Brown is up in Scotland, and not so easy to contact. Brown, though, when he does find out about Keats’s plans, travels hastily to London in the belief he will accompany Keats, but Brown just fails to connect with Keats. Their respective ships, in fact, will be moored close to each other (just off Gravesend), and going in opposite directions; they had no idea.

The Maria Crowther by Joseph Severn, at Keats House
The Maria Crowther by Joseph Severn, at Keats House

At the London Docks, Keats boards the two-masted, 130 ton brig Maria Crowther, on the morning of 17 September, and he is introduced to his dark and fairly cramped quarters (the vessel, built 1810, was intended for cargo, not passengers). Keats’s will share the ship’s cabin with Severn, two other passengers (including another consumptive), and the ship’s captain, Thomas Walsh. A few friends sail with him as far as Gravesend, from where he departs on 18 September. Severn initially reports that Keats’s spirits are temporarily improved and his humor waggish, but this may have been Keats attempting to put on a good face in spite of the odds. A two-day storm, however, makes progress impossible. The 24th is spent on shore at Portsmouth. By about 2 October the ship finally clears the English Channel.

Billingsgate Dock, 1820, courtesy of London Bridge Museum & Educational Trust
Billingsgate Dock, 1820, courtesy of London Bridge Museum & Educational Trust

On 30 September, Keats writes to Brown, and his feelings about death surface in the context of his regard for his betrothed, Fanny Brawne. Death is a deliverer from suffering, he notes; yet it is the great divorcer from what he loves—Fanny, whom he fears he will never again see. He writes, The thought of leaving Miss Brawne is beyond every thing horrible—the sense of darkness coming over me—I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing. Before leaving Fanny, the two exchange gifts, including a miniature painting of himself done by Severn; Fanny takes a lock of his hair, they exchange rings, and she gives him a semiprecious oval stone (white carnelian) to hold in order to remind him of touching her, as well as a silk lining for his cap that tortures his imagination. Keats also has a couple of trunks, which, besides letters from personal friends and his brothers, and a warm coat, contain two editions of Shakespeare’s plays and the first cantos of Lord Byron’s Don Juan (published July 1819). Keats also takes letters from Fanny Brawne, and these will be buried with him—unopened.

Keats, reading on board the Maria Crowther, by Arthur Severn, based on Joseph
        Severn’s lost drawing, reproduced from Caroline Spurgeon’s Keats’s Shakespeare,
        p.viii.
Keats, reading on board the Maria Crowther, by Arthur Severn, based on Joseph Severn’s lost drawing, reproduced from Caroline Spurgeon’s Keats’s Shakespeare, p.viii.

Keats arrives in Naples on 21 October, making it a 35-day stormy voyage, though on arrival he is quarantined ten further days. Keats, who has his 25th birthday probably on the day he is out of quarantine, reaches Rome by carriage 15 November. He will pass away in Rome, 23 February 1821, at 26 Piazza di Spagna.

Severn remains with Keats throughout these difficult months. After Keats’s passing, he spends the next two decades in Italy before returning to England. Upon Keats’s death, Severn almost immediately champions Keats’s cause, though in some ways he is motivated by a desire to better himself by attaching himself to Keats’s rising status. Others, too, will want to associate themselves with Keats’s growing reputation into the mid-nineteenth century. To support the posthumous Keats became, for some, not just the self-serving mantle of seeming to stand up for someone who martyred himself to art, but to signal, in effect, I have known genius.

🗙

Ode on a Grecian Urn

1.

  • Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness, 
  • Thou foster-child of silence and slow time, 
  • Sylvan historian, who canst thus express 
  • A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme: 
  • What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape 
  • Of deities or mortals, or of both, 
  • In Tempe or the dales of Arcady? 
  • What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? 
  • What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? 
  • What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

2.

  • Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard 
  • Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; 
  • Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d, 
  • Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone: 
  • Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave 
  • Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare; 
  • Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, 
  • Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve; 
  • She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, 
  • For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

3.

  • Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed 
  • Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu; 
  • And, happy melodist, unwearied, 
  • For ever piping songs for ever new; 
  • More happy love! more happy, happy love! 
  • For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d, 
  • For ever panting, and for ever young;
  • All breathing human passion far above, 
  • That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
  • A burning forehead, and a parching tongue. 

4.

  • Who are these coming to the sacrifice? 
  • To what green altar, O mysterious priest, 
  • Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies, 
  • And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed? 
  • What little town by river or sea shore, 
  • Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel, 
  • Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn? 
  • And, little town, thy streets for evermore 
  • Will silent be; and not a soul to tell 
  • Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

5.

  • O Attic shape! Fair attitude! With brede 
  • Of marble men and maidens overwrought, 
  • With forest branches and the trodden weed; 
  • Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought 
  • As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral! 
  • When old age shall this generation waste, 
  • Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe 
  • Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, 
  • “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all 
  • Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

[Text based on the published version in Keats’s 1820 collection.]

🗙

La Belle Dame sans Merci:
A Ballad

I

  • Oh, what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
  • Alone and palely loitering?
  • The sedge has withered from the Lake,
  • And no birds sing!

II

  • Oh, what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
  • So haggard and so woe-begone?
  • The squirrel’s granary is full,
  • And the harvest’s done.

III

  • I see a lily on thy brow,
  • With anguish moist and fever-dew,
  • And on thy cheeks a fading rose
  • Fast withereth too.

IV

  • I met a Lady in the Meads,
  • Full beautiful, a faery’s child,
  • Her hair was long, her foot was light,
  • And her eyes were wild.

V

  • I made a Garland for her head,
  • And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
  • She looked at me as she did love,
  • And made sweet moan.

VI

  • I set her on my pacing steed,
  • And nothing else saw all day long;
  • For sidelong would she bend, and sing
  • A faery’s song—

VII

  • She found me roots of relish sweet,
  • And honey wild and manna dew,
  • And sure in language strange she said—
  • I love thee true.

VIII

  • She took me to her elfin grot,
  • And there she wept and sigh’d full sore,
  • And there I shut her wild wild eyes
  • With kisses four.

IX

  • And there she lullèd me asleep,
  • And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!—
  • The latest dream I ever dream’d
  • On the cold hill side.

X

  • I saw pale kings, and princes too,
  • Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
  • They cried—‘La belle dame sans merci
  • Thee hath in thrall!’

XI

  • I saw their starv’d lips in the gloam
  • With horrid warning gapèd wide,
  • And I awoke, and found me here
  • On the cold hill’s side.

XII

  • And this is why I sojourn here,
  • Alone and palely loitering,
  • Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
  • And no birds sing.

🗙 Cite this page:

MLA Style: Works Cited

Blank, G. Kim. “13-16 September 1820: To Italy: Beyond Every Thing Horrible & a Sense of Darkness.” Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology. Edition 3.5 , University of Victoria, 18 October 2020. https://johnkeats.uvic.ca/1820-09-13.html.

Chicago Style: Note

G. Kim Blank, “13-16 September 1820: To Italy: Beyond Every Thing Horrible & a Sense of Darkness,” Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology, Edition 3.5 , last modified 18th October 2020. https://johnkeats.uvic.ca/1820-09-13.html.

Chicago Style: Bibliography

Blank, G. Kim. “13-16 September 1820: To Italy: Beyond Every Thing Horrible & a Sense of Darkness.” Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology, Edition 3.5 , last modified 18th October 2020. https://johnkeats.uvic.ca/1820-09-13.html.