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 spints; 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: Keats 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)

21 October 1820: This Kind of Suffering; Arrival in Naples, Not in the World, & An Intellect in Splints

From London to Naples to Rome

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

On 17 September, at the London Docks and with his friend, the young painter Joseph Severn, Keats steps on board the brigantine rig Maria Crowther (a boat designed for cargo, not passengers). A few other friends—Richard Woodhouse, John Taylor, and William Haslam—will travel as far as Gravesend with Keats and Severn. Keats is to voyage to Italy, with hopes to restore his sinking health. There is little doubt he is consumptive—the so-called wasting disease or white plague—and what we call pulmonary tuberculosis. Blood-letting and restrictive diets will end up making his condition worse, as do remedies ranging from laudanum to mercury. That the diagnosis he gets points to emotional or mental issues as the causes of his condition is also unfortunate (as well as agitation caused by thinking about poetry); Keats himself often refers to his sometimes uneven emotional state (that can be boiled down to nervous anxiety and occasional depression) as the cause of his difficulties. On the last day of September, he surveys his condition, and, in his sadness crossed over with hopelessness, he turns a little philosophical: we cannot be created for this kind of suffering (letter, 30 Sept 1820).

Moon light at sea, watercolour by Severn while on
        board the Maria Crowther (at Keats House Museum)
Moon light at sea, watercolour by Severn while on board the Maria Crowther (at Keats House Museum)

On 21 October, thirty-five days after boarding, Keats arrives in Naples, only to have the vessel quarantined for ten further days over fears of typhus originating in London. Conditions on board during the quarantine are terrible, especially after a voyage with such constricted quarters. He cannot even rouse himself to write about the beauties of the Bay of Naples. On 31 October, the day of his 25th birthday, Keats finally sets foot on shore. From Naples, thinking about his disarranged love for Fanny Brawne completely overwhelms him, and he attempts, though he cannot, to avoid thoughts of what might have been. His feelings, he writes, are coals of fire, and conjuring one of Wordsworth’s major tropes while questioning his fate, in a letter of 1 November to his closest friend, Charles Brown, he writes, It surprised me that the human heart is capable of containing and bearing so much misery. Was I born for this end? This in fact captures an important point in Keats’s poetic thematics. What is the deep meaning of human suffering and sorrow? And this, then, also takes us back to Keats’s profound philosophical exploration of what it is to see into the heart of man, which, in May 1818, takes Keats to consider human life via the simile of entering a Mansion of Many Apartments, where, if we go deep enough into the many chambers of that mansion—into human life—the sharpening of one’s vision reveals that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression. Keats is now, in effect, in October 1820, not just seeing far, far into that Mansion—he is, as it were, living within its darkened passages. Keats writes that to even see Fanny’s name written would be more than I can bear, and according to Severn’s later recollections, at this time Keats could not let go of a gemstone that Fanny gave him—an oval white carnelian.

After getting a visa, Keats sets off for Rome from Naples a week later. Severn seems to have picked some wild flowers to accompany them on the journey. Keats arrives in Rome 15 November, with a short-lived reprieve from the illness.

The Bay of Naples, c.1830, by Robert Walter Weir (Museum of Fine Arts,
        Boston)
The Bay of Naples, c.1830, by Robert Walter Weir (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Keats is in poor condition; chances for recovery are impossibly slim. He will receive well-intended medical attention from a physician, Dr. James Clark, including blood-letting and eating restrictions. Keats is fevered, in pain, and has been spitting up blood; he is more or less confined to his bed and to the small quarters; Severn feels equally trapped. Symptoms that are earlier centered in his lungs seem now to have spread to his stomach (he complains of indigestion), which, given that pulmonary tuberculosis can cause bleeding in the intestines, is not surprising. The illness may have lingered and progressed slowly for as much as two years. Keats fully witnessed the deaths of both his mother and his youngest brother, Tom, to the illness.

Keats, then, knows what is coming. And so, even while he was in quarantine in Naples, his thoughts are of the inevitable—in a way, he feels his life is already over: to Mrs. Brawne, the mother of his love, Fanny, he writes, I do not feel in the world (?22 or 24 Oct). In the same letter, he wishes he could give an account of the Bay of Naples; he repeats his feeling of being separated from this life; his forlorn wish is to once more be a Citizen of this world—[. . .] O what a misery it is to have an intellect in splints!

The Bay of Naples by Giovanni Battista Lusier, 1791 (Getty Museum). Keats felt too
        ill to give an account of its beauty.
The Bay of Naples by Giovanni Battista Lusier, 1791 (Getty Museum). Keats felt too ill to give an account of its beauty.
🗙

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. “21 October 1820: This Kind of Suffering; Arrival in Naples, Not in the World, & An Intellect in Splints .” Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology. Edition 3.3 , University of Victoria, 5 September 2020. https://johnkeats.uvic.ca/1820-10-21.html.

Chicago Style: Note

G. Kim Blank, “21 October 1820: This Kind of Suffering; Arrival in Naples, Not in the World, & An Intellect in Splints ,” Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology, Edition 3.3 , last modified 5th September 2020. https://johnkeats.uvic.ca/1820-10-21.html.

Chicago Style: Bibliography

Blank, G. Kim. “21 October 1820: This Kind of Suffering; Arrival in Naples, Not in the World, & An Intellect in Splints .” Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology, Edition 3.3 , last modified 5th September 2020. https://johnkeats.uvic.ca/1820-10-21.html.