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)

15 November 1820: Rome: Oh, God! God! God!—An Awkward Bow to Real Life Having Past

Piazza di Spagna, Rome (1800 map)

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

Keats arrives in Rome at 15 November, having taken a carriage from Naples a week earlier. He initially lands by sea at Naples, 21 October, only to be quarantined on his ship for ten days. Keats is accompanied by his friend, the young painter Joseph Severn, who voyages with Keats from London, beginning 17 September. In Rome, Keats and Severn stay at a second-floor​ apartment at 26 Piazza di Spagna (which is now Keats-Shelley House, a museum dedicated mainly to Keats, Percy Shelley, and their circles). Severn, feeling helpless but trying his best to help Keats, records that Keats arrives in Naples with a shattered frame—and broken heart (letters, 1, 2 Nov).

Keats’s state is indeed horrible, though Keats attempts to muster both personal fortitude and philosophical distancing: to Brown he writes, I will endeavor to bear my miseries patiently [. . .] It surprised me that the human heart is capable of containing and bearing so much misery (letters, 1 Nov). This is as much a personal statement as a confirmation of what Keats, very deliberately, attempts to address in his best poetry. Even at this desperate moment, the statement clearly, but naturally, draws upon Keats’s complex engagement with the poetic depths of William Wordsworth’s greatest poetry, which is centered in the human heart and bears what Wordsworth calls the burden of the mystery (from Wordsworth’s poem that Keats knows so well, Tintern Abbey, with the phrase human heart being pulled from another poem by Wordsworth that Keats knows equally well, The Intimations [Immortality] Ode).

Keats travels to Italy with the vague hope of reversing his rapidly failing health. Despite the haphazard medical diagnosis that he might have some digestive issues (and earlier diagnosis that he suffers from extreme anxiety only), to be remedied by fresh air and exercise (including horseback riding!), Keats clearly suffers from consumption—pulmonary tuberculosis—that has recently spread from his lungs to his stomach. Keats has had a fever for months, indicating gross, systemic infection. Given Keats’s own medical training, his long-standing issues with coughing/chronic throat difficulties, witnessing the deaths of younger brother and mother from consumption, and blood-spitting that began about nine months earlier, Keats is himself too aware of his condition.

 An ad for Dr. James’s Powder, with claims to cure consumption and just about
        everything else; in The Leeds Intelligencer, 26 February
        1821, the day Keats dies. Click to enlarge.true
An ad for Dr. James’s Powder, with claims to cure consumption and just about everything else; in The Leeds Intelligencer, 26 February 1821, the day Keats dies. Click to enlarge.

From Naples on 1 November, Keats writes to Charles Brown, who is his best friend, former roommate, travelling companion, financial supporter, and the person with whom he intended to travel to Italy. Misery, regret, despair, and utter helplessness intermix with great passion and longing. Keats confides his regrets to Brown, that his relationship with Fanny Brawne, to whom he was betrothed, was never consummated: My dear Brown, Keats writes, I should have had her when I was in health, and I should have remained well. I can bear to die—I cannot bear to leave her. Oh, God! God! God! Keats says that he vividly imagines Fanny, but in doing so, he can only describe it in metaphors of acute pain—of being pierced and scalded, with feelings of coals of fire in my breast.

On 8 November, from Louisville, Kentucky, Keats’s brother George writes that his thoughts are with Keats: Your inevitable distresses are subject to conversation to us [him and his wife, Georgiana] almost every day . . .. In the meantime, George tells Keats about his efforts to keep his business venture going—George Keats & Company. But George’s goal to make money in America and then return to England is never achieved; part of his hope was to help out Keats. George will himself die of consumption in 1841, though he will eventually have some business success in Kentucky. His decision to remain in the US is likely based to some degree on the cruel fact that he’s lost both of his brothers.

Piazza di Spagna, c.1824
Piazza di Spagna, c.1824

Subtly, yet strikingly, Keats gives us a glimpse back into his mature poetics. It is, in a way, Keats’s final word about poetry. It briefly returns us to the moment when, about two years earlier, he crucially describes his own poetical Character—which anticipates what he achieves in the remarkable poetry to come in 1819. It is that famous (famous at least for us) moment when he describes writing not with the qualities of the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime but as a camelion Poet, one who lives in contrasts, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated. It enjoys, he writes, light and shade (letters, 27 Oct 1818). Now, two years later, on 30 November to Brown, and with thoughts of Fanny Brawne haunting and taunting him, and with a future frightfully darkened by an imminent and agonizing death, he recognizes that in his condition and situation there is material necessary for a poem: the knowledge of contrast, feeling for light and shade. But it is a poem he cannot write. What he profoundly calls his posthumous existence prevents him, and so, camelion-like, he can only disappear into anxious thoughts about the life he hoped he might have lived and into the uncertainty of what the future, might, if anything, give him.

This is the last letter from Keats we know of, and he signs off with sad thoughts about his sister and brothers; and he adds, as a revealing but consistent gesture of his own character, I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow. / God bless you! / John Keats.

Keats’s own poetry of April 1819 can be brought to bear upon his struggle: How fever’d is the man who cannot look / Upon his mortal days with temperate blood . . . (On Fame [How fever’d is the man]). Keats, though extremely fevered, does, at this moment of farewell, summon a dignified and poetic expression of his own character and upon his diminishing mortal days.

🗙

On Fame (How fever’d is the man)

  • How fever’d is the man, who cannot look
  • Upon his mortal days with temperate blood,
  • Who vexes all the leaves of his life’s book,
  • And robs his fair name of its maidenhood;
  • It is as if the rose should pluck herself,
  • Or the ripe plum finger its misty bloom,
  • As if a Naiad, like a meddling elf,
  • Should darken her pure grot with muddy gloom
  • But the rose leaves herself upon the briar,
  • For winds to kiss and grateful bees to feed,
  • And the ripe plum still wears its dim attire,
  • The undisturbed lake has crystal space;
  • Why then should man, teasing the world for grace,
  • Spoil his salvation for a fierce miscreed?
🗙

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. “15 November 1820: Rome: Oh, God! God! God!—An Awkward Bow to Real Life Having Past.” Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology. Edition 3.3 , University of Victoria, 5 September 2020. https://johnkeats.uvic.ca/1820-11-15.html.

Chicago Style: Note

G. Kim Blank, “15 November 1820: Rome: Oh, God! God! God!—An Awkward Bow to Real Life Having Past,” Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology, Edition 3.3 , last modified 5th September 2020. https://johnkeats.uvic.ca/1820-11-15.html.

Chicago Style: Bibliography

Blank, G. Kim. “15 November 1820: Rome: Oh, God! God! God!—An Awkward Bow to Real Life Having Past.” Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology, Edition 3.3 , last modified 5th September 2020. https://johnkeats.uvic.ca/1820-11-15.html.