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)

9 December 1820: Too Noble an Animal,Despair in Every Shape, & Thanks Joe

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, aged twenty-five, is in Rome, where he has been since 15 November, having left England 18 September. His voyage to Italy is stalled by unfavorable weather, and then the vessel is held for ten days in quarantine upon arrival in Naples, 21 October. Keats travels to Rome with his friend, the painter Joseph Severn. He stays in rooms at 26 Piazza di Spagna.

Keats is in Italy with the doomed hope of restoring his health, though it is clear he is dying of consumption, or what we today call pulmonary tuberculosis—the most prevalent of the so-called wasting diseases. This ancient disease (phthisis, so named by Hippocrates c.400 BCE) has come by other names, like the great white plague and white deathwhite because of the anemic appearance of those afflicted. It had also been called the graveyard cough and the robber of youth. Its occurrence may have climaxed fairly close to Keats’s time, when it was the most pervasive form of death in the UK. It has even been called the romantic disease, since, in its wronged-headed Victorian cultural associations, there was a fashionably morbid attraction for the disease: it wistfully strikes those most delicate, sensitive, and aesthetically refined. The mythologizing of Keats’s death is one of the clear precursors for this Victorian type. In a darker impersonation, consumption was thought to strike those most overly self-indulgent or licentious. For some, the illness also carried spiritual associations. Lord Byron at one point (in October 1810), after being thinned by illness, half-joking apparently says that he hopes he might die of consumption, since the ladies will note, [H]ow interesting he looks in dying!

Some precursor symptoms of consumption could have lingered in Keats as long as two years—initially, at least, perhaps in the form of a chronic sore throat. Keats first spits blood in early February 1820—even then he was sure that, in his own words, it signaled his death-warrant. The highly contagious illness (though not confirmed as contagious until the end of nineteenth century) had already taken his mother and one of his younger brothers, Tom, and he witnessed their slow, agonizing declines. In short, Keats had been fully exposed to the infectious disease for some time, but the nature of the disease at the time is such that Keats could have picked it up just about anywhere. Millions will die of TB in Europe during the nineteenth century.

View of the Spanish Steps, 1750, by Giovanni-Battista Piranesi (Keats occupied the building, far right, foreground)
View of the Spanish Steps, 1750, by Giovanni-Battista Piranesi (Keats occupied the building, far right, foreground)

Although December begins with Keats very slightly improved, or at least stabilized, on 9 December he vomits considerable blood—two cupfuls, reports Severn (14, 17 Dec). This continues over following weeks. In the last few months, as lesions increase, the symptoms spread to Keats’s stomach from his lungs. Keats’s physician, Dr. James Clarke (who found Keats and Severn their rooms in Rome), though very attentive to Keats’s condition, has no real course of action to help Keats. No one does. Clarke does what he believes is correct: he bleeds Keats and puts him on an extraordinary restricted diet, both of which hugely weaken and stress the already enervated and overwrought Keats. Understandably, and aware of his condition, Keats acts fretfully; he wants to kill himself; his life, he believes, is already over. As he writes at the end of November, I am leading a posthumous existence.

Yet Clarke, in writing to Keats’s publisher (the firm of Taylor & Hessey) toward the end of November, believes that if he can put Keats’s mind at ease I think he’ll do well [. . .] he’s too noble an animal to be allowed to sink without some sacrifice being made to save him. Interesting, Clarke is not so sure that Severn is the right person to care for Keats: he writes that Severn is attentive, but he adds that he might not be the best suited for his companion. He might be suggesting that Severn is simply not experienced given required care-giving, but he could also be saying the Severn’s disposition itself might overwrought, and therefore not be helpful.

Joseph Severn, self-portrait, c.1820 (National Portrait Gallery, NPG
        3091)true
Joseph Severn, self-portrait, c.1820 (National Portrait Gallery, NPG 3091)

Severn reports to Keats’s friends back in England. He describes Keats’s grim state of exhaustion, depression, hopelessness, and suffering. On 17 December, Severn writes to Keats’s closest friend at the time, Charles Brown (with whom Keats intended to travel to Italy). Severn does not shy away from the gruesome details of Keats’s state: Keats’s blood is black and thick in the extreme. Keats was very much alarmed and dejected [ . . . ] The blood broke forth again in like quantity the next morning—and the doctor thought it expedient to take away the like quantity of blood [ . . . ] the torture he suffers all and every night [ . . . ] the distended stomach keeps him perpetual hunger or craving [ . . . ] Then his mind is worse than all—despair in every shape—his imagination and memory present every image in horror, so strong that morning and night I tremble for his Intellect. Severn is himself exhausted, and beginning to suffer from the stress—trauma, even—of helplessly caring for Keats. As Brown points out in a letter to Keats of 21 December, the anagram for John Keats of Thanks Joe is more fitting than ever.

On the day before Christmas, Severn reports Keats saying that his continued stretch of his imagination has already killed him.

🗙

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. “9 December 1820: Too Noble an Animal,Despair in Every Shape, & Thanks Joe.” Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology. Edition 3.3 , University of Victoria, 5 September 2020. https://johnkeats.uvic.ca/1820-12-09.html.

Chicago Style: Note

G. Kim Blank, “9 December 1820: Too Noble an Animal,Despair in Every Shape, & Thanks Joe,” Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology, Edition 3.3 , last modified 5th September 2020. https://johnkeats.uvic.ca/1820-12-09.html.

Chicago Style: Bibliography

Blank, G. Kim. “9 December 1820: Too Noble an Animal,Despair in Every Shape, & Thanks Joe.” Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology, Edition 3.3 , last modified 5th September 2020. https://johnkeats.uvic.ca/1820-12-09.html.