Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology

Mapping Keats’s Progress
A Critical Chronology

  • Jan-Feb: in Rome; desperately ill; Severn reports, His stomach is ruined and the state of his mind the worst possible one in his condition; Severn: his suffering now is beyond description; Keats desires a bottle of opium to kill himself; Severn: Keats is desiring his death with dreadful earnestness
  • Feb: in Rome; I shall soon be laid in the quiet grave—thank God for the quiet grave—O! I can feel the cold earth upon me—the daisies growing over me—O for this quiet—it will be my first; Keats dies, 23 February, 11 pm; buried the morning of 26 February
  • 1821: Percy Shelley publishes Adonais (July); De Quincey publishes Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (anonymously; then with his name, 1822); Hazlitt’s Table-Talk; born: Dostoyevsky, Baudelaire, and Flaubert; death of: Napoleon, Queen Caroline, and Polidori (Byron’s physician); Guardian newspaper founded; gold standard restored by Bank of England; Missouri becomes 24th US state; a number of central American countries declare independence from Spain; Greek revolution begins; Russia claims sovereignty over present-day Alaska; first modern nature reserve established (by Charles Waterton, West Yorkshire); two-man rubber masticator (for recycling rubber) invented (London, by Thomas Handcock)

25 January 1821: This Dreary Point; A Man Governed by Imagination & Feeling

26 Piazza di Spagna, Rome

Click the map to see a larger versiontrue
Click the map to see a larger version

Keats and his good friend Joseph Severn are in rooms at 26 Piazza di Spagna, Rome, arranged by Keats’s physician, Dr. James Clarke, who is also in Rome and very close by.

Keats, twenty-five years old, has been in Rome for not quite two months, having begun his voyage from England mid-September 1820, though initially slowed by bad weather and then quarantined in Naples. This trip from England to Italy’s warmer weather is solely motivated with the hope to restore Keats’s health, though even before he leaves England it is apparent to both him and his closest friends that he suffers with the most prevalent illness of the era, consumption—so named because the illness slowly consumes an individual, and for reasons not then understood. (It will take more than another fifty years for consumption [tuberculosis] to be understood as the highly infectious white plague that even today remains a deadly, widespread disease in parts of the world.)

Severn watches over and nurses Keats for almost every moment since Keats’s departure from London. This is about the same amount of time that Keats watches over the decline and death of his younger brother, Tom, also from consumption, September to December 1818. Keats, then, knows what is likely to come, and for almost a year he has intimations that he is doomed by the terrible illness. We have to picture Severn carrying gaunt, pained Keats to the sitting-room from the bedroom and dressing him in clean clothes. Sadly, Keats is to some degree calmed, knowing that he has no hope. What has come to agitate Keats is Severn’s refusal to give him access to a bottle of opium so that he might kill himself. Severn is held captive by Keats, who, in utter fear, does not want Severn out of his sight; he does not want to die alone. At the end of his own life, almost sixty years later, Severn continues to express how he is haunted by Keats’s influence, as if he too does not want to die alone; he wants, and gets, his grave beside that of Keats. They are fashioned as twin graves.

By now, January 1821, Keats’s state is completely hopeless. His stomach and lungs are fully compromised. He can no longer digest food, and he constantly coughs up large amounts blood-streaked fluids—clay-like expectoration, Severn graphically describes it (25/26 Jan). His body is in constant fever as it vainly attempts to fight the illness, while it also craves nourishment it cannot digest. Keats’s emotional state is, understandably, equally strained: both Severn and Clarke comment on Keats’s overwrought mind, which they causally couple with his physical illness. On 3 January, Clarke notes Keats’s state of lung and stomach degeneration, but also, now knowing Keats a little, he adds, I fear he has long been governed by his imagination & feelings. Keats certainly has, but it is striking that Clarke, with his excused ignorance of how tuberculosis is contracted, ties the presence of the illness to what is most striking about Keats, and the kind of disposition that likely turns Keats to poetry in the first instance.

26 Piazza di Spagna
26 Piazza di Spagna

On 25/26 January, Severn writes to Keats’s very good friend and publisher, John Taylor. Severn, echoing Clarke, theorizes about Keats’s intense feeling and passions of mind. Having passed countless hours listening to Keats unburden himself from his deathbed about parts of his life and various changes, Severn attempts to describe Keats’s nature. He concludes that Keats has lived intensely without a sustaining calm of mind. Severn suggests that this unrelieved, restless ferment in Keats’s emotions and sensations has brought him to this dreary point. (Severn writes sensations twice in one sentence but replaces one of them with emotions.) Once more, Keats’s base character, his illness, and his vocation of poetry are intertwined. But at this point there is only one real comforting thought for Keats himself: that soon he will soon die.

Keats on his deathbed, by Severn, 28 January 1821, 3:00 am: under the sketch,
        Severn writes, a deadly sweat… (Keats-Shelley House, Rome)
Keats on his deathbed, by Severn, 28 January 1821, 3:00 am: under the sketch, Severn writes, a deadly sweat… (Keats-Shelley House, Rome)

The terms of Severn’s insights are, though, helpful: the balance of intensity in feeling and sensation through reflection is what Keats himself first points to in his poetics as requisite to great poetry. Back in late 1817, as Keats begins to formulate the direction and character of his poetic progress, he conceives that truth and beauty can be capably interlinked and are indistinguishable through acts of empathetic imagination—acts that, Keats notes, would ideally exist partly on sensation [and] partly on thought. This, Keats believes, is something like the position that William Wordsworth’s philosophic Mind holds, and the poetical depth to which Keats aspires (to Bailey, 22 Nov. 1817). Poetic success comes when Keats manages to achieve or balance a poetry of sensation without over-reaching emotions, and a poetry of thought without a palpable design upon us: a poetry of poised, unobtrusive intensity (3 Feb 1818). Poetry, Keats will write in anticipation of his greatest work of 1819, should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity (27 Feb 1818).

The balance that Keats strives to achieve in his poetry is, then, in some ways, tied to the balance he seems to have fought for in his life—a story mainly to be gleaned from his letters. In his poetry, Keats ultimately succeeds; but life, unlike poetry, is hardly perfectible, and is inconstant in its passing; poetry can offer or at least represent lasting perfections and constancies that life cannot offer, and much of Keats’s best poetry—on, for example, the unknowable story a timeless urn can tell; the fading but never-faded song of a nightingale; a season held still by its untroubled harmony; an ailing yet enraptured knight-poet forever on a cold hill side after experiencing a beautiful fate—addresses this condition and tension. This controlled intensity may be Keats’s enduring achievement as a poet, but as a person, such deep equipoise in the face of uncertainty was something that came and went from him—and in the end, he agonized over lost love and the meaning his experience—in one of his last known letters, he writes, we cannot be created for this kind of suffering (to Brown, 30 Sept 1820). The meaning of human suffering struggles to be resolved in the face of passing time or by the idea of meaningful afflictions, but the power of the capable human imagination can at least render this irresolution, as forms of both beauty and profitable uncertainty, not just for one passing moment, but for all moments to come.

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MLA Style: Works Cited

Blank, G. Kim. “25 January 1821: This Dreary Point; A Man Governed by Imagination & Feeling .” Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology. Edition 3.17 , University of Victoria, 28 April 2022.

Chicago Style: Note

G. Kim Blank, “25 January 1821: This Dreary Point; A Man Governed by Imagination & Feeling ,” Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology, Edition 3.17 , last modified 28th April 2022.

Chicago Style: Bibliography

Blank, G. Kim. “25 January 1821: This Dreary Point; A Man Governed by Imagination & Feeling .” Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology, Edition 3.17 , last modified 28th April 2022.