Posthumous Keats

John Keats died in Rome on this day in 1821. Below are passages of the last letter he wrote, dated November 30, 1820, and addressed to his friend Charles Brown in England. Keats was a devoted letter writer; that his last was sent a full three months before his death indicates how challenging he found the final stages of his illness:

'Tis the most difficult thing in the world to me to write a letter. My stomach continues so bad, that I feel it worse on opening any book, -- yet I am much better than I was in quarantine. Then I am afraid to encounter the pro-ing and con-ing of anything interesting to me in England. I have an habitual feeling of my real life having [passed], and that I am leading a posthumous existence. God knows how it would have been -- but it appears to me -- however, I will not speak of that subject…. I can not answer anything in your letter, which followed me from Naples to Rome, because I am afraid to look it over again. I am so weak (in mind) that I can not bear the sight of any handwriting of a friend I love so much as I do you…. I can scarcely bid you good-bye, even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow. God bless you!

The trip from Naples to Rome that Keats mentions had taken place several weeks earlier, a carriage ride in the company of his friend Joseph Severn, in lovely Indian summer weather. In Posthumous Keats (2008), biographer Stanley Plumly summarizes Severn's account of the trip this way:

It is November, 1820, warm, wildflowers everywhere. Severn, his companion, thinking to make more room for his sick friend and tired of the rough ride, decides to walk. His painter's eye cannot help but be attracted to the color in the day -- mountains, the sea, the Italian sky, the fencerows of the vineyards, and, almost at their feet, blue and white and yellow flowers.… Severn can't keep his hands off the flowers. Nor does he know what to do with them once he's picked them. So he puts them, by the handful, in the small carriage with Keats, like company. This goes on, off and on, for days. By the time they reach the outskirts of Rome, Keats is witness to his own funeral.

 


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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