Letter #7: To Joseph Severn, 1 November 1816

Here at the KLP, especially in the early years of our endeavor, we like to keep Keats alive as long as possible. It’s all too easy to dwell on the poet’s tragic end in Italy in 1821. And now, with the first letter to Joseph Severn, the sensitive and caring companion who would spend several grueling months watching Keats die, we have to work particularly hard to go not to Lethe, to resist the allure of wolf’s-bane’s poisonous wine.

Alas. Sorry, Keats, but we’re going to try a different tack than glutting our sorrow. Instead, as Matthew Sangster suggests in his response to this brief letter to Severn, let us invoke “other kinds of temporalities” than the melancholic “slow Time” so often associated with Keats’s poetry. As Sangster writes, this letter shows “something closer to the quick email apology that harried twenty-first century correspondents might dash off than the worked epistles that he would later use to lay out his ideas about poetry.” In other words, here we see Keats traveling in the fast lane of modern urban life. Let’s do what we can to keep him like that in our minds.

Another harried moment marks the life of this letter as well. Severn outlived Keats by 58 years, and yet, he seems to have kept the poet always lively in his mind during that long period. In 1878, he wrote to Charles Dilke of Keats’s poetry, “I begin to live on them [!!!]” (emphasis, and exclamation marks, added). Even at that late date, Severn seemed able to still call up a new beginning, a new liveliness associated with his old friend. A few months after that, on 27 May 1879, the ailing Severn slowly but surely made his way through a different urban environment than the London of his youth, and arrived at the British embassy in Rome. He brought with him the remaining Keats letters and manuscripts still in his possession. The British vice-consul, Alexander Roesler Franz, attested to the letters’ authenticity, and marked them with his diplomatic seal, alongside Severn’s shaky but insistent signature. It was an act that marked a new beginning for this letter from November 1816. Across a gap of nearly 63 years, Keats’s rushed epistle made its way through slow time and back into another brief but lively moment, when his aging friend added some of his last vital traces to the history of Keats’s letters.

So here’s to you, Severn! The KLP hopes to do our part in helping others “begin to live” on your and Keats’s correspondence.