[The following poem and reflection contain descriptions of suicidal ideation as well as imagery associated with suicide attempts. The Keats Letters Project urges its readers to do what is right for them, and if that means avoiding such materials as this poem, we will understand.]
Elegy Written on the Bicentennial of Keats’s Death
Unhappiness and sorrow, rouse the muse
In me: a friend is dead, and no excuse
Can make me see that I am not the cause
Of travesty. The thing that gave me pause
Last night was whether I should swallow pills,
Enough that I would cease my worldly thrills
To brave the undiscovered country. I
Will say it plainly: I wanted to die,
But now, in place of me, a dear friend lies,
And I am left to grapple with my vice
Of melancholia. My own despair
Has silenced my dear friend. What rancid air
Disintegrates her flesh? What unripe grave
Must her unready, hasty corpse now brave
In place of me? I grant that she was old,
But my death, more than hers, has been foretold:
Since I discovered how my mother died,
Her callous noose has traveled by my side
And has awaited my return to her.
Last night I thought that I could not endure
This desolation of my life much longer;
Last night I thought that Keats had made me stronger,
But now I know that poor Darlene had lent
The life she had to me. I must repent
For what my mind has wrought: a graveyard now
Possesses one more tombstone, with a bough
Of one lone sycamore to grant it shade.
Why couldn’t I have been the one unmade?
Oh, do not tempt me, ever-present noose!
If I should perish, what would be the use
Of Darlene’s sacrifice? If I am here
And she is not, no matter my despair,
I must endure the sun’s imperial rays,
And so, for Darlene’s sake, prolong my days,
For when I wished to swallow all my pills,
My body wracked with winter’s wicked chills,
Some force impelled me to retire to bed,
As if Darlene had in my childhood said,
As she had many times before, Now sleep.
When I awoke I heard the news and wept
For Darlene’s final act of charity
After all the things she did for me:
She watched my brother and I as we played,
Our reckless youth through sanguine acts displayed:
The football we would play in our backyard,
The fights we needed to be torn apart
From. Most of all, though, she relaxed with us:
She occupied our minds with dominoes,
And told us of her family as we
Would place those ivory tiles in an array
Of branches not unlike her family tree,
Abundant and familiar in their way:
There is her granddaughter, who taught me how
To write my stories, in fifth grade, about
The goblins and adventurers that filled
My mind, and taught me how to world-build;
There is her grandson, one of many, who
Played football for Northwestern, and who knew
The rules of chess, and played me when we met;
There are three sons, whose stories I forget,
But who, when I decided I should call
To ask about the wake and funeral,
Recalled my name, and told me that Darlene
Had thought of me as one of her grandchildren;
And so, I guess, I too, in my lament
Remain a broken kindred monument
To her, and how I wasted her last days.
I cannot offer anything but praise
For her. It isn’t right that she should give
Her life for someone who struggles to live
Beyond the confines of his mind’s lament.
When I consider how my years were spent
I cannot help but think on how I was,
Before this bitter morning, dangerous,
And think on how my logical response
Should be to give in now to what I want:
To sleep, perchance to dream. But no! My friend
Has given life so I may comprehend
How fleeting life is. I must live, for now
I must tend to that lonely sycamore’s bough
And so preserve whatever of Darlene
Remains, and make her sacrifice now seem
As though it was worthwhile. I must live
As long as my body has breath to give.
And you, Darlene, now dwell amongst the grass,
Where you remain until all things will pass.
Know this: that you and Keats are now compact
In our imagination, and in fact,
For what is Earth but one enormous tomb
Where everything that perishes finds room
Together for their bones to rest, as you
And Adonais, for all time, now do.
I offer up this verse to you. It’s poor;
I cannot make you Genius of the shore,
But still, I offer this, in hope that you
May still persist, through this poor verse and through
The life I live that you have given me.
I hope that in due time I’ll learn to see
My life as meaningful, like yours. I’ll make
This bargain worth it, for your memory’s sake.
I hope I have not somewhat loudly swept
The string; I hope that I have fully wept
And fully strummed as hard as I could play.
Now muse, depart me. Leave me for today.
All is still disarrayed within my mind
With you still here, and Darlene in the ground,
For you bring melancholia, and I
Must now, for Darlene’s sake, refuse to die.
On the night of February 22, 2021, I, for reasons I will not go into, experienced a depressive episode that was accompanied by suicidal ideation. I followed my well-trodden algorithms for dealing with such situations, and eventually went to bed in place of doing anything harmful to myself. Still, the thoughts and impulses were there. The next day, February 23, the bicentennial of John Keats’s death, I woke up to the news that a family friend, one who had played an integral role in raising my brother and I (especially following our mother’s suicide), had died that morning. Even though there was no logical connection between my depressive episode and her death, I still felt guilty: in spite of the fact that I knew this was illogical, I felt like this family friend had died in place of me when I had been contemplating suicide, as if she had exchanged her life for mine. I also felt, on another level, guilty for having wanted, however briefly, to die, when others, like my friend, die without an option for more life. Later that day, I attended a reading (put on by the Keats Letters Project) of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Adonais” and was deeply moved by the poem. That night, I resolved to attempt to write an elegy for my friend which was inspired by “Adonais” (the poem rather clearly wound up having other, more prominent intertextual connections, but this was the initial intent of the poem). The central conceit was that my friend had given her life so that I might live, and that my friend would now, by me, be remembered with John Keats because of the day on which she died. I worked on the poem for several hours; by the end of that period I had an initial draft of 96 lines which would, with much editing, become the poem in its current iteration.
The form of the poem did not immediately come to me; I knew I wanted to work in form of some kind, but I also knew that I lacked the formal dexterity to compose an extended poem consisting of Spenserian stanzas. I initially tried to write the poem in elegiac stanzas , but I was making very little progress. Eventually, I abandoned the few stanzas I had written and tried to start the poem over, and then I noticed that “muse” rhymes with “excuse.” I thus started following the form that holds throughout the poem (with one exception, an elegiac stanza that happened completely by accident when I rhymed “we” with “array” and then noticed I wanted to bring up my friend’s “family tree”), which consists of quatrains composed of two heroic couplets each. In addition, I felt that couplets made some sort of sense as an homage to John Keats himself, who often wrote his poems in couplets early in his career, perhaps most notably in Endymion. I left the stanza length at four lines because I still wanted to echo the tradition of elegiac stanzas on some level: even while not adhering to the form, I hoped that the quatrains would lend the poem some resemblance to elegiac stanzas.
Whether or not the poem is successful and worthwhile, I am grateful to the Keats Letters Project for providing me the opportunity to publish this work. No matter how effective and moving the poem may or may not be, this poem, at the very least, solidifies my feelings towards an important figure in my life, and my reaction to her death. Like Keats, she is now a portion of the loveliness that comprises everything on Earth, which she made more lovely through her acts. I am honored to be given a platform for my offering of gratitude and mourning for her, and I am honored that you, dear reader, have deigned to engage with my work, and by doing so have granted my friend a place to dwell in your mind, however briefly it may last. Thank you.
Keats’s visit to Burns’s tomb seems to have stopped him in his tracks. His letter to Tom, written over a period of four days, captures an unusual stillness in his response to seeing the mausoleum at St Michael’s Churchyard, Dumfries, after an especially energetic week. On 29 June, still buoyant from his latest adventures with Charles Brown in the Lake District, he describes scrambling up the rocks at Lodore Falls, making a ten-mile circuit of Derwent Water, seeing the Druid stones, and climbing Mount Skiddaw. Pausing at Carlisle two days later, he is so tickled by the vigorous performance of the country dancing school they had seen at Ireby—the dancers’ kicking, jumping, whisking, twirling and stamping suggesting the beating of “a batter pudding”—that he jokes about hoping to learn the Highland fling during their travels in Scotland.
Keats was proud of having walked 114 miles, declaring that it had made them “merely a little tired in the thighs, & a little blistered”. But he had noticed that being on the move inhibited their connection with people in the communities they moved through: “I fear our continued moving from place to place, will prevent our becoming learned in village affairs; we are mere creatures of Rivers, Lakes, & mountains”. The river and mountain-roaming creatures now boarded a coach to travel the 38 miles from Carlisle to Dumfries. As they arrived on the afternoon of 1 July, a fellow passenger on the coach “said the horses took a Hellish heap o’ drivin—the same fellow pointed out Burns’ tomb, ‘There de ye see it, amang the trees; white, wi a roond tap’”. Was it this chance comment on the “Hellish” work of the horses that put Keats in mind of entering an underworld, perhaps evoking Hades on his chariot, as they neared Burns’s tomb? The idea may also have taken root from his moving through Dante’s Inferno through his reading of Henry Francis Cary’s translation of the Divina Commedia during the walking tour. Either way, the sight of Burns’s mausoleum seems to have provoked his sad thoughts about judgement, suffering, and poetic fame.
Appearing like an epitaph on the page, the sonnet “On visiting the Tomb of Burns” signalled their arrival in Dumfries in the letter Keats resumed writing to Tom later that day. The poem strikes familiar notes of transience in “the shortlived, paly summer” snatched from the chill of winter “for one hours gleam”. The churchyard and “beautiful, Cold” surrounding landscape are also glimpsed fleetingly “as in a dream”. But time is suddenly and disconcertingly elongated with the assertion of perpetual pain: “All is cold Beauty; pain is never done”. And we are unexpectedly invited to contemplate the work of Minos, the infernal judge in Dante’s Hell:
For who has mind to relish Minos-wise,
The real of Beauty, free from that dead hue
Fickly imagination & sick pride
[?Cast] wan upon it!
Keats’s Minos springs from the description in Cary’s translation of Dante, The Vision (1814), where he appears “Grinning with ghastly feature” as he sends each spirit to a particular circle of Hell by wrapping his serpent tail around his body a precise number of times (Canto V, 5). The second circle of Hell which Minos guards audibly compresses pain; it is smaller than the first, but it “so much more of grief contains / Provoking bitter moans” (V, 3–4). Here, the spirits of legendary lovers such as Helen of Troy, Paris, Cleopatra, Francesca of Rimini and Paolo swirl in a howling maelstrom of sorrow—punished for their lust. Physical beauty has no purchase here, nor do the flawed perceptions of humankind. Minos can “relish” the task of judging those who come before him because he is moved by neither their charms nor their frailties.
Dante had imagined himself guided by the shade of his poetic hero, Virgil, through this harrowing place. But Keats positions himself unexpectedly in the impassioned closing lines of the sonnet—not just as one poet paying homage to another, but as a sinner who seems to feel so unworthy that he asks the “Great shadow” of Burns to look away:
Burns! With honor due
I have oft honoured thee. Great shadow; hide
Thy face, I sin against thy native skies.
What is the poet-speaker’s unnamed “sin”? And why did Keats associate Burns with an afterlife of judgement and suffering?
Brown mentions in a letter to Dilke that Keats spent the next five hours abusing the Scots and their country, complaining about the women’s large feet and thanking providence that he was not related to any Scots! But a tired traveller’s tongue-in-cheek complaints don’t seem enough to explain these startling lines about sin and shame. More revealing are Keats’s comments in his letter to Tom a few days later (7 July) about the damage that had been done to Burns’s playful spirit by the austere Scottish church: “These kirkmen have done Scotland harm—they have banished puns and laughing and kissing”. For Keats, Burns’s love of sensuous pleasures was at odds with the restrictive and morally judgemental society in which he lived: “Poor unfortunate fellow—his disposition was southern—how sad it is when a luxurious imagination is obliged in self defence to deaden its delicacy in vulgarity, and riot in thing[s] attainable that it may not have leisure to go mad after thing[s] which are not”. Here Keats alludes to the public judgement of Burns for his fondness for alcohol and women—particularly following James Currie’s revelatory biography in an edition of the Works of Burns (1800). He strongly sympathises with Burns and feels that he has been wronged.
If Keats saw Burns as not belonging to a restrictive religious climate, he also found the poet’s tomb out of keeping with everything around it, and he felt disconnected from the place: “This Sonnet I have written in a strange mood, half asleep. I know not how it is, the Clouds, the sky, the Houses, all seem anti Grecian & anti Charlemagnish—”. The mausoleum appeared gaudy to him: “Burns’ tomb is in the Churchyard corner, not very much to my taste, though on a scale, large enough to show they wanted to honour him”.
An elegant aquatint of Burns’s tomb in Dumfries in 1818, now in the collection of Dumfries Museum, depicts a pale domed neo-classical temple, with a hexagonal base and open colonnades, in a setting so spacious and park-like that it looks more like a folly on a grand country estate than a monument in a graveyard. Beneath the image by the artist William James Bennett are some lines about poetic fame from Burns’s poem “The Brigs of Ayr”:
No! though his artless strains he rudely sings,
And throws his hand uncouthly o’er the strings,
He glows with all the spirit of the Bard,
Fame, honest fame, his great, his dear reward. (ll. 15–18)
While Burns presents himself as an “artless”, “rude”, “uncouth” bard on a quest for “honest fame”, the ostentatious monument to his poetic immortality strikes a different chord.
William James Bennett, ‘Burns Tomb, Dumfries’; Engraver: Davis; Publisher: M A Nicholson, 12 Loudon Street, 2nd January 1818. Image courtesy of Dumfries Museum.
The grandiose tomb simultaneously drew attention to Burns’s long neglect. For over twenty years after his death in 1796, the poet’s remains had rested in an obscure plot of earth in St Michael’s churchyard, his widow being too poor to afford a headstone at the time of his burial. The elaborate mausoleum to Scotland’s “heaven-taught ploughman” partly served to counter the widespread impression that he had been shamefully neglected by his native country. Designed by the successful London architect, Thomas Frederick Hunt, and erected by subscription, with work begun on the site in 1815, the mausoleum had finally been unveiled in September 1817. At over twenty-five feet in height and fifteen feet in diameter, it stood out (and still does, as I found when I visited in 2018) for its size as well as its brightness—a dramatic contrast to the unmarked grave where the poet was originally buried not many steps away.
No wonder Keats found his visit disturbing. Despite achieving genuine fame and recognition in his lifetime, Burns had died in poverty at the age of 37. His afterlife was no less full of extremes: his physical remains may have been transported from a nameless grave to the grandest of funeral monuments, but his reputation was still tarnished by the prevalent idea that he had destroyed himself through weakness and vice. In this light, Keats’s instinctive perception of Burns as a poet who continued to suffer public judgement was apt.
Keats’s ambivalent response to seeing the mausoleum anticipates the disillusionment he would experience at Burns’s Cottage in Alloway (which he found had become a miserable tourist trap) some ten days later. He felt as disconnected from Burns at his birthplace as at his tomb. In Burns’s room he would compose “This mortal body of a thousand days”, which concludes with Keats raising a glass of toddy to Burns’s memory and trying to “smile among the shades, for this is fame!”
Author’s photo of Burns’s Mausoleum, Dumfries (September 2018)
Meiko O’Halloran is Senior Lecturer in Romantic Literature at Newcastle University, UK, and the author of James Hogg and British Romanticism: A Kaleidoscopic Art (2016). Her recent work on Keats includes ‘Reawakening Lycidas: Keats, Milton, and Epic’ in Review of English Studies (2020) and ‘Keats at Burns’s Grave’ in John Keats and Romantic Scotland, ed. by Katie Garner and Nicholas Roe (forthcoming with OUP).
On 30 November 2020, the KLP Editors served as guests at a meeting of “Romanticism in the Meantime,” a bi-weekly virtual gathering organized by Jonathan Mulrooney and Emily Rohrbach. For the bicentennial of Keats’s last letter, each of the KLP Editors offered their reflections on Keats, on his correspondence, and on the KLP itself. We reproduce them here in textual form as we near the bicentennial of Keats’s death. Click here for more on the KLP’s coverage of this sad, last bicentennial.
I don’t know if you know the contemporary poet Ross Gay, but if you don’t, I highly recommend you read him. I’ve been reading his most recent poetry book, Be Holding, and I love it, just as I loved his previous one, catalog of unabashed gratitude. In any case, I’m thinking of him now because I just had to figure out how to address everyone here—wherever that is—and I recalled how much I enjoy when Gay addresses his reader, not in the 19th-century mode of “Dear Reader,” but simply, and in the plural, as “friends.” So goes the opening line of the title poem of catalog of unabashed gratitude: “Friends, will you bear with me today.”
I’m lucky enough to call some of you friends already, but I’m also projecting into the future here, hopeful that with all of you my address will someday reach its destination. In any case, I hope that you can at least bear with me today. And bear with Keats, which is what, among other things, he asks of Charles Brown in his last letter. “There, you rogue,” he writes to his friend, “I put you to the torture,—but you must bring your philosophy to bear—as I do mine, really—or how should I be able to live?” To bear with Keats, or to bear as Keats does, is necessary to support his ability to live. (You can read my friend David Sigler’s wiser words on this sentence from Keats’s letter by checking out our collaborative post published on the KLP earlier today—David brought his philosophy to bear on the letter, and so should you bring yours.)
I’m also thinking about friends as we reflect on the work of the KLP over the last few years. Our project blossomed out of friendships—some old, some new—and it’s often been about them, too. Keats’s first letter, an epistolary poem that may or may not have actually been sent as a letter, speaks of his “great partnership” with its addressee, George Felton Mathew, whom Keats calls his “too partial friend.” In her response to this letter, published way back at the end of 2015, Kate Singer focused on the linguistic and semiotic play in “partnership” and “partial,” and how the playful, convivial impulse behind Keats’s friendships was something animating the KLP as well. But the “partiality” of friendship could also gesture toward the limitations of connection, of the many ways we remain separated from and mediated to one another, even before the pandemic but in more striking ways now during it.
All of this is to say, friends, that the occasion of commemorating Keats’s last letter here at the end of 2020 has been, well, difficult. Keats’s letter opens with the admission that “Tis the most difficult thing in the world to me to write a letter,” and many things this year have felt similarly. And yet, even at our worst, like Keats in quarantine, we summon up whatever we can, be they puns or other arts of living (another friend, Rebecca Ariel Porte, writes today, “the dead know that an awkward bow is an art of living.”) What else can we do but ask, with Keats, “Remember me to all friends.”
What I’ve found over the last few weeks, as I’ve corresponded with many friends (of Keats, of the KLP, of my own), and as I’ve made new friends that I hadn’t known at all until we corresponded about Keats’s last letter, is that it can be less difficult to write a letter, or an email, when our great partnerships take shape. As we wrote days after the 2016 election in a piece titled, “Why We Need Keats,” “As much as it pains the editors of the Keats Letters Project to admit, we may not really need Keats. What we do need is what we build around Keats.” And so, friends, I close my epistle with gratitude for you and your time today exploring with us what we’ve been building together.
Your sincere friend and co-scribbler,
My Dear Mr. Keats,
When my friends and I began this project, I was interested in your letters as objects because I knew you regarded them as such—as things, things that could be stained with jam, things that could be taken to bed, as you did with a July 1819 letter from Fanny Brawne. But I also was interested in your letters as objects because I knew something that you did not yet know when you wrote your early letters—that eventually they would bear the news of your body weakening—that as objects they would bear the physical traces of your faltering form into the hands of your correspondents. I knew that in these circumstances your letters, as bodies in the world, would take on a special charge. This is what letters can do when one correspondent is ill. I discovered this while silently weeping as I held the letters that Tom Poole and Tom Wedgwood sent to one another as Wedgwood approached death.
And you reminded us of all of this when you wrote to Charles Brown on 30 November—exactly two centuries ago—of avoiding his most recent letter: “I am afraid to look it over again.” We may fear the written word in many forms, but you told Brown that it was his visible trace that you feared most: “I cannot bear the sight of any hand writing of a friend I love so much as I do you.” His letter meant something different because you were ill. And your letter must’ve meant something different to him, too. I can imagine Brown looking at the shape of your script, trying to divine the state of your body by the appearance of the words. And he would’ve done something different with that letter, wouldn’t he have? At the very least he must have held it differently, and felt differently when he held it—the letter that was an object that connected his body to your dying body.
I wondered when we began the Keats Letters Project in 2015 what it would mean to reread your letters as you wrote them—not all at once, page after page according to my own pace—but slowly, spaced or clustered as they issued from your mind and pen. And reading your letters in this way did change things, at least somewhat. But I thought there were other ways I couldn’t get closer to you. My life is so far from yours. Time and distance mean different things now. Email and airplanes have changed us.
When we began our project, I didn’t think that digital communication could bear any of the charge of letters, but this year they have for me, as I have been at a distance from all of my loved ones that live beyond the walls of my little house. This spring I found myself beginning messages with the strained sentence “I hope this email finds you as well as possible,” all the while fearing news of illness or trauma, much as your correspondents would’ve come increasingly to fear for your body. Silence began to gnaw at me differently. I began to seek connection and correspondence differently. I began to avoid communication differently. Zoom has helped, but not much.
I sometimes touch objects that remind me of the people and places beyond my little house. Last month I made a casserole my mother used to make that I hadn’t had in nearly 30 years—I think for the smell. I wish I could hear my brother’s thumping feet above, and feel irritated by the strains of Nickelodeon theme songs emanating from his room. I wish I could feel and smell and taste the November air at dusk in Connecticut. I wish I could hear the sirens on Second Avenue. I can imagine putting a letter under my pillow.
In November 2020, I don’t take for granted that I will see my loved ones again. I never did, really, but I lived like I did. And as we climb the graphs here in Mississippi and across the country—graphs that blur people into blue and red lines—we are, all of us, in a contingent place, a fragile place. Distance and time have shifted. And we are—or at least I am—much closer to you in Rome.
I remain your humble servant—as I have been for quite some time, but I am perhaps now more than ever before,
Anne C. McCarthy
To my spectral companions and compatriots:
We’ve been living with Keats and his letters for five years now. There’s been a pleasure in suspending our knowledge of where it all ends—I think back to some of the earliest responses that drew attention to how much of Keats’s life remained unwritten in, say, 1816, and I think about the ways that something like negative capability could spring from a play of contingencies not yet congealed into felicity or tragedy. It’s a truism to remark that we don’t write letters like that anymore, but that doesn’t mean letters no longer matter. It’s just that they are largely, in the 21st century, the tools of institutions and officialdom, the neoliberal manager’s missile of choice for evaluating one’s suitability for a task (cover letters, letters of recommendation), for hiring and firing, for the granting and withholding of support. Today’s letters are more likely to narrow the vale of soul-making than enlarge it.
This is on my mind as I think about the first sentence of Keats’s last missive: “Tis the most difficult thing in the world for me to write a letter.” It’s not that Keats, writing from Rome at the end of 1820, has any less to say than he did in early 1818 when he reveled in the excesses of his “teeming brain” in “When I have fears that I may cease to be.” If anything, there is more to say at this later date, more words to be projected onto the page, across Europe, across time. There are still so many letters to write, but so much pain in the writing. It must have felt both absolutely necessary and entirely insurmountable. As another Charles Brown (the character in Peanuts, not Keats’s addressee) once admitted to his own pen pal, “some days I feel like I’m writing uphill.”
I gave up writing for Lent this year because I could no longer visualize a future. Determined to avoid the sorts of deadly thoughts of past times—and thankfully here I had a less problematic stomach than Keats did—I started reading. It wasn’t so much a journey through realms of gold as it was the process of laying down stepping stones towards a shore that may or may not be there at all.
The thing about an impasse is that it’s supposed to end at some point—the word implies that there is a passage, even if that passage only reveals itself as a blockage. Both Lent and, in its original use, quarantine, refer to periods of forty days. I thought that’s about how long I’d read for. But the time of giving things up has never really ended this year. Keats’s literal quarantine in Naples harbor was only about ten days, and we know that he wrote, and generated puns throughout. But Rome wasn’t really an end to that separation as an intensification of it—that “posthumous existence” where the future is both inevitable and unthinkable.
As someone who literally wrote the book on suspension, I should probably have made peace with this by now. I can say that I’m on track to read about 150 books this year and it has taken me an inordinately long time to put these words on paper. It’s perpetually the 41st day of the thing that was supposed to end at 40; what can we do but follow Keats’s advice to bring our philosophy to bear? Thus far, the bicentenniality of it all has given us a convenient alibi for our resistance to the rule of the official letter. The spacing of distance and absence is also what allows thought to breathe.
As we move beyond the shelter of the bicentennial, what comforts may we find in writing—and not writing—with—and without—Keats?
Yours in (somewhat) willing suspension,
Dearest Beloved Correspondents:
I’ve been thinking a lot about our early conversations, and in particular our discussions of the letter-poem to George Felton Mathew. I wrote then of the Brotherhood of Song that the letter enacts, speaking of the ways singing together required breathing together, and the necessity of physical proximity to music making—the one thing that the letter, as a marker of physical distance, can never achieve. These thoughts have resonated over the course of our project, as the editorial team have sought ways to get together, to enjoy one another’s company, but all too frequently have had to resort to google hangouts and latterly Zoom meetings. Now, I feel this irritation more intensely. Physical distance has become social distance. Correspondence has become an impossible, but life-saving necessity—simultaneously heroic and utterly tedious.
But there’s something else about the quality of song, that has been pestering me since those early conversations. It’s a thing that, at least as a short-hand, we might call “the ear worm”: the short musical phrase that gets stuck in your head, burrowing deep down into the skull, pestering you with its glossy unrelenting appeal. We don’t have an equivalent term to describe similar literary effects, but I think we need one. Because certain moments from literature, stay with you. There are words that resonate deeply, echoing through our skulls and becoming a part of our identity. Keats has furnished us with a few good ones. Beauty is truth, Truth beauty. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. But Keats was himself subject to the literary ear worm, as he shows in his final letter.
“There was a star predominant” says Keats misquoting from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The speech Keats refers to comes from the scene in which Leontes is driven to the point of madness by his jealousy and lashes out with extraordinary passion at everything and everyone around him, leading him ultimately to blame the construction of the planet, which Leontes claims is inherently lecherous. “It is a bawdy planet, that will strike where ‘tis predominant,” Leontes says. It is this vicious, wild jealousy that Keats invokes when he reflects that he’s only just missed Charles Brown on his way to Italy.
You could see this as completely commensurate with the passion of Keats’s feeling. Keats was desperately ill and his frustration at learning about this near miss must have been exquisitely painful. But you could also read it as a comically ludicrous allusion. The near miss of seeing his good friend and collaborator was almost nothing like the cosmic and vicious jealousy of Leontes, who believes his wife was cheating on him.
So what is the allusion doing in this letter? Maybe it’s just an ear worm. A line from Shakespeare, that has been playing repeatedly in Keats’s skull. A good line that recurs obsessively, but not necessarily appropriately, or even correctly. Partly what I’m getting at is that we need a language to describe both the intensity and frequency of the textual encounter, rather than the mere fact of it. A song that plays repeatedly in the head is a different form of interaction than going to hear a song performed at a concert. It gets under the skin, and into the bones. You can hear this happening with The Winter’s Tale in Keats’s last letter. And you can hear it in our respondents writing about Keats. There are those phrases like negative capability or the “vale of Soul-making” which are already well-known. But others less obvious have resonated across the entries, like the phrase “An Era in my Existence” written as Keats contemplates his first meeting with Leigh Hunt, which, has become a marker for significant events of all kinds. And now too, with this final letter: the “awkward bow” is a phrase that I know I will be using with some considerable frequency from now on.
And with that, I will make my graceful exit.
Your most loyal and obedient Humble Servant,
Ian Newman, Esq.
A few days ago, the KLP published my reflection on the November 30 letter. In that reflection, I argue that Keats criticism so far has missed a pretty obvious pun: when Keats says he is “leading a posthumous existence,” he is, among many other things, noting that, exiled to Italy and away from his beloved, his existence is like that of Posthumus from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline—a favorite character from a favorite play.
But that argument is there to read, so instead of rehashing it, I’ve decided to present some insights in the genre of what I call thank-eww notes—offers of sincere gratitude that also often contain bad jokes. But this in itself really is a Keatsian endeavor, an homage. What Andrew Bennett says of Keats’s poems also adheres to the letters: “What makes the poetry of John Keats so compelling, at once so disturbing and so seductive, are its uncertain but irreducible and scandalous instabilities.”
The pun in posthumous Keats creates a scandalous instability. It is serious and deep and true, AND it is witty, AND a groaner. Here are mine:
Dear Keats, Thank you for explaining some of your wordplay as you wordplayed. Truly. Or else we may never have known you so well as we do, you Laugher at Fun Farces.
Dear Charles Cowden Clarke, Thank you for telling us of the tears Keats cried when reading of the departure of Posthumus. Truly. Without even trying, you explained Keats’s jest. It would have been very hard to Imogen the joke without you.
Dear Posthumous Existence, Thank you for the scintillating paradox you offer. Truly. But don’t ever think you’ll be as capable as negative capability.
Dear Dr. Clark, Thank you for doing your best. Truly. Even in the 21st century, we’re still working very hard to understand contagion and the medicinal power of anchovies.
Dear Bing Search Bar, Thanks for all the suggested treats when I punched in pun: punctuation, punching bag, punitive damages, Punta Gorda Airport, Punky Brewster, pundit. Truly. But what about the pungent, puncturing punk rock of punchinellos? What about the explicitly puntomimical?
Dear Literature, Thank you for all the super-prizes.
Dear Keats, If you were tall like me you could have said, Lord Byron cuts a figurine.
Dear Doubters, There’s a late-night comedian who has a segment called Quarantinewhile. Truly. It combines his regular segment Meanwhile with the fact that we’re living in a pandemic. No one bats an eye.
Dear Keats Critics, Let’s keep unabashedly trying to become better friends of Keats. Truly. Let’s understand that being a friend means having in-jokes. Even if those in-jokes are no-dad-jokes.
Dear Severn, Though I still don’t know what I think about what you decided to do with the laudanum, thank you—truly—for doing your best.
Dear Hyder, Love your work. All of what the KLP has done has in some way come from you. There cannot be enough gratitude for all you did. Truly. But sixty plus years ago you forgot a footnote.
Dear Mole Under Imogen’s Breast, Thanks for being a sign of having been false as much as having been true.
Dear Freshness, Thanks a lot. I wasn’t even going to work on this, but then I shared on our shared KLP Google doc an idea that I had to address my comments today to Hyder E. Rollins, the editor of the standard scholarly edition of Keats’s letters, and you wrote, “DEAR HYDER!!!!!” And I replied, “I can’t figure out what at all to do with this… Planning a tactical retreat… Unless I do something like: Dear Hyder, Love your work. But you forgot a footnote.” And you wrote, “That’s perfect!” And then, suddenly, I had an idea, and wrote, “Thinking of a short series of these kinds of quick notes. Not letters, but postcards…” Then you wrote, “Yeah, I totally dig it. Fits well with the content of your remarks, too.” And I said, “Thanks, Brother. Let me see what I can do…” And then you said, “Feel free to also feature this exchange in your remarks,” adding after that a colon and a closed parenthesis, which, if we didn’t know the signs, I could have taken to mean “the rest is silence,” but, knowing, instead, I wrote: “You read my mind.”
Scandalously, Instably, but still Yours,
Dear all of yous proing and cunning,
Can I admit that I too am “afraid to encounter the proing and conning of any thing interesting to me” outside my office where I “teach” other yous, and where my son sits in frenetic boredom spinning the chair of remote school? Keats’s FOMO in this letter is, of course, deathly serious, and/but/also, Keatsian afraidness contains a punning temporality that might be familiar to us now. For he is anxious and apprehensive of what is happening elsewhere and otherwise; he resists projecting into a future he cannot see into the life of. Yet, he is also all too aware of consequences that cannot but bring him forward, in ways he neither intends nor desires.
Keats, as usual, sits on the ledge of an apocalypse whose Hyperionic brightness blots out any vision of what comes next. When he writes of his “real life having past,” it seems to be, partially, that feeling that everything we know, all the ways we have lived are changed, yet “how it would have been” and how “it appears to me” cannot be spoken of. He is better now that is he no longer ensorceled in a plagued ship, but he is still quarantining, still encloistered in the apprehension of the “or how should I be able to live.” The “or how should I” is enabled by both Brown’s “philosophy to bear” and the “as I do mine, really”; with the beings of Brown and Severn, there is never a single Keatsian apocalypse. Individual death, even the death of the author, rides the pony, at least in our imaginations, of other endings, of others’ endings of us, of other ways of dying into life. As I looked at the picture of a mobile mortuary in Texas this morning, I heard Judith Butler asking, “What makes for a grievable life?” and I then heard Keats punning on grievable. Maybe the “probing and coming” of “healthy, alert &c, walking with her,” his “riding the pony” of those puns, the ramming down of double meanings “to consolidate by pounding,” the Italian puntiglio of stubbornness, the ironic temporality of a future comic drum beat where one meaning becomes another, one life becomes another.
If Keats, as we do, knew there was no re-covery from the revelation of “all the information,” he is always asking us how we transform our dying into lives, how grievability of ours and others’ “real life having past,” the grievability of our “philosophy to bear” becomes a shin-protecting greave, a jambeau, or enjambment of the leg swinging over, shod without stopping, the next foot taken. “I have not written to x x x x x yet” “I shall write to x x x to-morrow, or next day. I will write to x x x x x in the middle of next week.” “and tell x x x x I should not have left London without taking leave of him.” Here is Keats’s To Do List for himself, and for us, to think of writing each other, not only in Romantic taverned sociability but with punning greavability, not admitting absence but the criss-crossed praising and conceiving of others, who are readying themselves for work and battle and unshielded love. In my not-yet xx’ed to do list still developing to-morrow, or middle of next semester: Rejack’s flat-capped networked media magic, Stanback’s not very little matter of letters that rewrite our notions of abled re-covery, Theune’s long-armed & tall order poetics of closures and puns that signal that negatively capable evermore about to be, Newman’s gregariously bearded information of the Londonian multiverse, McCarthy’s Gritted, Wollstonecraftian truth-saying and unbowed living on. My friends, let’s keep xxxing our project and others, even if conning the end after the end ’tis the most difficult thing in what was formerly known as the world…
“Remember me to all friends,” wrote Keats to Charles Brown near the end of his last extant letter. One cannot help but think: those friends needed no reminder. Nor do we, assembled here 200 years after Keats’s epistolary goodbye via an “awkward bow” to Brown and to “all friends.” As Karen Swann writes in her essay for the occasion, when we engage with Keats’s letters and the letters written about him posthumously by family and friends, it “brings home the degree to which Keats’s reception, the attachment readers feel for this poet, is inflected by the work of love and mourning.” Now towards the end of 2020, looking back on the end of 1820 and the near end of Keats’s life, we endeavor to continue that labor, in all manner of ways and for so many reasons.
Although we’re calling this a “collective valediction,” it should not be read as a final word. The KLP will continue to correspond with Keats. But at this moment, we feel it just and fitting to offer a goodbye of sorts, awkward though it may be, and knowing that we will continue speaking well of, to, and with Keats beyond now. The letter written to Brown on 30 November 1820 may have been Keats’s last one, but it would not and could not be final, precisely because of “all friends” who’d remember him again and again.
The collaborative nature of the KLP has always been a core element of its appeal to us. We began at a conference (at a convivial gathering at a pub), and we’ve attempted always, like Keats, to make our work matter through sociality. Even this last letter, so intimate and personal, is still permeated with Keats’s concerns with and for his friends. Christopher Ricks—whose comments in Keats and Embarrassment surely count as among the most moving written on the last letter—notes the following:
What makes it so difficult for him to write is not only the pain and terror of his anguish and imminent death, but also the sheer embarrassment of it. How do you tell a friend that you are about to die, without the embarrassments of true fear or the embarrassments of false stoicism? True to the last, Keats makes his very last words ones which directly raise to Brown’s and to his own attention this awful awkwardness[.] … How staunch and imaginative it is of Keats that at the moment when he is indeed taking leave he can so perfectly accommodate his undisguisedly tragic suffering to a rich and simple solicitude for the embarrassment of others. “I always made an awkward bow. God bless you!” It must be the least awkward bow ever made, and this for the saddest, fearful final bow. There is no more to say of it than that it brings tears to the eyes. “The tears will come into your Eyes—let them.” (217, 219)
So let us now respond together, and we’ll let the tears come as they may, as we do what Keats asked from Brown and all friends: we remember.
Keats’s 30 November 1820 letter to Charles Brown. Via Google Books preview of Hyder Edward Rollins’s The Letters of John Keats. Click to enlarge.
Brian Bates California Polytechnic State University
“Yet I ride the little horse”
Written two weeks after arriving in Rome, Keats’s last letter emphasizes his physical and mental suffering in the presence of writing. The very things that he has devoted himself to and lived for—reading and writing—strike him now as a death sentence. And yet, Keats still has the capacity to pun! Keats’s “Yet I ride the little horse” makes light of the figure that he cuts while horseback riding (doctor’s orders) while also inviting Brown to imagine him one last time at his hobby-horse, letter writing. Keats recalls Tristram Shandy’s literal and figurative hobby-horses and the plight of Pastor Yorick and the narrator/author, Tristram Shandy/Laurence Sterne. Keats likens himself to Yorick—descendent of Hamlet’s court jester Yorick—riding his winded horse and to Tristram riding his horse to escape Death who has knocked at his door. In his last letter, Keats feels for his “posthumous existence,” riding the line between writing and no longer writing, irony and sentiment, laughter and death—all the way to his final, graceful “awkward bow.”
It’s the fear. Keats’s pure fear of dying, and dying in such a horrible, merciless way. Keats knows he’s gone—gone “past,” as he says, his “real life.” He writes that he’s pained, weak, desperate; comfortless, in miseries; he’s terrified to even think of the past. While in quarantine in Naples a month earlier, and out of desperation, he summoned endless puns to smother what was smothering him; it’s what a disabled poetry might do. The world’s novelties now mean nothing. The two Fannys haunt him; so does Tom. What’s left to declare? That he’s sorry? Yes, Keats wants his faults forgiven; and he needs to tell his best friend, his “dear Brown,” that he loves him: they spent many nights under the same roof, and many nights lying beside each other in the damp, often smoky darkness during their northern trip. Yet, for the passing moment of this letter, Keats cannot suppress the negatively capable, camelion poet who remains his only self-salvation: he briefly thinks into the conflated contraries of feeling and knowing, of “light and shade,” with his rotted stomach the enemy preventing him from writing one final poem. But then again, in a way, we have it: Keats’s last letter.
Keats’s last letter closes with a heartbreaking line: “I always made an awkward bow.” It conveys his awareness of his own physical presence, its gracelessness, and its coming end. It can—I think—also scan, almost, as a line of verse composed of four iambs:
Ĭ álwăys máde ăn áwkwărd bów
The physicality that the line conveys can register as a metrical pattern, and if we hear that pattern, then the shared stress on the first syllable of “always” and “awkward” drives home his self-deprecation. (Any insecure teenager could easily identify with this feeling.) Nobody likes a goodbye, but Keats’s reluctance in the preceding line—“I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter”—achieves something unique and universal at once. In the final, metrical sentence, the written line of the letter merges with the physical component of sound. Keats does say good-bye, and he does so in a way that grants him the posthumous life of a poet whose immortal verse emerges from profound pain and the place where physical absence meets the written word.
The life of sensations and the life of thoughts—Keats had once desired, in a fit of antinomian inspiration, to have one over the other—but here, at the end, they are quite literally gut-checked to interdependence. The entire brief letter is (the pun-ster abides) an awkward bow tied in an awkward bow, the physical hampering expression, a sequence of incomplete or second-guessed gestures (“I will not speak,” “I cannot answer,” “I am afraid to look,” “I can scarcely bid”…) that could amount to a modernist poem. There is a dim echo of negative capability in his “knowledge of contrast, feeling for light and shade, all that information (primitive sense) necessary for a poem,” yet it now speaks not to great artists unembodying themselves in their work, but to his own, inescapable embodiment, a hindrance. If the life of the poet had once veered away from his nauseatingly material hospital life, now those two paths reconverge, and it’s no surprise to find Keats in this regression conjuring ghosts—not just Tom, but perhaps his father too (“I ride the little horse”). All of this is “torture” beyond bearing, with all its pained civilities, and I, perhaps like other Keatsians too, look away from this letter. The credits roll—or the encore plays—and I slip quietly away from the crowd feeling a little knot in my stomach too.
What strikes me about Keats’s final letter is not his famous claim to be “leading a posthumous existence” but rather the sentence following it: “God knows how it would have been—but it appears to me—however, I will not speak of that subject.” Keats imagines an unlived world between his dashes, signalling lost possibility and painful longing for Fanny Brawne and for more time. The incompleteness of his thought resists the syntactical containment pressing in from the dashes on either side. The dashes demarcate but also gesture toward ambiguity as in another famous Keats dash: “Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?”
Years ago, I saw Keats’s deathbed at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome. Like the letter, which comes to us indirectly by way of Brown’s Life of John Keats, Keats’s bed isn’t the original. The Italian authorities burned his bed along with other furnishings at 26 Piazza di Spagna after the poet’s death (Severn to Taylor, 6 March 1821). Yet Keats’s bed—or rather a bed—dominates a small room that now also houses his death mask and other relics. To modern eyes, the wooden sleigh bed is strikingly cramped, though its high headboard and footboard contain and, as it appeared to me, suspend the space of Keats’s life between them.
The view of Keats’s room at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome. Image via the Keats-Shelley House twitter account. They’re great and you should follow them!
Greg Ellermann Yale University
A Note on “Posthumous Existence”
“I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.” The sentence conveys Keats’s isolation and despair, his sense of being unmoored from earthly attachments while somehow living on. It also gestures at a literary afterlife, a “posthumous existence” in the survival of his works. But doesn’t this phrase capture something more profound in Keats’ poetry? Recall the marble urn, that mute remnant of a world gone by; or that goddess without a cult, undying though born “too late for antique vows.” In Hyperion, Keats’s great poem of political and historical aftermath, the Titans in retreat are “[s]carce images of life,” stony monuments to their own declining power. To live posthumously is to inhabit a world all in grey. As Hegel wrote in the months before Keats’s death, “[w]hen philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known.” Today, our form of life grows old, and even Hegel’s “grey in grey,” his figure for philosophy’s late-coming knowledge, seems to promise too much. So our question is, What comes after a posthumous existence?
Anne-Lise François University of California, Berkeley
Dear Keats, Typing on a screen allows me the outrage of claiming to share with you “an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.” For some of us who have outlived you by twice as much as the too short a time you walked upon the Earth greeting its fellow creatures with your awkward bows, there is a sense that whatever little horses we were riding were frozen mid-prance in some strange version of the child’s game “un, deux, trois soleil!”—whatever pose we were in, whatever star predominated on that fateful evening in mid-March, they will hold from now on for good, so that even when the virus is brought under control and life goes back to the monstrously noncollective forms of living that pass for normalcy in late industrial capitalism, the best we can hope for is the “proing and conning” of books whose ledgers are closed except on the side of the dead. A narcissistic illusion no doubt! but perhaps less so with respect to the 6th mass extinction brought about by anthropogenic climate change: what puns would you summon to rhyme les transports en commun (the public transits) of a planet’s posthumous existence?
Renee Harris Lewis-Clark State College
As I open a webpage to read Keats’s last letter, I’m surprised by a pop-up ad for non-medical grade face masks. Even as Keats writes of his time in quarantine, here we are, 200 years later, in a worldwide pandemic, isolating from our friends and family, coping as best we know how through a liminal existence. Keats’s own coping mechanisms are too relatable. In this final letter, Keats is guarding himself against feeling too deeply. He cannot open Charles Brown’s letter again. He cannot bear to look at the handwriting. “Feeling for light and shade” is bad for his stomach. And yet, this contrast of emotions is “all that information (primitive sense) necessary for a poem.” Not only must Keats deny himself the comfort of a friend’s words, in seeking emotional calm, he must deny his intellectual or professional identity. Though he cannot engage philosophically, he reassures Brown that his wit is still sharp: in quarantine, he “summoned up more puns” in a single week than in a whole year of his life. And making a joke even to the end, Keats closes with his “awkward bow,” and, I imagine, a weak smile.
At some point in my reading of his letters, I began to mark every time Keats complained of a sore throat. Usually made in passing, those complaints began as he wrote home from his walking tour of Scotland in the summer of 1818; they interrupted the long letter he sent to George and Georgiana after Tom’s death the next winter; just before the following Christmas, they were offered to his sister as explanation for his own absence. For the poet whose nightingale sang in “full-throated ease,” Keats himself seemed always to be asking readers to note the difficulty that singing, talking, and even swallowing would have caused him.
One of the things I love most about letters are their throat-clearing gestures, their ways of establishing contact with distant intimates by slipping the writer’s body into the picture. Keats’s complaints do this; his sore throat reminds his siblings of the grain of his voice, and of the body that has made that voice, even as his letters offer themselves in that body’s absence.
But how should a body take its leave? At the end of his final letter, Keats can’t quite do it. He says goodbye to his siblings through the intermediate figure of Brown: “Write to George as soon as you receive this, and tell him how I am, as far as you can guess;—and also a note to my sister—who walks about my imagination like a ghost—she is so like Tom.” That last substitution, Tom’s ghostly presence in Fanny’s body, invites others. Even to Brown, “even in a letter,” Keats “can scarcely bid … good bye.” He lingers in the doorway, he makes “an awkward bow.” He is the lover who looks back. His awkwardness is the excess that survives his death.
The little horse is what you ride anyway, when there is no point. Yet! I ride the little horse.
That word, “yet,” is important to the little horse. One rides the little horse “yet,” “still,” and one rides it “yet,” “in spite of it all.”
That word, “little,” is important to the little horse. The little horse is stout as a barrel, warm-blooded and solid-sided—but it is little.
That word, “the,” is important to the little horse. There is only ever the one little horse, the known and given little horse.
The little horse must be hired by the day, at minor but accumulative expense.
Yet you ride the little horse.
At last, something swells into reality: a mulberry tree, or a double grave.
Remember to give up thought, and to wait for sensation—which, when it comes, will not be what you thought.
Don’t be frightened. Be firm. Thank god it has come.
Rebecca Nesvet University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
At his worst, “even in Quarantine,” living “posthumously,” Keats “summon[s] up more puns” than any whole year had ever supplied him. Between the coughs, the carefully rationed sips of now-tasteless brandy; between England and Italy, living and dying, he seeks humor—and finds it in language.
If you see your own double, so the myth goes, you might die soon. He’ll die soon; he knows that, but the double he sees superimposed over the glossy wet ink is not his mirror-image. It’s his brother’s: that brother from whom he should have quarantined himself, were he far less human than he is.
There is nothing funny about this situation, just as there is nothing funny about our nine months of quarantine, loss, lockdown, mourning, and helplessly watching as other people go about their “posthumous existence” as if the air were safe to breathe. Looking back on what we did in the “before times,” we file that period as “real life.” If that’s what it was, then what is this? And which puns, what poetry, will help us to survive it?
Judith Pascoe Florida State University
In one of the most charming exits in literary history, Keats signed off what we know as his last surviving letter by expressing his reluctance to say good bye. “I always made an awkward bow,” he wrote to his friend Charles Brown. In the excellent Japanese translation by Einosuke Tamura, the sentence becomes Boku wa itsumo wakare no aisatsu ga heta datta ne, a sentence that translates back into English most naturally as “I was always bad at saying goodbye,” or more literally and clunkily as “I was always clumsy at parting salutations, wasn’t I.”
It’s interesting that the Japanese translation does not retain an equivalent to the word “bow,” even though Japanese people bow more routinely and repeatedly than did, presumably, the Englishman Keats. Outside of ticket barriers in Japanese train stations, families wave and bow to a departing loved one until that person disappears up an escalator or around a corner. The leave-taker, too, glances back, nodding and waving until he can no longer see those left behind. In Japanese, there’s an adjective that evokes a reluctance to depart—nagorioshii—a word that might be used to describe Keats’s wry valedictory sentence. We, too, are sad to see him go.
Rebecca Ariel Porte Brooklyn Institute for Social Research
The dead know that last words are impossible: Keats, 30 November, 1820, just out of quarantine, far from home, dying and knows it. Believes himself to be leading, already, “a posthumous existence,” practices walking about the imagination like a ghost. This last letter is, like so many of the poet’s, populous with ghosts. The redactions of Charles Brown (the addressee) conjure more phantoms: xxx, xxxxx. So much less stoic is the sender than Brown’s Life of Keats will want him to be. He can “scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter.” How, when you are not yet finished with life, do you imagine the terms of a just farewell to a life that is finished with you? There are still, at least, the formalities, if time: say goodnight. Say, with that rare self-elegist, Tichborne: “And now I live, and now my life is done” (or don’t). Say, if I’m wrong, if I make it through xxxxx, we’ll laugh about the time I said goodbye for good—when I, who caught so many wingèd words in my small silver hour—found only a few spent conventions to round off my life with you… the dead know that an awkward bow is an art of living.
Keats’s last apostrophe: “you rogue, I put you to the torture.” It is true that Keats is putting Brown to the question: “but you must bring your philosophy to bear, as I do mine, really, or how should I be able to live?” (Letters 2: 360). Brown’s only possible way out is to confess his “philosophy” as a way to save his friend—the torturer here holds the knife to his own throat. The “but” would seem to indicate a way out: a question is posed to Brown as an alternative to his being put to the (same) question. Thus the question can wriggle free of its own clutches; yet it also means that Brown can best resist by acquiescing. A “philosophy” is being demanded, “or how should I be able to live?” Keats implies that he has learned how to live finally.
Derrida likes the word “rogue” for its Shakespearean resonances (93)—resonances all the stronger when uttered by someone leading a “posthumous existence” and demanding “your philosophy.” If Brown is roguishly to escape this torture it will require of him his “philosophy.” Not philosophy in general, “but” “your” philosophy, and not because it is a sound philosophy, but because it is “yours.” Keats and Brown must each exercise their own philosophy but bring it to bear in the manner or style of the other. The two philosophies will remain distinct but match in their ways of being borne: you must bring your philosophy to bear, as I do mine, or else I shall die. Keats makes clear that his death is nigh. “But” yet he may be “able to live” if Brown can bring his philosophy to bear, as I do mine. Brown must bring his philosophy to bear in Keats’s way—it is a moral obligation. But no rogue could meet such an obligation, as to pass the test of a friend’s “must” would disqualify one as a rogue. And thus a rogue can only bring their philosophy to bear in their own way.
Pamela Siska Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Around the same time that Keats wrote his final letter, Shelley wrote to William Gifford, editor of the Quarterly Review. The idea that Keats’s death was caused, or at least hastened, by the Quarterly‘s derisive review of Endymion would become one of Romanticism’s most enduring legends. (Of course, it was later learned that the reviewer was John Wilson Croker, not Gifford.) Shelley tells Gifford: “Poor Keats was thrown into a dreadful state of mind by this review. . . . The agony of his sufferings at length produced the rupture of a blood vessel in the lungs & the usual process of consumption appears to have begun.”
Shelley continues: “He is coming to pay me a visit in Italy; but I fear that unless his mind can be kept tranquil, little is to be hoped from the mere influence of climate.” Perhaps hoping to help restore Keats’s tranquility, Shelley tried to redeem his reputation in the letter to Gifford. Rather than trying to convince Gifford of Keats’s genius, Shelley decided to let Keats’s poetry speak for itself. He says that he will send Gifford a copy of Keats’s recently published Lamia volume, calling Gifford’s attention especially to “Hyperion,” which, he proclaims, “is surely in the very best style of poetry.” For all Shelley’s good intentions, the letter was never sent.
Michele Speitz Furman University
Keats’s Last Letter and the Unwritten Time of Writing
As John Keats begins the ending of his final letter he tallies a spate of letters he has “not written.” These letters are all overdue, “delayed.” Intriguingly, the space he takes up to give voice to these belated missives assumes the largest swath of the letter that exists unbroken by any of the sixteen dashes that otherwise run throughout the rest of the entire document, all elsewhere severing his words from others and yet joining them to those other words at the very same time—and all by virtue of the power of nonverbal expression and communication conveyed not by written words but instead harbored within the symbol of a longer than ordinary horizontal line of ink. “I have not written to xxxxx yet … I will do … I shall write to xxx to-morrow, or next day. I will write to xxxxx in the middle of next week.” To these late letters Keats promises a future that never arrives but nonetheless they signify, they convey meaning, even as they were “not written.” These are letters that the poet feels he “will write,” he “shall write” “If [he] recover[s],” if he were not broken by that final unwritten dash that connects us to him and the rest of humankind.
Betsy Winakur Tontiplaphol Trinity University
On Keats’s Last Letter
I always made an awkward bow.
It’s the prosody that moves me first: those four perfect iambs. The sentence folds in half and diagrams itself, marking its own transition from verb to object with a delicate—but dead-center—caesura. Like a nail in a lintel, that pause pins in place the string of alternating w– and d-sounds that garlands both halves of the line, and aurally the effect is old-fashioned, almost Anglo-Saxon in its consonantal (if not quite alliterative) patterning. More broadly, the effect is decorative, even Christmassy; the sentence evokes a doorway symmetrically festooned with woodsy greenery, the kind of pretty aperture in which an elegant gentleman might find himself framed as he bows out of a holiday gathering. As craft—that is, as something “made”—this last epistolary statement is all grace, no awkwardness. Yet Keats “can scarcely bid … good bye even in a letter,” and when I permit that truth to resonate, the refined ease of the final sentence collapses beneath the etymology of awkward, a term that, though often invoked as a synonym for “clumsy,” originally connoted perversity and wrongness—all that’s off in this wide world. After all, Christmas is still some weeks away, and Keats, neither old nor especially elegant, is ambivalent about leaving life’s party, despite the degree to which he suffers there. Poetry lends grace but can’t impart justice, and no amount of careful scansion can mitigate the awkwardness of this departure.
In this letter, thematically and structurally in dialogue with “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats gives us one, last, odic turn. Picking up his pen in the lowest of states—dull, sick for home, professing to abjure sorrowful thought itself—he tolls himself back to himself, confronting his fears, convincing us his philosophy has been proved on his pulse.
It’s both Keats’s last letter, and the one laden with the greatest finality, and most of that in that final self-assessment, the self-conscious, “I always made an awkward bow.”
It kills us, repeatedly.
What Keats fears will kill him, with as much lethality as failure of the lungs, is the “knowledge of contrast.” He tells Brown he won’t think even a single thought about “light and shade,” about “proing and conning”—the very things (the irony isn’t lost on Keats) that vivified his poetry.
And yet this paraliptic letter is all about contrast: mind and body (where the exercise of mind is pitched against the recovery of body); before (well) and now (ill); what is (loneliness, isolation) and what might have been (a life with Fanny Brawne); death and puns—more of them in a week than in a normal year. Not that any year was normal in Keats’s extraordinary life.
One last time, Keats brings his philosophy to bear.
When putting together an edition of letters, it is inevitable that one will come to the final letter. The last of a lifetime, written when the author may or may not know the end is near. For Jane Austen, her final letter was positive in tone, writing that her sister, Cassandra, “talks of making me quite well.” Despite this hopeful sentiment, Austen had written her will a month before. The Romantic poet Thomas Campbell—whose letters I’m currently editing—left behind final written words that were far more perfunctory: he discussed business with his publisher, and called for laxatives. In complete contrast, for John Keats, his final letter is a beautiful exploration of love and loss, as he contemplates his “posthumous existence.” Like Austen he is aware of the possibility of death and fears he and his brothers “shall all die young.” Self-consciously literary to the end, this letter is arguably more powerful than any of Keats’s poems. It is one of the few times his mask slips, as his feelings of dismay at his impending demise crescendo. This letter provides a fitting end to a short and ultimately tragic life, containing the raw yet constrained emotion to be expected of a wordsmith of Keats’s calibre.
In this heartbreaking letter, Keats’s stomach, once fundamental to his poetic identity, turns against his creative process. Metaphors of consumption were at the heart of so many of Keats’s poems and letters—his lengthy digression into the delicious taste of a nectarine (To Charles Dilke, 22 September 1819), his ravenous hunger for the work of other writers, such as Shakespeare and Milton (To John Hamilton Reynolds, 27 April 1818, among other places), and the visceral images conjured by references to food and drink in his poetry—his “purple-stained mouth” (“Ode to a Nightingale”). The stomach, indeed, played a central role in Keats’s identity—”Perhaps I eat to persuade myself I am somebody,” he wrote to Richard Woodhouse on 21 September 1819. In this final letter, it is his stomach that is at odds with his poetry: “the knowledge of contrast, feeling for light and shade … great enemies to the recovery of the stomach.” The contrast of the beauty of Fanny, their relationship, and his illness, once a source of inspiration, now a source of agony.
“Let us now begin a regular question and answer, a little pro and con,” Keats writes to his sister, “in a way befitting a brother” (10 September 1817; L 1: 153). It was not for girls only. On 24 May 1818, he enjoyed dinner with Hazlitt, Haydon, and a couple of other guys, at which “Wellington was very amusingly pro and con’d” (L 1: 288). Just returned to England, the Duke was now a confirmed Tory with a Government post and isolationist politics. Pro and con is Keats’s through-line in the world: “Though a quarrel in the streets is a thing to be hated, the energiies displayed are fine,” he’d say the next spring (19 March 1819; L 2: 80). How poignant to hear him describe himself now too depressed, even physically “afraid to encounter the proing and conning of any thing interesting to me in England” (2: 230).
Yet for all this, Keats reflexively volleys his very words. In the next sentence, he writes of “my real life having past,” grimly doubling having past into having passed in a grammar of “posthumous existence.” It’s “an habitual feeling,” he says; but just as habitual is his instinct for lexical relay: “at my worst, even in Quarantine, [I] summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, than in any year of my life.” He closes the letter with a psychic grammar that conjures his early partner in pro and con: “my sister—who walks about my imagination like a ghost—she is so like Tom.” Fading from Brown, Keats mirrors himself. “I always made an awkward bow”: made not make, doubling himself into his past, in a formality of perfect iambic tetrameter.
In dream, two centuries after your last words on paper, I stand at the window. Bed, chair, placed by the curator; outside, birds round the chattering barcaccia, where penniless migrants sell single blooms to scattered tourists in defiance of lockdown. We visit shrines and tombs to commend our finer feelings and embrace the dead. Is that your “posthumous existence”? You have no such thing, but your words tingle over centuries, burning with insistent power to devour us, to assume the spinal impulse to possess, possess grotesquely compelling us to live them most intensely.
Derrida, Jacques. Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford UP, 2005.
Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, edited by Hyder E. Rollins. 2 vols. Harvard UP, 1958.
Tamura Einosuke, Keats shijin no tegami [Keats: the poet’s letters]. Fuzambo, 1977.
On November 6 1820, John Keats and Joseph Severn left Naples and made their slow way to Rome, where they arrived on November 15, taking up residence in rooms at 26 Piazza di Spagna that Dr. James Clark, Keats’s new physician, had found for them. There, on November 30, Keats wrote his last known letter to his friend Charles Brown. The letter survives only in Brown’s transcript, first printed in Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats.
For me, as no doubt for many of you following the Keats Letters Project, some of the phrases from this letter are so charged and memorable as to vex response. From its opening demurral—“’Tis the most difficult thing in the world for me to write a letter” (LK 2:359)— we are drawn into the landscape of Keats’s posthumous life, his name for the period that stretched out between his ended “real life” and his coming death.What has always struck and haunted me about the letters of this period are the litanies they contain of the things Keats can no longer “bear.” “My stomach continues so bad, that I feel it worse on opening any book . . . Then I am afraid to encounter the proing and conning of anything interesting to me in England. I have an habitual sense of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence,” he writes to Brown here, apologizing to his friend that he can’t answer the former’s earlier letter in any detail because he is incapable of re-reading it: “I cannot bear the sight of any hand writing of a friend I love so much as I do you.” To Brown, the only friend in whom he has fully confided his attachment to Fanny Brawne, he alludes to the “one thought enough to kill me—I have been well, healthy, alert &c, walking with her—and now—the knowledge of contrast, feeling for light and shade, all that information (primitive sense) necessary for a poem are great enemies to the recovery of the stomach.” Later he bids Brown be kind to “my sister, who walks around in my imagination like a ghost—she is so like Tom” (359-60). In the posthumous life, Keats becomes a kind of negative or obverse archivist—a cataloger of the things he can’t read or hear about, of the letters he cannot open, of the “hands” that cannot be looked upon. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the vigilance with which he guards himself against the incursions of an abandoned “real life” into his posthumous existence, the world he has left presses upon him, in phantasmal, killing forms.
When Brian Rejack first asked me to write about this letter I was under the impression that I had it almost by heart. Turning back to it, I see that this conviction came from tunnel vision: I had these phrases, the phrases that for me particularly resonate with the posthumous life, by heart, but they had leapt out of their broader context in the letter, which conveys much other information as well. Like Keats’s previous letter to Brown, this one refers to the experience of quarantine in Naples (“I am much better than I was in Quarantine” ), a reference that, as Judith Pascoe points out, takes on new salience in our current situation (Pascoe). The romantic poets and their circles vociferously complained about Italian public health laws (Severn’s frustrations with the quarantine—“foul weather and foul air for the whole 10 days”—chime with his later fury about the Italian “devils” and “brutes” who rushed in to fumigate the apartment after Keats’s death (353, 368, 378); still later, the rushed cremations of the bodies of Edward Williams and Percy Bysshe Shelley were in response to these regulations). Governmental efforts to control the spread of disease appear more laudable now than they did to Severn, although one wonders, with Pascoe, if the prolonged collective isolation of possibly ill ship passengers was the wisest or most humane response to the threat of an airborne, contagious disease. And of course, the Maria Crowther contained two symptomatic tubercular passengers, Keats and a Miss Cotterell, who were allowed to move on after the requisite quarantine.
The uncertain medical understanding of tuberculosis comes up more immediately in this letter with respect to Keats’s Rome physician, the “very attentive” Dr. Clark, a specialist in treating consumption, who had found the two men rooms across from his own, advised Keats to hire the “little horse” on which he rode out daily, and, as Keats became sicker, with his wife searched out and prepared market delicacies to tempt his appetite (360,362). But like every physician who took care of Keats, and, at times like Keats himself, he mistook symptoms for disease (“there is very little the matter with my lungs, but my stomach, he says, is very bad,” Keats reports in this letter ), and treated him in a way that continually weakened him—letting copious amounts of blood with every incidence of his coughing of blood, limiting his food to the point of starving him. In a letter written just prior to Keats’s last, Dr. Clark had reported to Taylor and Hessey’s office, “I fear much there is something operating on his mind … If my opinion be correct we may throw medicine to the dogs” (358); that both he and Keats, with all their medical knowledge, blamed killing thoughts for the progress of this disease suggests the power of illness-as-metaphor to inform both diagnosis and treatment.
I am also struck, on this re-reading of Keats’s last letter, by the sociability that comes through in positive as well as negative forms. There is Keats’s obvious if complicated intimacy with Brown, the friend who had been his stay in so many ways but who had disappointed him so severely at the very last. The very fact that it is Brown to whom Keats writes when “it is the most difficult thing in the world” to do so suggests this intimacy, as do the letter’s affectionate direct addresses to his friend and the license he feels to confide in him (compared, say, to his more restrained letter to Mrs. Brawne from a month earlier [349-50]). His unresolved feelings about Brown’s failure to see him off perhaps come across in the expressed regret, here re-iterated, that they had not encountered each other in September when Keats briefly left the Maria Crowther to visit Bedhampton at a time when Brown, it turned out, was in nearby Chichester—“that was my star predominant!”
But Brown is also the confidante to whom Keats can expose his anguish about Fanny Brawne, particularly, and his state of mind more generally. Occasionally and half-heartedly he tries to protect Brown from the worst of it—at one point he gestures to moments of normalcy (“I ride the little horse” and, even in Quarantine, “summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life”); at another he banters with him about subjecting him, after all, to the pain he wasn’t going to mention (“There, you rogue, I put you to the torture”). It’s clear, however, that he relies on Brown to receive and bear his distress. He also expects Brown to mediate other attachments that preoccupy him. As this letter closes, Keats enumerates other letters he intends to write, presumably (for Brown in his transcript has deleted proper names) to William Haslam, Charles Dilke, Richard Woodhouse and John Hamilton Reynolds. He will never write them, of course, and he seems to realize this: after listing all these letters owed he asks Brown to “remember” him to these friends and especially asks him to convey his apologies to one of them, probably Reynolds, for not having visited him before leaving, “from being so low in body as in mind.” “Write to George [Keats},” he then asks Brown, “to tell him how I am, as far as you can guess,” and “also a note to my sister” (350).
“I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.” And thus, at the close of this last letter, with this final, painfully and exquisitely graceful “awkward bow,” Keats performs his withdrawal from the scene, while Brown is left with the charge of “remembering” him to those friends and relatives who would become known as the Keats Circle. This moment performs in little what so moves a reader of this second volume of the Letters of John Keats—the sense one gets, reading along, of Keats steadily receding from view, and yet also, somehow, remaining in the picture, albeit in increasingly mediated form, kept present by the efforts of those who loved him. By late August of 1820, letters penned by Keats himself begin to appear less and less frequently in the volume, while other material begins to dominate. Even the driest of these collateral texts are poignant: an informal will (319), Richard Abbey’s refusal to forward money for the trip to Italy (331), the formal assignment of copyright to Keats’s publishers Taylor and Hessey (334-36). And then there are the letters of Keats’s friends and family, some addressed to the poet but most bearing news about him: an exchange between Haslam and John Taylor making arrangements for Severn’s passage; Taylor passing on the news of Keats’s departure to Fanny Keats; Brown relaying the news of Keats’s stop in Portsmouth to Taylor (333-34, 337-38, 346-7). Finally, from Italy, Severn begins his diary-like reports to Haslam, Brown and Taylor, asking them to share his news with others and proposing that they address their own letters to him rather than to Keats—“for reading a letter would kill him” (363, 370). Severn’s voice takes over the volume, which comes to a close with his terrible account to Taylor of Keats’s death on February 23, 1821, followed by two short codas—Brown’s brief announcements to Taylor and Haslam that “it is all over,” with a request that they share this news with Keats’s friends and family (377-81).
Yet through all this, the dying Keats remains vividly present. The November 30 letter to Brown may be his last letter, but it is not the last time we hear his voice, which eerily sounds through Severn’s accounts of the poet’s decline and death: “oh when will this posthumous life of mine end?” “Don’t breathe on me, it comes like ice.” “I cannot bear his cries,” Severn writes to Taylor after Keats’s death, as though he hears them still (378). Keats—exiled, dying—never quite “passes away,” but continues to speak through his friends. They preserve, transcribe, and circulate among themselves Severn’s accounts of the poet’s last days, and their memories and archives would later become the source material for early biographies by Brown and Leigh Hunt, and later, for what Richard Monckton Milnes would call the “labour of love” that was the first volume of Keats’s collected works, prefaced by a biography of the poet. The Keats we have today is a result of this labor, labor on which the Keats Letters Project depends and from which it descends. Reading through these letters of friends and family brings home the degree to which Keats’s reception, the attachment readers feel for this poet, is inflected by the work of love and mourning.
I first came across Keats’s last letter as a college undergraduate. I was writing a senior thesis on some topic having to do with Milton, suddenly-opening vistas, and the Hyperion poems, but volume II of the Collected Letters provided one archive for a side-project, my furtive research into Keats’s final days: I pored over his last letters to Brown and Mrs. Brawne, including this one, and over Severn’s letters recounting his pain and death; I found and studied the images of the wash drawings Severn made during his death watch and of the death mask taken of the poet. Even, or especially, at the time this interest seemed a kind of fall from respectable scholarship—morbid, prurient, addictive, and without obvious critical pay-off.
I’ve now spent some time thinking about this fascination and its relation to the passion readers have for Keats. One could argue that in this period before his death when he abandons poetry, Keats becomes simply or merely human, available for our connection to his human suffering—our feeling for his youth, his physical pain, his anguish. Yet what struck me at the time and continues to move and fascinate me is the way these last letters—as well as other materials including the death mask, Severn’s wash drawings—feel so poetic, and in such a Keatsian way. “I look on fine Phrases as a Lover,” Keats famously declared to Benjamin Bailey (139). That one could “look on” a phrase suggests that for the lover of phrases, a phrase can become image-like—dislodged from context and reference, capable of becoming the focus of an untoward attachment. The phrases from the posthumous life to which I attached myself and that continue to ring in my ears have something of this quality (as do so many “fine phrases” from the letters that have taken on lives of their own). The most memorable of these, moreover, convey a poet’s sense of this very capacity of language to exceed what we think of as its communicative function and to become entrammeled in our love. “Some of the phrases she was in the habit of using during my nursing at Wentworth place ring in my ears,” Keats writes to Brown in his letter of 30 September (345-46), anticipating Severn’s “I cannot bear his cries”: language, “phrases,” can haunt us across distance and after death. That Keats’s catalogs of the things he cannot bear so often include the letters of others suggests, I think, that for him, letters bring home this uncanny power of language: that it can survive its originating scene; that it can bear, in its travels from one (lost) scene to another, something in excess of the news (which may no longer be new, or even true, by the time the letter arrives at its destination); and that this freight, in some circumstances, can feel insupportable.
When I was in college people wrote letters. By the time I was thinking more seriously about these last letters of Keats I had in my keeping a letter, forwarded to me upon the writer’s death, that I had not opened and did not open for many years. This hadn’t yet happened when I was in college, yet even then I would carry sealed letters around, for days or forever, with a kind of dread about opening them; while the not opening, not writing back, would increase the buildup of a sense of obligation, debt and dread (“being anxious to send him a good account of my health I have delayed it for week after week” ). My death was not imminent and the people I was hearing from were not dead. But as Emily Stanback pointed out in one of the earliest posts to the Keats Letters Project, a letter is a material remainder of another person, place and time, one that comes to us bearing traces of the bodies and scenes it has left behind—the “hand,” smears of jam, the stains of fumigation (Stanback). Attended by whiffs of posthumousness, always in some sense relics, letters dramatize and personalize—bring home to the pulses, as Keats might say—the strange power of language to reach us across absence and death. Treating a letter unpoetically, as mere communication—opening it, reading it for its news—can vitiate this magic. Reading a letter in the knowledge of a catastrophe to come, as Keats did in his posthumous life and as we do now when reading his last letter, can intensify its uncanny, disturbing, aching effects. I think I saw in Keats’s relation to letters something I already understood and that had to do with a sense of literary calling, and that, by this time of Keats’s life, had for him become a sort of deadly bind. Opening a letter—reading it with a poet’s attentiveness and visceral susceptibility to everything it bears that speaks of attachment, absence and loss (“light and shade”)—is fatal to the stomach, causes a tightness in the chest. But not opening a letter is also a poet’s move, one that perfectly preserves the letter’s magic, its power to haunt. Not opening a letter, one stays loyal to loss.
On December 21, almost a month after Keats’s last letter had been written, Brown wrote back (364-66). By this date Keats had begun to suffer the violent hemorrhages that marked his final decline. Severn had written to Brown with this news on December 17, but Brown did not yet know of his friend’s condition, nor was he aware that, in Severn’s view, “a letter to Keats now would almost kill him” (361-63). His letter to Keats, which Keats would never open, is full of newsy accounts of himself and his domestic arrangements with Abby (his housekeeper-now-wife) and their baby, of skirmishes between the London Review and Blackwood’s, of Mrs. Dilke’s sad tumble in the mud, of various friends getting married; he teases Keats for blaming his “star predominant” for their missing each other before he set sail, and once again, declines to join him in Italy.
There is something shocking in this reply. We can blame its tone-deafness on Brown’s limitations, including, perhaps, his desire to fend off a sense of culpability by refusing to engage the anguish of his friend. But letters, like friends who fail to connect at Chichester, inevitably miss their moments. Unlike Brown, we know, even when we first encounter it, that Keats’s letter of November 30 will be his last; having read Severn’s letter of December 17 before we get to Brown’s in the volume, we know that Keats’s death is imminent. Only later will Brown himself re-read this and others of Keats’s letters in the knowledge of the death that is to come. Even years later, the experience will make him “fevered and nervous,” and finally, “quite unable to fix [his] attention on these papers”—“whether in my handwriting or his” (KC 2:51). He is writing to Milnes in March 1841, twenty years after the death of his friend, and the “papers” to which he refers include the only record we have of Keats’s last letter. It seems fitting that the original is at once lost and yet available to us, and that it comes to us freighted with this work of love and mourning.
 In his Recollections Edward Trelawny gives an account of his efforts to square the hastily-arranged cremations with the authorities (78-90).
 For Severn’s account of Miss Cotterell and her illness see his 21 September letter to Haslam, LK 2:240-44.
 Wolfson’s post on Keats’s letter of 24 October 1820 to Mrs. Brawne includes an insightful account of this crisis in the friends’ relationship.
 See Wolfson’s account of this missed encounter.
 The Keats Circle letters of this time allow us to trace the circulation of all news of Keats among his friends: for instance, Severn’s November 2 letter to Haslam, describing the time in quarantine, is forwarded to Hessey and then to Brown (KC 1:174-5), who brings it over to the Brawnes (1:186-87).
 The phrase “labour of love” repeats through the correspondence between Milnes, Coventry Patmore, and members of the Keats Circle during Milnes’s work on Keats’s biography (see for example KC 2:172, 201, 235), and Milnes uses the phrase in his dedication of the edition to Francis Jeffrey (Life, Letters, and Literary Remains, vi).
 In “The Strange Time of Reading” and, more recently, in Lives of the Dead Poets, 29-52.
 Including, most famously, “negative capability,” the travels and afterlives of which have lately been traced in Rejack and Theune.
Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. 2 vols. Ed. Hyder E. Rollins. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958. Cited as LK, or by page number alone (Volume 2).
—.Life, Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats. Ed. Richard Monckton Milnes. London: Edward Moxon, 1848.
Keats’s letter written from Rome to Charles Armitage Brown on 30 November 1820 is almost unbearably sad. From the first line about how difficult it is for the desperately ill poet to write a letter through his torturing thoughts about Fanny Brawne to the closing remark, “I always made an awkward bow” (Rollins, 2: 360), Keats, ever a powerful letter writer, allows us to think through his suffering with him. That this is the last piece of writing of his that we have makes it all the harder to absorb. From this point forward, Keats only speaks through others. For me, perhaps the saddest comment from this time comes from Severn who, while nursing Keats through rallies and worsening bouts, contemplates his friend’s end: “How he can be Keats again from all this I have little hope.” It is bad enough that he was to lose his life, but, even before that, Severn found that Keats had lost what made him Keats.
It is, I guess, obvious to say so, but it is particularly difficult to read this letter now. It opens with the news that, as awful as he feels, “I am much better than I was in Quarantine” (Rollins, 2: 359). Susan Wolfson and Judith Pascoe have both recently written in brilliant and moving ways about Keats and Severn being trapped on the Maria Crowther in the bay of Naples, so I do not need to dwell on the facts now, except to note that, given the worries of local Bourbon authorities about a typhus outbreak in London, they were kept on board for ten days. We are now all too familiar with quarantining, isolating, sheltering in place, staying safer at home. Keats’s letters about the quarantine have cropped up in some accounts of our own era of pandemic, as in Frances Mayes piece in the NYT about Keats’s experience of the quarantine. He seems to be speaking across two centuries to the current distresses.
It is also difficult right now to know that Keats would die on February 23, 1821 after long periods of experiencing the feeling of suffocation that comes with consumption–the cry of not being able to breathe echoes not only in hospitals today but in Black Lives Matter demonstrations. I could reach for other parallels—Severn’s concerns about their finances, or Keats’s continuing anger, as Nick Roe reminds us (pp. 385-86), at social injustice as he bristled at the fact that Naples, with a Bourbon monarch restored after Waterloo, had struggled to create a constitutional monarchy only to be subjected to the heavy hand of the Holy Alliance. As Severn reports, Keats “exclaimed in a frenzy, Severn ‘we’ll go to Rome for as I am to die I should not like to leave my ashes in the presence of a people with such miserable politicks.’” Writing this piece days before the U.S. elections, I worry whether we can restore some sort of constitutional balance; friends fear that they will find that our compatriots in fact embrace “miserable politicks” and contemplate leaving the country.
All of which almost makes me regret having agreed to write for the Keats Letter Project about this last missive. I am deeply grateful for that project and the work of many, many scholars who have illuminated Keats’s profoundly intriguing letters. The idea of tracking Keats day-by-day 200 years later is both seemingly obvious and truly smart. I have had to disappoint the editors of the project—particularly Brian Rejack—a number of times, as lack of inspiration or lack of time made it impossible for me to write about more joyous missives, say, the negative capability letter. So, I had one last chance, and I took it, not thinking too hard about how hard it would be to spend a few weeks contemplating this letter.
I am, surely, not the best person to respond to this letter. I have not been one who is half in love with the dying Keats. I have not seen death stalking through his verse. I have found a Keats always striving to live with gusto, a Keats happiest when living life connected with those he loved. In reading this last letter, I want again to see a Keats committed—personally, poetically, politically—to a life of communal conversation, collective commitments. It might be perverse to find anything restorative in this gut-wrenching epistle, yet, pace Severn, I still hear Keats being Keats and, being Keats, trying to connect with and even console his friend Charles Armitage Brown. I want to hear Keats, in finding himself in Italy and particularly Rome, still gesturing towards a larger world and, in writing a dear friend, continuing his playful back and forth with his former collaborator.
The two most famous statements from this letter are Keats’s concluding statement that “I always made an awkward bow” and his assertion that “I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence” (Rollins, 2:359). Roe writes of the final epistolary bow, “A more graceful farewell is impossible to imagine” (p. 391), but he and others note that Keats’s height and class status made him self-conscious when trying to bend his body, whether in salutation or leave-taking. It might seem one more recognition of the limitations he faced as compared to, say, the noble Lord Byron, whom he had been reading aboard the Maria Crowther, or Shelley, whose generous letter of invitation to Pisa he carried with him. As his illness left him ever more confined even as he left the constrictions of the ship and the quarantine, he might have felt the various limits placed on his life. And he seems to feel that his “real life” is behind him, that he is living posthumously in his rooms on the Spanish Steps without England, Fanny, poetry.
Still, Severn and Keats oscillated from recognizing he was in his last days to hoping he might recover. There is a way in which Keats, even in this last letter, still lies open to experience, to the world, to life, even to poetry. For example, he is still seeking his old negatively capable “knowledge of contrast, feeling for light and shade, all that information (primitive sense) necessary for a poem,” even while recognizing that such experiences “are great enemies to the recovery of the stomach” (Rollins, 2: 360). It is hard to know what Keats means by “information (primitive sense).” He could be glossing “information” with “primitive sense” to mean that he is seeking new sensory inputs. However, he could also be thinking about the basic, thus primitive meaning of the word “information.” Setting aside the juridical meanings of informing on someone (poetry and the police?), I hear him turning from the ephemerality of information as the news–“the proing and conning of any thing interesting to me in England” (Rollins, 2:359)–to a more foundational notion of in-formation as sense experience capable of “giving of form or essential character to something; the action of imbuing with a particular quality” (OED). The realities—the sounds, tastes, feel–of Italy might have imbued Keats’s thoughts with particular new qualities, producing new poetry.
Keats’s biographers note the dark irony that he finally made it to his long dreamed of Italy only to die, but they also point to the ways that the “information” he was gathering in this new land might have informed new poetry. Both Aileen Ward (p. 381) and Walter Jackson Bate follow William Sharp in finding Keats, staring out from quarantine at the Naples he had imagined as early as his verse letter to Charles Cowden Clarke in 1816, envisioning “the harbour as it had been two thousand years ago, crowded with ‘that old antique world when the Greek galleys and Tyrhenian sloops brought northward strange tales of what was happening in Hellas and the mysterious East’” (Bate, 666-67). Roe sees Keats in Naples experiencing this new place through the experience of his joint effort with Hunt on “A Now”: “For a moment Keats had succeeded in extricating himself from disease and thwarted passion to return to poetry and Hampstead” (pp. 384-85). Andrew Motion draws on Severn and Sharp’s reworking of him to remind us that during the voyage Keats glimpsed Africa, the continent that swum into his ken during the “immortal dinner” when Ritchie spoke of traveling to Tripoli in order to cross the desert in search of the source of the Niger (see Roe, p. 202). Severn recalls an “early dawn” when he and Keats “saw the Barbary lit up with the Suns first rays” (“My tedious Life, p. 642); in Sharp’s version Keats “lay entranced” as he viewed “the African coast, here golden, and there blue as a sapphire” (p. 58). Severn turns immediately from this glimpse of North Africa to the Quarantine, the idea of which – as is widely recognized – originates from the Islamic Golden Age philosopher and physician, Ibn Sina (known in Europe as Avicenna), who recommended that people be isolated for forty days, al-Arba’iniya (“The Forty”), a term adapted by the Venetians as quranta giorni. Naples itself would have revealed Arabic influences from the 9th century, when Arab forces took Sicily and had a presence in Southern Italy. This voyage could have opened whole new worlds to Keats.
Italy, of course, had long been in his imagination, which now had to be merged with new sensory “information.” For Roe, “To arrive at Rome—a city ruined, buried and still living—was almost a home-coming for Keats” (p. 388). Motion writes of Keats being inspired by Rome: “Gradually, Keats also began to work again” (p. 556), reading Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Edgeworth, studying Italian, and contemplating a new poem. Most striking is Gittings’ reading of the 30 November letter to Brown as a return to poetry. Keats wrote:
…I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any hand writing of a friend I love so much as I do you. Yet I ride the little horse,–and, at my worst, even in Quarantine, summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life (Rollins, 2:360).
Brown delighted in puns, so he would be happy to hear his friend was summoning up so many. As a collaborator, he would also like to know if Keats was contemplating any poetry. I, like most Keats scholars, have seen Keats referring here to riding an actual horse, as recommended by Dr. Clarke, often with his fellow consumptive, Lieutenant Isaac Elton. Gittings, noting that Keats only hired the horse after 27 November (610), takes us in a different direction:
Indeed, the words “I ride the little horse” do not refer to his rides in Rome, which he had hardly yet had time to take up, but to the “little Pegasus” of stanza 71 in his own Cap and Bells, an allusion Brown would recognize. They meant that Keats was once more letting his mind play with the idea of a poem. (Gittings, pp. 612-13)
The passage Gittings quotes from Keats’s satiric poem, which he wrote alongside and in some way in collaboration with Brown, imagines converting Crafticant’s prose into verse:
O, little faery Pegasus! Rear—prance— Trot round the quarto—ordinary time!
March, little Pegasus, with pawing hoof sublime! (637-39)
Perhaps Keats is imagining turning his prose information into poetry. Keats had referred to Pegasus much earlier, in his attack in “Sleep and Poetry” on the writers of stale heroic couplets who, “with a puling infant’s force / They sway’d upon a rocking horse, / And thought it Pegasus” (185-87); this could be an echo of Hazlitt, who in “On Milton’s versification” in Leigh Hunt’s Examiner (20 August 1815, p. 542), wrote, “Dr. Johnson and Pope would have converted his vaulting Pegasus into a rocking horse.” Pegasus had also made an appearance in the literary battles of 1819, the year during which Keats worked on the Cap and Bells, for Wordsworth’s controversial Peter Bell opened with the poet’s rejection of Pegasus for a flying boat: “There’s something in a flying horse, / . . . / But through the clouds I’ll never float / Until I have a little Boat” (3-4). In the midst of the collective Cockney attack on Peter Bell, Byron would parody these lines in his “Epilogue”: “There’s something in a Stupid Ass, / And something in a heavy Dunce” (1-2). Given these contexts, I think Gittings is correct in seeing Keats here referring to poetry, as, again, he goes on to talk about “all that information (primitive sense) necessary for a poem.”
It is possible that Keats thought about returning to The Cap and Bells/Jealousies itself. He had written to Brown the previous June on the 21st, as he was waiting for his great 1820 volume to appear, that “I shall soon begin upon Lucy Vaughan Lloyd” (Rollins, 2: 259), the fictitious author of The Cap and Bells. Again, in August, he wrote to Brown about complaints that in his poetry he tends “to class women in my books with roses and sweetmeats,–they never see themselves dominant. If ever I come to publish “Lucy Vaughan Lloyd,” there will be some delicate picking for squeamish stomachs” (Rollins, 2: 327-28). On August 13, he had asked Hunt to send him the manuscript of the poem (“Will you send by the Bearess Lucy Vaughn Lloyd”; Rollins, 2: 316), so it is possible Keats had the poem with him in Italy.
So, perhaps, Keats is alluding to his unfinished satire, a reference he could assume Brown, who encouraged the project and perhaps helped shape its content, would hear since Keats wrote the poem in his company. I have recently been writing about the distinctive collaborative work between Keats and Brown, in some jointly written letters to the Dilkes, in the collaboratively composed “Stanzas on some Skulls in Beauley Abbey, near Inverness,” and most fully in Otho the Great. While there are many examples of the social production of literature in the Hunt circle, Keats and Brown were actual co-authors. Brown was also involved in the production of the Caps and Bells, as the two men were living together and sitting across from each other as they wrote; Brown indicates that he “copied [Keats’s stanzas] as he wrote” each morning. When Brown described the writing process on the poem to Milnes many years later, he recounts that Keats responded to any criticisms by saying, “Never mind, Brown; all those matters will be properly harmonized, before we divide it into Cantoes,” which again suggests a collaborative process around the work’s structure if not the line by line writing. Perhaps Keats, also referring to his and Brown’s delight in puns, imagines working again alongside and with a friend he loved “so much.”
It seems more likely that the “idea of a poem” he was contemplating was the one he had been discussing with Severn since their days aboard the Maria Crowther, as we learn from Keats’s companion. First, in a letter to Brown after Keats’s death, Severn remembers Keats thinking about a poem on Sabrina, the nymph of the River Severn:
I recollect a point—which may be know[n] to you—perhaps—Keats mentioned to me many times in our voyage—his desire to write the story of Sabrina and to have connected it with some point in the English history and character—he would sometimes brood over it with immense enthusiasm—and recite the story from Miltons Comus in a manner that I will remember to the end of my days. (Letter to Brown, 19 September 1821; Joseph Severn, p. 172)
We are more likely to remember the story that follows this passage, where Severn recalls (most likely incorrectly) Keats’s writing down the “Bright Star” sonnet, but he also tells us of Keats returning to Sabrina in the winter of 1820-21 when his health briefly improved: “He even talked on the subject of Poetry & explained a new subject ‘Sabrina’ from Miltons sketch, but he was not able to write” (“My tedious Life,” Joseph Severn, p. 648).
It is, obviously, impossible to know what Keats intended to do with this subject. Motion suggests that the new poem would have provided the “scope to explore feelings of homesickness, of patriotism, and of banished love” (p. 556). But Motion also points to a less somber take when he notes, “His subject had an element of jokery (Keats had previously inscribed his companion’s copy of Poems 1817, ‘The author consigns this copy to the Severn with all his Heart.’)” (p. 556), with another of the puns Keats and Brown enjoyed. Given the source of inspiration in Milton’s Comus and Severn’s comment that Keats wanted to “[connect] it with some point in the English history and character,” we might return to Keats’s mention of the masque in his famous letter to Reynolds (3 May 1818): he discusses Milton, Wordsworth, and the “grand march of intellect” (Rollins, 1: 282) and proclaims of Milton’s masque, “who could gainsay his ideas on virtue, vice, and Chastity in Comus just at the time of the dismissal of Cod-pieces and a hundred other disgraces” (281-282). Hunt had also found the chastity of Comus open to being queried as he noted in his preface to Amyntas (1820) that Milton’s play is “too safe and contented in her own virtue” (p. xxii). Hazlitt wrote a review of an 1815 staging of Comus (Examiner, 11 June 1815), which concludes with praise of Milton “as a patriot” as well as a poet and with swipes at Southey and Wordsworth. Hazlitt also compares Milton to Shakespeare, to whom Keats alludes in the letter. Bemoaning having missed Brown as he left England, Keats proclaims, “There was my star predominant!” (Rollins, 2: 359), an echo of lines from Winter’s Tale, “It is a bawdy planet, that will strike / Where ‘tis predominant” (1.2.202-203). Comus, then, taken up by Keats, Hunt, and Hazlitt, was a Cockney touchstone, and I would like to imagine Keats, ruled by a bawdy planet, turning to Sabrina to find that Milton in his masque was a true poet and a true patriot and of Comus’ party without knowing it.
Such a take on Comus would have appealed to Brown, with whom Keats had traveled, and lived, and written. Even this last letter is actually a collaborative text, though we find Brown’s intervention to mar rather than to make the letter: the letter that we read and cherish is taken from Brown’s “Life of Keats,” where he elides several names, most importantly Fanny Brawne’s but probably also Haslam, Dilke, Woodhouse, and Reynolds. Would that he had not done so, but these many Xs in the text draw attention to the fact that Keats is still thinking of his London companions, as he asks Brown to “Remember me to all friends” (Rollins, 2: 360). He had always wanted his poetry to “be a friend / To sooth the cares, and lift the thoughts of man” (“Sleep and Poetry,” 246-47). It is perhaps a tougher friendliness he offers here to Brown: “There, you rogue, I put you to the torture,—but you must bring your philosophy to bear—as I do mine, really—or how should I be able to live” (Rollins, 2: 360). We continue to live with Keats, in his poetry and his letters, not because he died young, but because in his brief life he lived out a philosophy of deep friendship, joyous community. Until the end, he remained open to the new information that might yield poetry and to the collaborative enterprise of creating knowledge and beauty.
 Severn, letter to Brown, 17 December 1820, Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs, ed. Grant F. Scott (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005), p. 114.
 Severn, “My tedious Life,” in Joseph Severn, p.644. See, also, Motion, pp. 547-48, 551.
 See John Barnard, “What Letters did Keats take to Rome,” Keats-Shelley Journal 64 (2015): 80.
 Wordsworth, who finally traveled to Italy in 1837, would also feel Italy came to him too late. He wrote his family, “I have, however, to regret that this journey was not made some years ago,—to regret it, I mean, as a Poet . . . my mind has been enriched by innumerable images, which I could have turned to account in verse . . . in a way they now are little likely to do” (5 July 1837; The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. 2nd ed. Ed. Ernest de Selincourt; rev. by Alan Hill, Mary Moorman, and Chester L. Chaver. 8 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967–1993. 3: 423). To make a shameless plug: see my account of this trip and other aspects of “late” Wordsworth in William Wordsworth, Second Generation Romantic: Contesting Poetry after Waterloo (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2021).
 William Sharp, The Life and Letters of William Sharp (London: Sampson, Low, Marston and Company, 1892), p. 59.
 Keats also seems to have had with him in Italy both Hunt’s last note to him and Hunt’s sonnet “To John Keats”; Barnard, “What letters did Keats take to Rome,” pp. 80, 82.
 See also Brian Rejack, “Nothings of the Day: The Velocipede, the Dandy, and the Cockney,” Romanticism 19 (2013): 291-309; and Richard Marggraf Turley, “Keats on Two Wheels,” Studies in Romanticism 57 (Winter 2018): 601-25.
 I have not yet been successful in tracking the course of Keats’s draft over the years. There are portions of that draft at the Morgan Library, the Huntington Library, and Harvard. See Jack Stillinger, The Texts of Keats’ Poems (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974), pp. 267-71.
 Cox, “this Beaumont and Fletcher pair”: Keats and Brown in Scotland and Beyond,” John Keats and Romantic Scotland, eds. Nicholas Roe and Katie Garner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
 31 July 1819 (Rollins, 2:135) and more completely in another of 24 January 1819 (Rollins, 2: 34-36).
 Brown, Life of John Keats, ed. Dorothy Hyde Bodurtha and Willard Bissell Pope (London: Oxford University Press, 1937), p. 62.
 Brown, letter to Milnes, 29 March 1841, Keats Circle, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948), 2: 99; my emphasis.
Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964.
Motion, Andrew. Keats. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.
Roe, Nicholas. John Keats: A New Life. Yale University Press, 2012.
Ward, Aileen. John Keats: The Making of a Poet. The Viking Press, 1963.
Rollins, Hyder Edward, ed. The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.
—. The Keats Circle. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948.
Scott, Grant F., ed. Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.
Stillinger, Jack. John Keats. Complete Poems. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.
In his final extant letter, John Keats writes, “I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence” (LJK 2: 359). This particular articulation of the poet’s state of being in what would turn out to be one of the final months of his life has become a significant formulation for Keats commentators. Though Keats’s “posthumous existence” is not nearly as ubiquitous as “negative capability” in Keats studies, on the one hand, no other term is—“negative capability” is a term which has become virtually synonymous with Keats in the mainstream of critical conversation about the poet and in fact has come to be deployed in a variety of fields and endeavors not obviously associated with studies of the poet or scholarship on Romanticism. However, on the other hand, Keats’s formulation regarding his “posthumous existence” certainly now ranks as among the poet’s own terms by which critics have become fascinated, using it to help focus and energize readings of the poet’s life and work.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of significant critical reference to the “posthumous existence” formulation:
Andrew Bennett’s Keats, Narrative and Audience: The Posthumous Life of Writing (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1994).
Jeffrey C. Robinson’s Reception and Poetics in Keats: “My Ended Poet” (NY: St. Martin’s, 1998). (On pages 184-5, Robinson cites the Stanley Plumly poem “Posthumous Keats” in full.)
Ralph Pite’s “Keats’s Last Works and His Posthumous Existence,” in Victorian Keats and Romantic Carlyle: The Fusions and Confusions of Literary Periods, edited by C.C. Barfoot (Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1999).
“Keats’s “Posthumous Life”: Corpus and Body,” the first chapter of James Najarian’s Victorian Keats: Manliness, Sexuality, and Desire (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).
“Keats’s Posthumous Life of Elegy,” the first chapter ofSarah Wootton’s Consuming Keats: Nineteenth-Century Representations in Art and Literature (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
Stanley Plumly’s Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography (NY: Norton, 2008).
Brendan Corcoran’s “Keats’s Death: Towards a Posthumous Poetics,” in Studies in Romanticism 48.2 (Summer 2009), 321-48.
“Keats and Catachresis,” the third chapter of Anahid Nersessian’s The Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2020). (One of this chapter’s two epigraphs is Keats’s remark on his “posthumous existence.”)
Besides these in-depth critical endeavors, it also simply has become the case that Keats’s “posthumous existence” now is a touchstone for critics discussing Keats—a fact to which the many discussions of the formulation “posthumous existence” that are now appearing in the Keats Letters Project’s focus on the November 30 letter attest. Just as Keats’s letter to his brothers in late December, 1817, can be referred to via (a not unproblematic) shorthand as the “negative capability” letter, it is clear that the poet’s 30 November 1820 letter has become the “posthumous existence” letter. In John Keats in Context, “posthumous existence” is of course remarked upon in the entries on “Mortality” (53-4) and “Letters” (72), and nor is it surprising to see it commented upon, as well, in the entry on “Travel” (57).
There are plenty of reasons for the intrigue and resultant popularity of the term “posthumous existence.” The fact that the formulation is articulated in Keats’s (so far as we know) final letter gives it special resonance: it is not only an apt last word, it is (somehow) beyond a last word: it is a last word formulated, if its author is to be believed, already from beyond. Additionally, “posthumous existence” is potent. It is terrifying to think that Keats—who, having nursed his brother Tom and having been trained as a surgeon, knew all too well the family disease of consumption, and who, as reported by Charles Brown in Milnes’s Life and Literary Remains, had ten months before inspected the arterial blood of his own pulmonary hemorrhage and knew that it was his “death-warrant” (54)—knows his mortality so intimately. Though dying too young, with the acknowledgement of his “posthumous existence,” Keats conveys a tragic understanding, offering the wisdom, the comprehension, of a life fully lived, and even already lived beyond.
The formulation “posthumous existence” certainly is powerful, but a good deal of its potency comes from its seductiveness, its own ability to attract and maintain attention by scintillating. As a formulation, “posthumous existence” is far from straightforward; instead, it is gnomic, paradoxical, even oxymoronic—in a way, and to a degree, very similar to the term “negative capability.” Additionally, again in ways similar to “negative capability,” “posthumous existence” is vague enough that it can be applied to many things. It makes itself available. “Posthumous existence” can help a critic think about Keats envisioning himself as a canonized poet, as it does for Bennett; or it can be seen as “a wry comment on [Keats’s] powerlessness against other people’s elegies,” as it is by Pite (66); or it can refer to specific periods of Keats’s life, and the work to keep the memory of the poet alive, as it is deployed by Plumly; or it can be equated with a “highly pressurized blankness, an attempt to evacuate [the] body and thereby to protect it from expropriation,” as it is in Nersessian (93).
Despite these differences in application, two other key similarities in the use of “posthumous existence” among critics emerge. First, all the uses are serious. Even if recognized as a necessary defensive strategy, “posthumous existence” is understood as a tragic awareness. It’s weighty. It’s heavy. Second, it is taken at face value. Though “posthumous” may be thought by critics to have some other, minor referential use—pointing to, say, Hazlitt’s thinking in the essay “On Posthumous Fame”—“posthumous” really means just that: it’s an adjective used to describe something that occurs after the death of the originator.
But it likely should not be taken to mean only this. Keats was a mimic and a punster. He even admits to this in his final letter. In the midst of the larger action of a proing and conning—after having just confessed to Brown that “I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any hand writing of a friend I love so much as I do you”—Keats turns to note the other aspect of his current situation, its life and liveliness, for what it is: “Yet I ride the little horse,—and at my worst, even in Quarantine, summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life” (LJK 2: 360). So, Keats, who almost always was in a punning mood, was, he reports, particularly so very recently.
I believe Keats is punning, as well, in his formulation of “posthumous existence.” When Keats says he feels as though he is leading a “posthumous existence” he is, among many other things, revealing that he is leading a life similar to that of Posthumus Leonatus, a character from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.
No one should be surprised by this. During late November, 1820, Keats was not only in a punning mood, but he also was in the mood for Shakespeare. Keats, of course, loved Shakespeare, and this admiration reveals itself even in this final letter. Hyder E. Rollins suggests that Keats cannot help but allude to his beloved Bard. After Keats notes how physically close he and Brown must have been when, on his way to Italy, he was in Bedhampton and Brown was visiting the Dilkes in Chichester, Keats exclaims, “Then was my star predominant!” (LJK 2: 359). Rollins connects this with lines from “The Winter’s Tale, I.ii.201 f., ‘a bawdy planet, that will strike / Where ‘t is predominant’” (LJK 2: 359; n. 3).
Keats not only idolized Shakespeare, but he also loved Cymbeline in particular. In Recollections of Writers, Charles Cowden Clarke recounts,
It was a treat to see as well as hear [Keats] read a pathetic passage. Once, when reading the “Cymbeline” aloud, I saw his eyes fill with tears, and his voice faltered when he came to the departure of Posthumus, and Imogen saying she would have watched him—
…‘Till the diminution Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle; Nay followed him till he had melted from The smallness of a gnat to air; and then Have turn’d mine eye and wept. (126)
If Keats was perhaps naturally drawn to Cymbeline, his intuitive connection was seconded and perhaps reinforced by Hazlitt’s work in his Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays. For Hazlitt, as well, Cymbeline is “a favourite.” And it is so largely because of the powerful presence of Imogen; Hazlitt writes, “We have almost as great an affection for Imogen as she had for Posthumus; and she deserves it better.” Imogen is mentioned twice in Keats’s correspondence: in his letter of September 14, 1817, to Jane Reynolds, amid some teasing proing and conning about love (LJK 1: 157-8), and, more famously, in Keats’s formulation of “the camelion Poet,” which “has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen” (LJK 1: 387).
Keats comparing his situation to that of Shakespeare’s Posthumus is strikingly apt. Most obviously, Posthumus was exiled to Italy—indeed, to Rome—and away from his beloved Imogen. Keats is displaced in Rome, and away from his beloved Fanny Brawne. While I believe these links alone are adequate enough to connect Keats’s “posthumous existence” with Cymbeline’s Posthumus, other links are clear, as well. For example, there is the wild strangeness of the romance world of Cymbeline—in her introduction to the play in The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, critic Jean E. Howard remarks that the play’s “characters understand so little about what is happening to them” (281)—and this must have chimed with the strangeness, the foreignness, that Keats must have been feeling. In fact, late in Cymbeline, Posthumus wakes to find such unknowing truth. After having a vivid dream about his family, an imprisoned Posthumus awakens to discover a magical book lying next to him. He reads it, but does not understand it, and yet, still, feels it encapsulates his life; Posthumus states,
‘Tis still a dream, or else such stuff as madmen Tongue and brain not; either both or nothing; Or senseless speaking or a speaking such As sense cannot untie. Be what it is, The action of my life is like it, which I’ll keep, if but for sympathy. (5.4.148-53)
Interestingly, it should be noted, immediately after these lines, a jailer enters, and asks Posthumus if he’s prepared for this execution, if he is “ready for death” (5.4.154). Posthumus responds that he’s more than ready, stating, “Over-roasted rather; ready long ago” (5.4.155). Posthumus, as well, was for a time, living posthumously.
While the above are the key similarities, there are others. For example, both Keats and Posthumus are of low rank—Posthumus is a “poor but worthy gentleman” (I.i.7), and there’s an illicit marriage between Posthumous and Imogen, just as there was a secret engagement for Keats and Fanny Brawne. (In his recent novel The Warm South, which imagines an alternate afterlife for Keats in Italy had he lived beyond February 1821, Paul Kerschen seems to pick up on this connection. Although Kerschen does not refer to the possibility of a pun in Keats’s use of “posthumous existence,” he does have Fanny Brawne, inspired by Imogen, disguise herself as a man in order to travel to Italy to reunite with Keats.) Keats also acknowledged having, at times, “a horrid Morbidity of Temperament” (LJK 1: 142), and Imogen notes that Posthumus “did incline to sadness, and oft-times / Not knowing why” (I.i.63-4). One might even speculate further that the orphan Keats may have identified with Posthumus, whose father died before his birth—hence, his name—and whose mother died as he, Posthumus, was being born. Though they die before the play begins, Posthumus also, like Keats, has two brothers. Finally, in Cymbeline there is a bottle of poison concocted by the evil Queen that gets cut so that it becomes medicinal, a tranquilizer. It is difficult to think about this and not think about the laudanum that Keats purchased at Gravesend, a tranquilizer that could also serve as a means for euthanasia, or suicide.
So, to be clear: in his formulation of “posthumous existence,” Keats is not only seriously assessing his situation as “posthumous,” that is, as somehow living after the death he was quite certain would come; he also is, in an act of vast, if subtle, wit, identifying with one of Shakespeare’s characters.
Why does Keats do this, and why should we care?
Keats does this for multiple reasons. First of all, at a most basic, but also fundamental, level, he can’t help it. Keats, as noted above, just is a trickster. Andrew Bennett states, “What makes the poetry of John Keats so compelling, at once so disturbing and so seductive, are its uncertain but irreducible and scandalous instabilities” (1). This insight, of course, may also be applied to Keats’s letters, generally, and his formulation of “posthumous existence,” specifically, as may a good deal of what comes after it. Bennett continues:
What may most fundamentally be identified as the ‘character’ of Keats’s poetry involves the uncontainable intensities of an inundation of figures, such as oxymoron, enjambment, neologism, and an adjectival distortion and syntactical dislocation, by which ‘thought’—the ideational or ‘thetic’—is apparently subsumed within the suffocating sensuousness of ‘language’. At the same time, such intensities themselves generate an unmatched intertextual complexity, conceptual scope and intellectual force: Keatsian ‘solecism’ is produced by interlocking and conflicting energies which displace and redefine oppositions between beauty and truth, mortality and immortality, thought and feeling, dreaming and wakefulness, passivity and activity, life and death. (1)
Again, we can extend these insights to apply to the poetry and the letters.
Such wordplay, in the instance of the articulation of “posthumous existence,” also is a coping mechanism. In “Humor and the Apocalypse,” an essay in Ninth Letter (1.2 (Fall/Winter 2004)), Tom Bissell notes, “[T]o reflect on dreadful, painful material while in pain equals pain. To reflect on dreadful painful material with humor equals something else: a refusal to crumble, a psychic gift.” This note about gallows humor in general resonates strongly with the specific insights that Ralph Pite brings to Keats’s work from the poet’s final years. Citing the kinds of evaluations that led Keats to tone down the ending of The Eve of St. Agnes, Pite states,
[Keats’s] sense of himself as leading a “posthumous existence” can be read as, in part, a wry comment on his powerlessness against other people’s elegies. The “changes of sentiment” that come to characterize his last poems and the drive in them towards self-parody are, I suggest, responses to the usurpation of his identity which occurred when Keats became dangerously ill. His writing in these poems as well as in the letters throughout the period of his illness is a way for him to resist people’s pity and to contend with the stereotype of the consumptive poet that was imposed on him and on the pattern of his life. (66-7)
Pite seems to me to be absolutely correct. The recognition that there is punning occurring in “posthumous existence” largely is a recognition of another instance of the Keats’s resistance: it is a witty acknowledgment of how the poet’s character is already written/determined.
But that’s not all it is. As an irreducible and scandalous uncertainty, as Bennett might put it, in addition to being a witty jest, a simple act of gallows humor, and an act of psychic defense, Keats’s acknowledgement of his “posthumous existence” also is a revelatory act of identification, and, as such, is—again, though in a very different way—a vital act of resistance. Jean E. Howard notes, more fully this time, that “[w]hat is eerie about Cymbeline is that its characters understand so little about what is happening to them, and yet each appears to play out the part assigned to him or her by some higher power: Jupiter, destiny, time” (281). With his pun, Keats is translating himself, taking on a different role, trying out another part. Dying, Keats transubstantiates his existence, placing himself in the firmament of the genius creator—in this instance, Shakespeare—reaffirming that his life indeed feels like a “continual allegory” (LJK 2: 67). Keats writes in an earlier letter:
A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory—and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life—a life like the scriptures, figurative—which such people can make out no more than they can the hebrew Bible. Lord Byron cuts a figure—but he is not figurative—Shakespeare led a life of Allegory; his works are the comments on it—(LJK 2: 67)
Keats’s identification with Posthumus, then, is a resistance strategy very similar to that of Christian saints and martyrs who turn to the suffering of Christ to help them bear their own suffering. Keats had earlier converted the Christian “vale of tears” into a “Vale of Soul-Making” (LJK 2: 101-2), secularizing that earlier concept. With his identification with Posthumus, Keats is deriving an understanding of the script his life is following, elevating the mystery and circumstances of his existence by equating them with the stuff of Shakespeare’s sacred texts.
I don’t wish for this to sound too otherworldly. Keats writes, “there are two distinct tempers of mind in which we judge of things—the worldly, theatrical and pantomimical; and the unearthly, spiritual and etherial…” (LJK 1: 395). I’m arguing that Keats, in putting on the character of Posthumus, is approaching his life both theatrically and spiritually. Simply put, Keats’s statement that he is leading a “posthumous existence” is not merely a tragic recognition; it is also a sparkling revelation of the way that Keats, internally, is navigating his circumstances. As Posthumus, Keats, as he so often does, is making a tragic-comic alloy.
Again, this should not be too surprising, even as Keats nears the end of his life. According to Rollins, Keats makes an allusion in his penultimate, extant letter, even when seeming to offer up a cri de coeur. Writing to Charles Brown on 1 November 1820, the day after his 25th birthday, and the day after his release from quarantine in Naples—Keats, despairing of his distance from Fanny Brawne, cries out, “I can bear to die—I cannot bear to leave her. Oh, God! God! God!” (LJK 2: 351). In his note to this vast lament, Rollins states, “Even in this extremity Keats may have been thinking of the death of Falstaff as described in Henry V, II.iii.19 f., ‘So ‘a cried out, “God, God, God!” three or four times’” (351; note 3). Rollins offers no similar note to the Posthumus alluded to in “posthumous existence,” though, I trust it is now clear there could have been one.
And perhaps should have been. While I don’t in any way intend to be too grandiose about the discovery I’ve shared here—the works of all the critics I’ve cited here are much grander than this current enterprise, and indeed all of this essay could have been done away with through just one footnote a few decades ago—I do want to note how surprised I was as I kept looking into critical work on or using the term “posthumous existence” that I kept finding that no one had yet made the posthumous/Posthumus connection, especially given the direct discussion about punning in the 30 November letter.
The missing of the pun, thus, seems significant, and is itself worth considering. At one level, I think that the connection between posthumous and Posthumus may just be hard to believe. Though we admire Keats’s inventions, his experimentations with incommensurables, it takes time to recognize them. It’s hard to catch all his quicksilver imaginings. Fair enough. At another level, it may of course be the case that many have seen this, but have not deemed it worthy of comment. As Christopher Ricks puts it in “Keats’s sources, Keats’s allusions” (in The Cambridge Companion to Keats), in a discussion of a different allusion to Shakespeare in Keats, “Irrespective of Shakespeare, Keats’s lines are a thing of beauty and a joy forever. A poet does well to have the courtesy and the prudence not to make the taking of an allusion a precondition of a reader’s appreciation. The allusion is a bonus, not an entrance-fee” (159).
However, I should note that at times it seems that there has been something willful in not detecting the posthumous/Posthumus pun. At times, there seems an almost palpable turning away from this possibility. A critic looks so very carefully at Keats, at the formulation “posthumous existence,” and/or at allusion in Keats… but then does not make the connection. I felt this powerfully when reading Ricks’s excellent essay. I felt sure that he would make this connection. And Ricks, who comments extensively on Keats’s allusions to Shakespeare, in fact includes in his essay Charles Cowden Clarke’s remembrance of Keats’s strong reaction to the passage from Cymbeline cited above, a quotation that mentions the name “Posthumus.” Of course Ricks is in no way to blame for not seeing this—I don’t mean that. His essay does the work of priming readers to better detect such wordplay and allusion, but is itself under no obligation to reveal this particular pun.
But other works, I think, are. One such work is Stanley Plumly’s Posthumous Keats. While intended to proffer a kind of meandering journey through Keats’s later life, his death, and his posthumous reception, Plumly in fact retells a familiar story about Keats’s journey from immaturity to maturity. I’ve made larger critiques of Plumly’s book elsewhere (including here, here, and here; critiques which also contain nascent forms of the argument I’m making in this essay); here, I’ll simply note that, after citing the chameleon poet passage, Plumly writes, “Although the second volume of The Letters enacts much of the ‘light and shade’ enjoyed in discussion in the first, it represents more shade than light” (350). Plumly may be right—Keats undoubtedly suffered greatly—but it seems as though Plumly has his thumb on the scale: he very often simply excludes the light from his admittedly unsystematic work. One rarely sees any sign of pantomimical Keats in Plumly’s book. This is especially true when it comes to Keats’s posthumous/Posthumus pun. Plumly uses Keats’s idea of his “posthumous existence” as the title for his book, and he even cites the passage from Charles Cowden Clarke’s Recollections of Writers, including its reference to Posthumus, but nowhere does he try to think through, let alone admit the possibility of, Keats-as-Posthumus. For Plumly, Keats’s remark about his posthumous existence has become a sign and seal of the poet’s mature, adult awareness of his doom. It is an ultimate proof that the poet finally manned up.
As it was published only very recently and as I have to submit this essay very soon to the Keats Letters Project, I have not yet had the opportunity to fully investigate and think through Anahid Nersessian’s use of “posthumous existence” in “Keats and Catachresis,” but I look forward to doing so. As I noted earlier, Nersessian equates “posthumous existence” with “a highly pressurized blankness.” Of course, this may turn out to be a useful, productive critical gesture, but, at least right now, it seems to me that recognizing Posthumus’s presence in “posthumous existence” goes some way to fill that blankness. We shall see.
One thing, though, seems fairly clear: the posthumous/Posthumus pun in fact is more than, as Ricks would have it, a bonus. It really matters that we hear this allusion. If we don’t, we don’t get Keats in full, or, rather, as Jack Stillinger has put it (in The Cambridge Companion to Keats), we don’t get “Multiple Keats,” by which he means a Keats defined by “a sort of unresolved imaginative dividedness between the serious and the humorous, the straight and the ironic, the fanciful and the real, the high-flying and the down-to-earth, the sentimental and the satiric, the puffed up and the deflated” (253). Now, though, we get to hear “‘Posthumus’ Keats” differently, detecting in it, certainly, mature, worldly tragic recognition, but also theatrical play-fulness (please pardon my own pun), the mercurial nature so key to Keats, which, in turn, complicates, multiplies, scintillates the meanings of Keats’s final “awkward bow.”
…Speaking of which: I’d like to make my own, now. While I’ve endeavored in these remarks to share what I’ve thought through so far about Posthumus/Keats, this bit of Keatsian wordplay that also is a rift loaded with always already alloyed ore, I, too, must end with an awkward bow, admitting to my own share of unknowing about Keats’s identification in his letter, and after. In Cymbeline, things end well for Posthumous and Imogen. Was Keats still hoping for a happy ending? I don’t think so, but it’s difficult not to feel some hope embedded in this act of identification. And what are we to make of the fact that Keats makes other, later references to his posthumous existence? According to Joseph Severn (in The Keats Circle),
Each day [Keats] would look up in the doctor’s face to discover how long he should live—he would say—“how long will this posthumous life of mine last”—that look was more than we could ever bear—the extreme brightness of his eyes—with his poor pallid face—were not earthly… (1, 224).
How are we, now, to hear this, and how does this, if at all, echo back to Keats’s letter and alter the way we hear it? Might we see in the glint of Keats’s eye a sign of his insistent punning playfulness, even as his deathly face betrays what will be his ultimate fate? Whatever speculations are prompted by such further questions, my hope is that at least now we might more fully attend to Keats’s posthumous/Posthumus existence.
Certain texts and images invariably bring a lump to my throat and moisture to my eyes: footage of horses running free; the concluding lines of Paradise Lost; and Keats’s last letter to Brown. “I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow” (Letters 2: 360). The last sentence scans iambic tetrameter and creates a memorable image of a figure self-consciously exiting a social setting. Keats described such a situation in a 20 September 1819 letter recounting an anecdote about his friend John Hamilton Reynolds: “You know at taking leave of a party at a door way, sometimes a Man dallies and foolishes and gets awkward, and does not know how to make off to advantage—Good bye—well—good-bye—and yet he does not—go.” Reynolds, he says, was in this position and “got out of it in a very witty way.” After numerous delays, his friends finally said “be off,” whereupon Reynolds “puts the tails of his coat between his legs, and sneak’d off as nigh like a spanial as could be” (Letters 2: 207-08). If Keats’s “awkward bow” recalls this comic scene, however, it also elicits wrenching sadness, as readers from Brown onward realize that Keats is bidding farewell to his friends not for a brief period but for all time.
Keats always found the experience of separation from loved ones painful, perhaps, as Leon Waldoff argues, as a result of early and repeated losses in his family (27-30). Charles Cowden Clarke reported that, when a teenage Keats was reading aloud Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, “his eyes fill[ed] with tears, and his voice faltered when he came to the departure of Posthumus, and Imogen saying she would have watched him—‘Till the diminution / Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle; / Nay follow’d him till he had melted from / The smallness of a gnat to air; and then / Have turn’d mine eye and wept’” (126). This image of the receding figure recurs in Keats’s statement in his 30 September 1820 letter to Brown, “The thought of leaving Miss Brawne is beyond every thing horrible . . . I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing” (Letters 2: 345). No wonder Keats could “scarcely bid [Brown] good bye even in a letter.” The final sentences of Keats 30 November 1820 letter offer a complex mix of humor and pain, a self-deprecating gesture suffused with the anguish of a final leave-taking. In the blend of contrary emotions it evokes, Keats’s reference to his “awkward bow” recalls the image of “Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips / Bidding adieu” in the Ode on Melancholy (22-23).
Keats seems to realize that this is likely to be his last letter. In contrast to his two previous letters to Brown (30 September, 1 November), which gave vent to his misery over separation from Fanny Brawne and hardship on the journey to Italy, this one is written in a calmer spirit and is all the more poignant for the emotional restraint it exhibits. Keats’s characteristic empathy for others is on display, even as he reports his own suffering. “There, you rogue, I put you to the torture,” he says, after writing what he knows will give pain to his friend. “[B]ut you must bring your philosophy to bear—as I do mine, really—or how should I be able to live?” (Letters 2: 360). He reassures Brown of his own fortitude, surely as a way of comforting his friend, in effect saying, “Don’t worry about me, I am coping and bearing up under my difficulties.” Keats goes on to praise Dr. Clarke’s care, conveying the comforting news that he is receiving good medical attention, and he instructs Brown to send messages to various friends and family members. He is saying good-bye to his loved ones and assuring them that they are in his thoughts–even if he has to do so through an intermediary, because it is too painful for him to write to them directly.
One of the most striking incidents for me in Severn’s account of Keats’s final days is when Keats asks his companion if he has ever seen someone die and says, “well then I pity you poor Severn—what trouble and danger you have got into for me—now you must be firm for it will not last long” (Letters 2: 378). Four days later, as he approached the end, Keats told Severn, “I am dying—I shall die easy—don’t be frightened—be firm, and thank God it has come” (Keats Circle 2: 94). That “don’t be frightened” to me is remarkable. In the very throes of his own impending death, Keats could enter into his friend’s suffering and difficulties and offer consolation to him. This same consideration for others’ feelings and desire to ease their pain is evident in the 30 November 1820 letter. And thus Keats bows out of his friends’ and subsequent readers’ lives, to be heard from directly no more.
Keats’s early death has a different impact on me than those of other Romantic writers. Shelley’s and Byron’s deaths, for all their tragedy, seem somehow fitting and contribute to those poets’ reputations as glamorous young rebels. Keats’s death of consumption at age 25, by contrast, just seems wrong, a cosmic injustice. With every reading of a biography or the letters, my mind resists and cries out against this fate. Keats was altogether too young; he was just coming into his full power as a poet; he was denied the experience of consummating his relationship with the woman he loved. It’s not fair, we protest. Who has not wished he or she could travel back in time, equipped with appropriate antibiotics, to save Keats for even a few more years of life, consciousness, and creativity?
An alternative fantasy I have is of bringing Keats’s spirit into the present and revealing to him how popular and admired his poetry, letters, and personality have been. I imagine taking him to the library and showing him the rows and rows of books written about his work and life. I see him amazed, humbled, touched, mildly embarrassed and mildly amused, as he gazes at the titles written on the spines and selects various books, flipping through the pages to see what others have written about his poetry. As he begins to comprehend the extent of his posthumous fame, all the readers who have relished his work and the scholars who have analyzed every word he ever wrote, I hope he would finally feel vindicated and proud that he did achieve his goal of gaining a place “among the English Poets” (Letters 1: 394).
Of course, neither of these fantasies can be realized. They are the stuff of Romance, which we must relinquish as we accept the stubborn truth of what actually happened. Keats died in extreme physical and mental pain, believing he had failed in his ambition. The only way we can resurrect Keats and keep him alive is by continuing to read and reread his work, by writing more books, articles, and online commentaries about his poems and letters, seeking to discover new patterns and implications which, as Keats says about Shakespeare’s plays, “must be continually happening, notwithstandg that we read the same [piece] forty times” (Letters 1: 133). Keats is a canonical writer because his poems are inexhaustible. No matter what critical approach comes into fashion—biographical, New Critical, Marxist, New Historicist, gender studies, psychoanalytic, intertextual—it can be applied fruitfully to Keats’s writing, illuminating some new aspect but never comprehending all of the potential meanings.“When old age shall this generation waste” and our current cutting-edge theories fade into irrelevance, Keats’s poems and letters will remain, “a friend to man” and woman, offering new insights and enduring appeal (Ode on a Grecian Urn 46-48).
As November 2020 nears its end, we read Keats’s last extant letter, 200 years after he composed it in his cramped set of rooms in Rome. We feel over again the tragedy of his too-brief life and admiration for his remarkable talent and generous character. We are grateful to Brown and all of Keats’s friends for preserving his letters so that others have been able to read them. Likewise, we are indebted to the various collectors, librarians, and editors over the years who have curated and published the letters. Finally, we express our appreciation to the creators of the Keats Letters Project, who have made the letters newly available in digital format, which will disseminate them to new generations of readers in the twenty-first century.
We call this Keats’s “last” letter, but as with most things Keatsian, some uncertainty remains. And with any body of correspondence, what is left over must of necessity amount to less than the originary material. As they say in forensics, every contact leaves a trace. But not all traces persist, and the contacts always exceed their traces. So goes the phantasmal work of corresponding with Keats. He walks about our imaginations like a ghost, emerging into material, vivid fullness now and then, usually with a reminder of the absence that always haunts presence.
Keats himself draws this last letter to a close with a refusal of finality. “I shall write to XXX to-morrow, or next day,” he tells Charles Brown before issuing his utterly devastating awkward bow. He adds, “I will write to XXXXX in the middle of next week.” In all likelihood, though, he will not. If you were XXX or XXXXX, would you not have done all in your power to ensure that a letter written to you by Keats in his final months would survive into posterity? Given that no such letters exist, nor do any traces of them having ever existed, it’s safe to say that his future correspondence after 30 November 1820 was deferred indefinitely, and remains so. And yet, we persist in uncertainty, even if we know better.
The Xs in place of names gestures toward another bit of mystery connected with this last letter. The original manuscript is lost, as is the case with all but one of the extant letters to Brown (the letter of 30 September 1820 being the exception). The other eight letters come to us through Brown’s transcripts, made in his “Life of Keats” written between 1836 and 1841, and sent to Richard Monckton Milnes in March 1841. As he copied, Brown replaced the names of individuals with Xs, so we cannot know for sure to whom Keats intended to write (Rollins hazards guesses of Dilke and Woodhouse for the correspondents). More ghosts that haunt about the shape of the letter.
Brown clearly had difficulty revisiting the pain of two decades prior as he copied the nine letters then in his possession. In the letter accompanying his “Life of Keats” sent to Milnes, Brown writes, “Yesterday and to-day I have been occupied on this subject, and become fevered and nervous. I feel myself quite unable to fix my attention on these papers, whether in my hand writing or in his, any longer.” After passing on the “Life” to Milnes, Brown seems to have felt content that he was leaving the task of securing Keats’s place “among the English Poets” to a trusted steward. “A true friend of Keats,” he calls Milnes. The particular urgency of doing so at that moment for Brown, was that, as he posed it to Milnes, “I am on the eve of quitting England for ever.”
At the moment of consigning Keats’s final letter to its posthumous existence in Milnes’s care, Brown eerily parallels Keats back in 1820. Keats then found himself having left England for, what turned out to be, ever. And like Brown, he could hardly bear to fix his attention on the hand writing of “a friend I love so much as I do you,” as Keats wrote to Brown in this final letter of 30 November. Brown departed for New Zealand via The Oriental on 22 June 1841 and arrived in New Plymouth on 7 November. His life on Aotearoa did not last much longer than Keats’s in Italy: Brown died at New Plymouth on 5 June 1842.
One tantalizing question remains about the manuscript of this final letter: what did Brown do with it after copying it and sending the transcript to Milnes? Around the same time in 1841 when Brown sends Milnes the transcribed letters as part of his “Life of Keats,” he also sends some of Keats’s poetry manuscripts that were still in possession. He seems not to have ever intended to pass along the originals of any letters, so what became of them? Did he carry them with him across the oceans? Or did he perhaps–as Keats claimed, in a letter to Sarah Jeffrey, to have done in May 1819–make “a general conflagration of all old Letters and Memorandums”? An epistolary fire would certainly be one way to ease the pain of beholding Keats’s handwriting twenty years later. The future will determine whether any further traces of this last–or near-to-last–letter swim back into presence. For now, we have Brown’s copy and all the haunting resonances it summons into life.
The manuscript of Brown’s “Life of Keats” now resides at Harvard’s Houghton Library, along with the vast majority of Milnes’s Keatsiana collected before and after his biography of Keats was first published in 1848. For a reliable nineteenth-century edition in the public domain, we recommend Harry Buxton Forman’s 1901 Complete Works. And images below show Brown’s transcript (via Houghton Library) and the text as it appears in Rollins’s edition (via Google Books).
The KLP will be publishing several different pieces commemorating this final letter, so stay tuned!
Page 1 of Brown’s transcript of Keats’s letter. Image courtesy Harvard University, Houghton Library.
Page 2 of Brown’s transcript of Keats’s letter. Image courtesy Harvard University, Houghton Library.
Page 3 of Brown’s transcript of Keats’s letter. Image courtesy Harvard University, Houghton Library.
RE: Keats’s 1 November 1820 letter to Charles Brown
On 1 November 1820, Keats wrote an agonized letter to his friend Charles Brown. Keats began by saying, “Yesterday we were let out of Quarantine, during which my health suffered more from bad air and a stifled cabin than it had done the whole voyage.” Revived by fresh air, he aimed to write “a short calm letter,” but his resolve quickly abandoned him: “Oh, Brown, I have coals of fire in my breast.”
The day before, Keats had disembarked from the MariaCrowther, the cargo ship on which he sailed from England to Italy. Because there was a typhus epidemic in London, Keats and his fellow passengers had to remain onboard after the ship’s arrival in the Bay of Naples; the journey time was ten days short of the six-week quarantine mandated by Neapolitan health authorities. Keats’s emotional isolation, however, did not end with the lifting of the official constraint.
The unpleasantness of being stuck for ten days on a single-masted, two-ton brig was especially intense because the extra days were tacked onto a wretched voyage. “The passage out of the Thames into the Channel was predictably rough,” Andrew Motion writes, with “cross-currents churn[ing] the water into angry waves” (540). As the ship sailed past Brighton, gale-storm winds kicked up, and waves washed across the ship, soaking the bunks and causing the planks of the cabin walls to separate (Joseph Severn to William Haslam, 21 September 1820). Even before the weather turned rough, the travelers were queasy. Keats’s companion Joseph Severn vomited over the side of the boat; a consumptive fellow passenger, Miss Cotterell, fainted.
One of Severn’s watercolor paintings from the early part of the journey. This image depicts the Pinnacles at Handfast Point, near Studland Bay off the Dorset Coast. The Maria Crowther passed this spot a few days after the worst of the bad weather at the start of the voyage. Image courtesy ZSR Library at Wake Forest University.
Accommodation on the Maria Crowther consisted of one small six-bed cabin. Keats bunked with strangers in a kind of maritime hostel. Motion notes that “a cloth was suspended down the centre of the little room for decency’s sake,” a detail which evokes screwball comedy—Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert dividing a motor court cabin in It Happened One Night (538). Keats’s situation was less winsome. “The rolling of the ship was death to us,” Severn wrote, recalling cabin mates “tumbled from one side to the other of [their] beds,” and “things rattling about in every direction” (21 September 1820). Every time a storm rolled in, the passengers were “pinn’d up in [their] beds like ghosts by daylight.” The privacy curtain must have billowed like a sail.
The news that the Maria Crowther passengers would be confined to the ship for ten days after landing was, in Aileen Ward’s words, a “maddening disappointment” (380). When a lieutenant from a British naval squadron made inquiries of the newly-arrived ship, he and his six men bumbled aboard, and were forced to stay put until the quarantine was over. Ward writes, “Their quarters, close enough before, became unspeakably crowded when after the first day it began to rain, driving them all into the cabin. Soon the air was almost too foul to breathe” (381).
Given the torments of the journey, it’s no wonder that Keats commentators have felt inspired to spin rococo fantasies of his arrival in Italy. Grant F. Scott describes the “bejeweled description” of the approach to the Bay of Naples set forth by Severn’s biographer William Sharp, “eager to conjure the bright Italian landscape that he himself had recently visited” (20). Frances Mayes, imagining Keats in quarantine, writes: “I have seen Naples from [Keats’s] vantage of a ship anchored offshore—one of the most sublime locations in the world, that sweep of coast stacked with apricot, carmine, azure and rose villas; the blue, blue U of the harbor; the emphatic Vesuvius anchoring the view.”
Keats himself, however, described being shut “in a tier of ships,” (To Mrs. Samuel Brawne, 1820), a log-jam that Severn inflated to “2000 ships in a wretched Mole not sufficient for half the number” (To William Haslam, 1 November 2020). (“Mole” in this usage denotes an area of water contained within a massive structure [OED]).
“View of the Bay of Naples,” graphite and watercolor by Guiseppe Canella (1788-1847). Presumably a less crowded scene than the one Keats viewed during quarantine. Image courtesy the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Keats was impervious to the scenery. “I cannot say a word about Naples,” he wrote to Brown. “I do not feel at all concerned in the thousand novelties around me.” His unhappiness centered around his beloved Fanny Brawne. “There is nothing in the world of sufficient interest to divert me from her a moment.”
Fanny, Fanny, Fanny, Keats wails, except that he doesn’t refer to her by name even once. “To see her name written would be more than I can bear,” he wrote, suggesting that Brown communicate her status by secret code. “If she is well and happy, put a mark thus +.” Keats breaks into capital letters to describe his WRETCHEDNESS. He layers his regrets: “I should have had her when I was in health, and I should have remained well.” Her parting gifts make him wince. “The silk lining she put in my travelling cap scalds my head.”
The story of Keats’s quarantine has resonated in recent months as cruise ships became the first harbingers of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as borders closed to foreign travelers. During the first week of February, ten passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, floating near Yokohama, were determined to be infected with the coronavirus.
I now pop out from behind the privacy curtain and reveal myself, around that same time, traveling from Yokohama to Tokyo, where I delivered a lecture in the manner of the academic Before Times. Every aspect of that gathering—the handshake with the organizer, the promiscuous fumbling with projector dongles, the elbow-to-elbow audience members—seems, in retrospect, fraught with danger. It was the moment just before academic gatherings were first postponed and then canceled as the endpoint of the pandemic receded into the distance. We began to sanitize as anxiously as Lady Macbeth. What, will our hands never be clean?
Soon Japanese governors were begging people not to visit their prefectures. In beauty spots, officials briskly destroyed beauty so as to discourage sightseers. Tulips were beheaded in Sakura; rosebuds were snipped in Saitama; wisteria vines were lopped in Fukuoka. Japanese college students attending university in Tokyo or Osaka were encouraged to remain in those hotspots; if they stayed put, they were rewarded with care packages full of hometown delicacies—locally-grown rice, dried salmon jerky, konnyaku balls. The list of countries whose residents were banned from entering Japan expanded to include eighty-six nations, including the United States, Australia, and Brazil.
Around the same time, the U.S. Embassy circulated increasingly alarmist travel alerts to Americans sojourning abroad. “U.S. citizens should bear in mind that a decrease in flights to the United States may make it more difficult or even impossible to return to the United States for a family emergency in a timely manner,” the Embassy warned in early April, setting off a wave of panic departures. All of a sudden, sea travel between Japan and the United States started to seem like a fallback option.
Keats’s journey took place just a few years after Byron wrote Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. In that Canto, Byron describes thought as a “faculty divine,” which from birth is “cabin’d, cribb’d, confined.” Perhaps he drew his metaphor from his own continental travel. The contrast between Byron’s Grand Tour and Keats’s pinched itinerary, however, could not be greater. Prior to his trip to Italy, Keats took excursions to Margate and the Isle of Wight, but mostly ventured no farther than Hampstead Heath. (Levinson 8). Brendan Corcoran notes the “harsh irony that Keats’s only significant experience of travel should be a wretched journey to a grave in Rome” (331).
Keats’s two-hundred-year-old letter takes on added poignancy as we read it in our strange and precarious moment, as we are cast back into our parents’ houses, teleported by Zoom, distanced from friends and colleagues. Keats’s anguish—“despair is formed upon me as a habit”—reminds us that the word “quarantine” connotes both temporal and physical remove. Keats was stranded in both time and space, and so are we. As we read this second-to-last surviving Keats letter, we wish him (and ourselves) a happier future.
Judith Pascoe is the George Mills Harper Professor of English at Florida State University. Pascoe’s most recent book, On the Bullet Train with Emily Brontë: “Wuthering Heights” in Japan (U of Michigan, 2017), which was completed with the support of a Guggenheim fellowship, explores how and why Brontë’s novel has been embraced by Japanese readers and writers.
 Keats arrived in Italy at a signal moment in quarantine history. Alex Chase-Levensen argues that in the period from 1792-1815 “nation-states, city-states, and empires across the northern half of the Mediterranean Basin recommitted to the universal maintenance of quarantine,” resulting in “the most sustained, extensive, and multipolar application of a quarantine system in world history” (28). I am grateful for the research assistance of Laura Smith, and for the insights of Perry Howell, Sara Levine, and Brian Rejack.
 For details of the ship and its final fate, see Berry 4-5.
 The desire to spin such fantastic retellings of Keats’s arrival in Naples Harbor seems to have led Mayes to mistake D.W. Pyke’s imaginative exercise in John Keats from Fool to Fulfillment as the genuine article. In the original version of Mayes’s piece, she quoted from Pryke’s book as if it were actually Keats’s own writings. Although most of those quotations were removed from a corrected version of the article, Mayes still twice erroneously claims, via Pryke’s fiction, that Keats wrote a mini-biography while in quarantine.