“a friend I love so much as I do you”

Jeffrey N. Cox
University of Colorado Boulder

Re: Keats’s 30 November 1820 letter to Charles Brown

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.”[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.’”[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] Both Aileen Ward (p. 381) and Walter Jackson Bate follow William Sharp[7] 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).[8] 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.[9] 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).[10] 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.[11]

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,[12] in some jointly written letters to the Dilkes,[13] 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.[14] 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,”[15] 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.


[1] Severn, letter to Brown, 17 December 1820, Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs, ed. Grant F. Scott (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005), p. 114.

[2] See Judith Pascoe, “Keats’s Quarantine Bubble,” http://keatslettersproject.com/correspondence/keatss-quarantine-bubble/; Susan J. Wolfson, “Keats to Mrs. Brawne: ‘a Spirit in my brain . . . an intellect in splints,” http://keatslettersproject.com/correspondence/an-intellect-in-splints/.

[3] Mayes, Frances, “When the World Stops, Traveling in John Keats’s ‘Realms of Gold.’” New York Times. 26 March 2020.

[4] Severn, “My tedious Life,” in Joseph Severn, p.644. See, also, Motion, pp. 547-48, 551.

[5] See John Barnard, “What Letters did Keats take to Rome,” Keats-Shelley Journal 64 (2015): 80.

[6] 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).

[7] William Sharp, The Life and Letters of William Sharp (London: Sampson, Low, Marston and Company, 1892), p. 59.

[8] 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.

[9] On this background, see https://www.msn.com/en-ph/news/national/ramadan-in-history-quarantine-first-introduced-by-islam/ar-BB13c83U.

[10] 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.

[11] 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.

[12] 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).

[13] 31 July 1819 (Rollins, 2:135) and more completely in another of 24 January 1819 (Rollins, 2: 34-36).

[14] Brown, Life of John Keats, ed. Dorothy Hyde Bodurtha and Willard Bissell Pope (London: Oxford University Press, 1937), p. 62.

[15] Brown, letter to Milnes, 29 March 1841, Keats Circle, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948), 2: 99; my emphasis.

Biographies Used

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.

Editions Used

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.

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