“I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter”

Karen Swann
Williams College

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

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” [359]), 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).[1] 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.[2]

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 [360]), 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.[3] 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.[4] 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!”[5]

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,[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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).[9] 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” [360]). 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.


[1] In his Recollections Edward Trelawny gives an account of his efforts to square the hastily-arranged cremations with the authorities (78-90).

[2] For Severn’s account of Miss Cotterell and her illness see his 21 September letter to Haslam, LK 2:240-44.

[3] See Roe, 389-90.

[4] 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.

[5] See Wolfson’s account of this missed encounter.

[6] 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).

[7] 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).

[8] In “The Strange Time of Reading” and, more recently, in Lives of the Dead Poets, 29-52.

[9] Including, most famously, “negative capability,” the travels and afterlives of which have lately been traced in Rejack and Theune.

Works Cited

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.

Pascoe, Judith. “Keats’s Quarantine Bubble.Keats Letters Project, November 1, 2020.

Rejack, Brian, and Michael Theune, eds. Keats’s Negative Capability: New Origins and Afterlives. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2019.

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats: A New Life. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2012.

Rollins, Hyder, ed. The Keats Circle. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1948. Cited as KC.

Stanback, Emily. “The Body of the Letter.” Keats Letters Project, November 20, 2015.

Swann, Karen. “The Strange Time of Reading.” European Romantic Review 9:2 (1998).

—. Lives of the Dead Poets: Keats, Shelley, Coleridge. New York: Fordham University Press (LitZ series), 2018.

Trelawney, Edward. Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1878.

Wolfson, Susan. “Keats to Mrs. Brawne: ‘a Spirit in my brain. . . an intellect in splints.’” Keats Letters Project, October 24, 2020.

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