“To go on for ever”: Keats to Charles Brown

Jeanne Britton
University of South Carolina

RE: Keats’s 30 September 1820 letter to Charles Brown

When Keats writes to Charles Brown on 30 September 1820, he is setting out for Italy on the Maria Crowther, a small merchantman meant to carry freight, after knocking around in the channel due to bad weather. The Crowther sailed from the Thames on the morning of 17 September and was delayed the following day at Gravesend, where it so happens that Brown’s boat had also stopped. Brown had heard news of Keats and quickly sailed from Scotland; their boats were, he later learned, “‘little more than a stone’s throw from each other’” (cited in Bate 659). Keats’s addressee is again near but out of reach on the date of the letter’s composition, after the Crowther, beset again by bad weather, stopped this time at Portsmouth. Keats and Joseph Severn disembarked and traveled to Bedhampton, where they visited John Snook and his wife (Charles Dilke’s brother-in-law). Brown, after having sought Keats in London, was then staying in nearby Chichester. The letter’s reflections on impending loss and absence are even more acute in light of these two instances of its addressee’s recent but unreachable nearness.

On the date of the letter, Keats returned to the boat and, according to Severn’s account, wrote “Bright Star” in his copy of Shakespeare’s Poems and penned this letter. The dating of the poem’s composition—as opposed to what, despite Severn’s account, is now seen as a copy—has been inconclusive, but its resonance with this letter, as Severn suggests, is pronounced.[1] The pain of this letter, and all the late letters, is vivid. In the second half of this piece, I’ll turn away from the realities of Keats’s illness and death and instead adopt Keats’s own coping mechanism during his time in quarantine in Naples: summoning up a pun. The pun is provided by a recent novel imagining a longer life for Keats, Paul Kerschen’s Warm South, and I follow its implications in order to speculate about ties between Keats’s fixation on transience and permanence and the culture of printed views of Rome.

“Eternally Vanishing”

“The time has not yet come,” he begins the letter to Brown, “for a pleasant Letter from me” (LK 2:334). He acknowledges Brown’s proximity both at the moment of writing and earlier on the stymied voyage: “I was very disappointed at not meeting you at bedhamption, and am very provoked at the thought of you being at Chichester to day” (LK 2:345). He then expresses heartfelt sadness about his lost hopes, naming—but perhaps not naming—“the very thing” that makes him wretched.

Walter Jackson Bate cautioned that it is too easy to read “the very thing” he so emotionally describes in this letter as his hopeless love for Fanny Brawne; Keats might instead be referring to the writing of poetry (662). “The very thing which I want to live most for,” he writes, “will be a great occasion of my death. […] Were I in health it would make me ill, and how can I bear it in my state?” When he does name her, it is in conjunction with an explicit anticipation of his death: “it is for my sake you would be a friend to Miss Brawne when I am dead” (LK 2:345). Recalling a letter to her from July 25, 1819, this joining of his death and his beloved suggests a practical resignation to the inevitable instead of his earlier fantasy: “I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute.” “I will … pray to your Star like a He[a]then,” he closes that letter, signing off with “Your’s ever, fair Star” (LK 2:133).

“Ever,” “for ever,” and “eternally” are key terms in Keats’s poetry; in today’s letter, they evoke in particular the desire for permanence in eroticism and death that “Bright Star” articulates. The letter continues: “The thought of leaving Miss Brawne is beyond every thing horrible—the sense of darkness coming over me—I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing” (LK 2:345). This eternal watching resembles that of the immortal star and its “watching, with eternal lids apart” (CP 247, l. 3), a specific form of unending existence that the poem rejects. And clearly, a continuous, eternal departure is not a desirable release from death. This passage in the letter also seems to invert, Brendan Corcoran proposes, the idea that Keats is actually departing Fanny. Instead, he figures himself as Orpheus while Fanny becomes Eurydice, who is “eternally vanishing” into death (346). In his last letter to Fanny, written in August before he set out for Italy, he tells her to “Suppose me in Rome—well, I should there see you as in a magic glass going to and from town at all hours” (LK 2:312). As Susan Wolfson recently observes of that letter, “The pain was not just leaving her, but of her, gradually, inevitably, leaving him. […] Call it death in life, or death & life.” 

Although he does not write directly to Fanny again, Keats tells Brown in this letter that he is committing to write to her for the possibility that death might claim him in the act: “A sudden stop to my life in the middle of one of these Letters would be no bad thing for it keeps one in a sort of fever awhile.” Contemplating the fatigue of “a Letter longer than any I have written for a long while,” he decides that “it would be better to go on for ever than awake to a sense of contrary winds.” Keats continues, on the back of the letter, by thinking of the contrary winds that have already made “[t]he Captn the Crew and the Pasengers” of the Maria Crowther “all illtemper’d and weary” before leaving the Channel (LK 2:346).

These phrases also echo those of “Bright Star” in their suggestion of immortality that breaks through, rather than transcends, death. Better, indeed, would it be to “go on for ever,” as the letter puts it, and remain, as “Bright Star” concludes, “Awake for ever in a sweet unrest […] And so live ever—or else swoon to death” (CP 247, ll. 12-14). The sadness of “I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing” and its continual loss is shifted to the semblance of “for ever” while writing a long letter, the “sort of fever” that dying in the act of writing such a letter to Fanny might bring. Letter-writing seems to offer an alternative to the prolonging of life in “Bright Star,” to create another reality of permanence and presence. In the moment of writing to Fanny, with all the physical and emotional strain the act would bring, he could “go on for ever.” 

“I feel,” he concludes this letter to Brown, “as if I was closing my last letter to you.” His actual last letter to Brown—or to anyone else, as far as posterity knows—will come two months later, on November 30. There he notes that while aboard the Maria Crowther he had, “even in Quarantine, summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life” (LK 2:360). It is with a pun, perhaps a desperate pun, that I turn to other expressions of the desire for permanence and presence in the midst of transience and decay.

Engraving, Keats, and Engraving Keats

Paul Kerschen’s recent novel Warm South imagines a longer life for Keats. Waking after a difficult night, standing up after the awkward bow, he finds his illness was, as his doctor James Clark had suspected, a disease of the stomach. The fictional Fanny Brawne later writes to Keats in Rome: “When I shut my eyes I see Curiosities—you know Italy for me is engraved pictures in Travel-books.” “Now,” she writes, “I fancy my John engraved there with the rest” (Kerschen 89-90).

He is in reality, of course, in an almost unbearable pun, “en-graved” in the Protestant cemetery there. On one hand, this fictional alternative engraving of Keats–through Kerschen’s Fanny Brawne–places the living poet within the popular medium whose second-hand nature was a source of his own inspiration and his critics’ disdain.[2]

On the other, this potential double meaning also suggests a confluence rather than a distinction—that the art of engraving, which captures the factual present before it fades, and the fact of individual human death might enact something similar. Keats often hints that through art, death as an end to life achieves a kind of permanence beyond human death. As a visual trick that resembles Keats’s own vision of Eurydice’s eternal vanishing in today’s letter, or the magic glass he mentioned in August, this imagined engraving / en-graving offers a way to keep Keats before our eyes in an eternally posthumous life.

Those engraved pictures that, in the mind of the fictional Fanny and the historical Keats, stood for Italy likely included the well-known Views of Rome by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778). Piranesi is probably known to readers of the Keats Letters Project for his imaginary prisons that Coleridge describes to de Quincey. He was also a prodigious and innovative artist whose works included, among over a thousand images, the views of modern streets and crumbling ruins that grand tourists brought back from their travels to the eternal city. Piranesi intended with his engravings to capture the remains of ancient architecture and art as they were being lost to time and plunder (including his own). He depicted overgrown ruins with a sensuousness that, in keeping with earlier notions, made stone seem to be alive. Piranesi’s efforts to keep Rome’s disappearing ruins before the eyes of antiquarians and tourists suggest that his chosen medium of engraving might, as Keats’s verse often seeks to do, arrest the progress of time. Biographically and thematically, Piranesi did not engage with death in the direct ways that Keats did. In his engravings, though, his aspirations to immortality—for his art and its subjects—appear with forceful insistence. In the image below, Piranesi weaves engraving tools through a snake biting its tail. In opposition to the lowly reputation for engraving, this image suggests that his chosen medium can bestow the kind of immortality that the unending circle of the self-consuming snake suggests (Minor 129-30).

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, from Lapides capitolini, sive, Fasti consvlares triumphalesq[ue] Romanorum ab vrbe condita vsqve ad Tiberivm Caesaram. (Rome, 1762). Source: Internet Archive.

There are many reasons to consider his visual works alongside Keats’s poetry: their relationships to the culture of museums, their interests in the fragment as a poetic and material form, or even the “architectural” quality of Keats’s verse (Vendler 10) and Piranesi’s innovative representations of architectural space. More specifically, there is the old-fashioned proposition of a number of Victorian scholars that the model of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” was, as Harry Buxton Forman puts it, “a somewhat weather-beaten work in marble, still preserved in the garden of Holland House, and figured in Piranesi’s Vasi e Candelabri.” Because Piranesi depicts only one side of this urn (in the center of the first image below), as opposed to others that he shows from different angles, the first engraving below may have inspired Keats to draw from another, second below, that was included in the same two-volume work (Forman 2:115).[3]

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, from Vasi, Candelabri, Sarcofagi, Tripodi (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1837-9). Source: University of South Carolina, University Libraries, Digital Collections.

A more meaningful if also more tenuous connection—one that is, to be sure, not unique to these two artists—is the point that I think the “engraved” pun helps to strengthen: a shared effort to achieve immortality and permanence through careful attention to the fleeting nature of human life and humanity’s works. Keats’s final days in Rome and his proximity to Piranesi’s subjects, in addition to his final months and death a few steps from Piranesi’s home and workshop, lend support to this connection.

Piranesi’s views of the eternal city continue to serve as souvenirs. For sale in the gift shop at the Keats-Shelley House Museum is his “Veduta della Piazza di Spagna,” which includes the house itself, to the right of the steps. Keats’s room is almost visible through the corner window second from the top. The fountain in the foreground, la Fontana della Barcaccia, provided the sound that reminded him of the phrase from Beaumont and Fletcher’s Philaster (“all your better deeds / Shall be in water writ”) that reappears on his tombstone, which reads “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, from Vedute di Roma (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1837-9). Source: University of South Carolina, University Libraries, Digital Collections.

Many of the shops around the Spanish Steps and in the neighborhood of the Trinità de monti sold prints; Keats and Severn’s landlady, Anna Angeletti, as well as her recently deceased husband, drew and engraved (Bate 673). Although he barely saw the city, he did occasionally ride a borrowed horse, and he would walk near the house at 26 Piazza di Spagna, likely along the streets that were filled with print-shops. Perhaps, if he ascended the steps and turned right on the Via Sistina, he may have passed, at number 41, Piranesi’s former home, workshop, and informal museum. (By 1820, the address was occupied by Bertel Thorvaldsen, a well-known sculptor whose subjects included Byron and Walter Scott.) Severn visited the Protestant cemetery in early 1821. Keats was pleased when he described it as full of violets and bordered by the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, a frequent subject for Piranesi.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, from Vedute di Roma (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1837-9). Source: University of South Carolina, University Libraries, Digital Collections.

Keats articulates in verse and letters an intense desire for proximity, for palpable presence, that is often specified with details about posture or stance. In a journal letter to George and Georgiana of 14 February–3 May 1819, he carefully describes his own posture as he writes—“sitting with my back to [a wax taper] with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated from the carpet.” He then wonders “in what position Shak[e]speare sat when he began ‘To be or not to be,’” noting that “such things become interesting from distance of time or place” (LK 2:73). In many of Piranesi’s views, such as that of the Pyramid above, human figures provide a sense of scale but also lean against illusionistic captions, or serve to annotate by gesturing to the monuments depicted in the image. Marking distance while seeking presence, the gestures and postures that Keats describes and that Piranesi depicts suggest an effort to simulate, “from distance of time or place,” immediacy and presence.

It is of course not unique for artists to be concerned with posterity, permanence, and fighting against the ravages of time. But the presence of absence, and the living through death that we see in Keats appears in a different light in Piranesi’s works. If the artistic medium of engraving was put to use in order to preserve Rome’s disappearing past, then to imagine Keats slipping into an image produced by this medium suggests a particular and, I think, appropriate kind of immortality for him. The English pun, desperate as it may be, additionally hints at the immortality achieved in, through, and with death that Keats articulates in “Bright Star” and this letter. Letter-writing, instead of the poem’s astronomical metaphor, seems on this day to offer an alternate reality of eternal presence that might let him “go on for ever.”

Contributor’s Note:
Jeanne Britton is Curator in the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina. She is the author of Vicarious Narratives: A Literary History of Sympathy, 1750-1850 (2019) and the principal investigator of The Digital Piranesi (http://digitalpiranesi.org).


[1] On the dating of “Bright Star,” see Gittings (415), Sugano, and Corcoran.

[2] On the inspiring element of engravings and other mediated representations of art, Scott and Jack remain insightful sources. See also Levinson.

[3] This conjectural history of the Grecian Urn is written in footnotes. Arthur C. Downer, in his 1897 edition of the odes, specifies the particular engravings that Forman describes and that are reproduced above (37-8). William Thomas Arnold also weighs in on this possibility in his earlier collected edition of Keats’s poetry, citing correspondence with A. S. Murry of the British Museum: “supposing Keats to have got his knowledge from Piranesi’s work, which must have been common enough in this country, one might imagine that having failed to find the other side of the Holland urn, he had taken in its stead another engraving in the same volume, from an urn in the Borghese gallery” (xxii). Woodcuts by George Scharf said to be based on the works depicted in Piranesi’s engravings are printed alongside the ode in the illustrated collection edited by Richard Monckton Milnes, the author of Keats’s first full-length biography (309, 310).

Works Cited

Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Harvard UP, 1963.

Corcoran, Brendan. “Keats’s Death: Towards a Posthumous Poetics.” Studies in Romanticism 48.2 (2009), pp. 321-348.

Jack, Ian Robert James. Keats and the Mirror of Art. Clarendon P, 1968.

Gittings, Robert. John Keats: The Living Year. Harvard UP, 1954.

Keats, John. Complete Poems. Ed. Jack Stillinger. Belknap P, 1982. [Cited as CP]

——. The Letters of John Keats. 2 vols., ed. Hyder E. Rollins. Harvard UP, 1958. [Cited as LK]

——. The Odes of Keats: With Notes and Analyses and a Memoir. Ed. Arthur C. Downer. Clarendon P, 1897.

——. Poetical Works of John Keats. Ed. William Thomas Arnold. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, and Co., 1884.

——. The Poetical Works and Other Writings of John Keats. 4 vols., ed. Harry Buxton Forman. London: Reeves & Turner, 1883.

——. The Poetical Works of John Keats. Ed. Richard Monckton Milnes. Illus. George Scharf. London: Moxon, 1854.

Kerschen, Paul. Warm South: A Novel. West Hartford, Conn.: Roundabout P, 2019.

Levinson, Marjorie. Keats’s Life of Allegory: The Origins of a Style. Blackwell, 1988.

Minor, Heather Hyde. “Engraved in Porphyry, Printed on Paper: Piranesi and Lord Charlemont” The Serpent and the Stylus: Essays on G. B. Piranesi. Edited by Mario Bevilacqua, Heather Hyde Minor, and Fabio Barry. U of Michigan P, 2006. pp. 123-147.

Scott, Grant F. The Sculpted Word: Keats, Ekphrasis, and the Visual Arts. UP of New England, 1994.

Sugano, Michio. “When Was ‘Keats’s Last Sonnet’ Written?” Studies in Romanticism 34.3 (1995), pp. 413-440.

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