Keats to Mrs. Brawne: “a Spirit in my brain … an intellect in splints”

Susan J. Wolfson
Princeton University

RE: Keats’s 24 October 1820 letter to Mrs Frances Brawne (sent from Naples Harbour to Wentworth Place, Hampstead)

Rough billows were my home by night and day

This is my third essay for the Keats Letters Project, the first on a night of exuberance after an evening with Haydon (November 1816), the next on the correspondence of Keats and Shelley in the summer of 1820, about poetry and plans for Italy, and this last, from Italy, a wavering between spirit and stress, wit and misery. It’s hard to verge on the conclusion in Keats’s correspondence, tearfully knowing where it goes from here.

For all the poetry in the wording that I take for the title of this essay, a Spirit in my brain … an intellect in splints, it was not the first thing Keats wrote to Fanny Brawne’s mother about his state of mind on the fourth day of a ten-days’ quarantine in Naples Harbor. The arrest was due to reports of outbreak of typhus in London that had the Italian authorities keeping everything English off shore (for 6 weeks, of which their brig had already logged in 5). Keats did not set foot on the ground until 31 October, his 25th birthday (and the day before the twentieth anniversary of beloved Fanny Brawne’s christening). Naples Harbour was in effect, his sixth home since early May–a rapid compression of a life’s pacing that, ever since the death of his father, had made every “home” thereafter a fragile stability, ever temporary.

Joseph Severn’s watercolor of the Maria Crowther, Keats’s conveyance to Italy and his temporary quarantine home upon arrival in Naples. Image via the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust

When Charles Brown let his home Wentworth Place, where Keats was his guest, going off, as usual, to Scotland, Keats had to move out for the time being. His new lodging (from May 4) was a meager bed-sit at 2 Wesleyan Place, at the edge of Kentish Town. The only advantage was its proximity, a mile or so up the road, to Wentworth Place, where the Brawnes lived (renting Charles Dilke’s half of Wentworth Place), and close by, just around the corner, the home of his loyal friend Leigh Hunt, at 13 Mortimer Terrace. When a spate of violent pulmonary attacks on 22 June made it clear that he could no longer care for himself in safety, or his landlady’s security of this, kind Hunt coaxed him to move in with his family.  They did their best with comfort and care, but the household was busy, boisterous, and sometimes chaotic, and Keats’s room upstairs, the sun slamming its roof during an oppressive heat spell, was no great refuge. His health worsening, the doctors called in let his blood, and advised that he needed to spend the winter in Italy. Keats knew in his heart that this would be his final home.

Already precarious, the situation with the Hunts boiled over when a note from Fanny Brawne was intercepted by a servant, delivered to Keats days later. Feeling humiliated and violated, against Hunt’s pleas, he packed up his few belongings, books among them, and dragged himself to the Bentleys’ lodgings on Well Walk, Hampstead, where he had rooms with his brothers for much of 1817 and 1818 (moving in with Brown after Tom died in early December). Finding the lodge dark by the time he arrived, he made his way over to the Brawnes.[1] Mrs Brawne took him in, and for his last month in England, Keats’s fourth residence since early May felt like a home:  back at Wentworth Place, with a caring, maternal Mrs Brawne, amusing siblings in Tootts (Margaret, age 11) and Sam (just 16), and not least, complete proximity to the love of his life, Fanny (just 20), with no chance of interrupted correspondence. He was not exaggerating when he said that it was the only spell of happiness he had known in a long time. 

Back in March, he had described himself to Fanny with a temporal phrase, whilst I am an invalid (L 2:281). Five months on, whilst was delusion and the double edge of invalid keenly felt: physically disabled, existentially false (Plumly 261). For the 2600 mile trip to Naples–too allegorically from pun-ready Gravesend to this New City—Keats’s next home was a small, two-masted sailing brig, The Maria Crowther, his lodging therein (it was a coastal trade ship, not a passenger vessel[2]), cramped quarters for six: the Captain and “his Cat,” his Mate, Keats, Joseph Severn (an artist, portraitist, and his companion), a consumptive Miss Cottrell, age 18, going to her brother, and a robust, middle-aged Mrs. Pidgeon, her companion but rather annoyed at the office. John Taylor, Keats’s publisher, put a shine on it all in a report to Fanny Keats. Her brother was settled in “his new Habitation with every prospect of having a pleasant Voyage” to the warm south (L 2: 338).[3] Habitation it was, minimally: “bad air and a stifled cabin,” Keats described it to Brown after they were safely out of it (2:351), and “at first sight every inconvenience,” so Severn quipped at the front end (340).[4] Miss Cotterell was not only a sad sight but a horrible double. She mirrored Keats in female form, and in this form was also a foil to Fanny (a healthy 18), and revenant of poor Tom, Here … where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies. Keats’s medical experience and nursing of Tom had him thinking her the more afflicted (Severn 339); she thought him worse off (she would outlive him by a few years; Sharp, 148).

The voyage commenced on 17 September was no easy sail, delayed for weeks at the start amid gales and mountainous waves, their room flooded, nearly shipwrecking storms, then along the Iberian coast military turmoils and interventions.[5] Severn’s reports to Haslam (Keats’s oldest friend, from schooldays) rock back and forth, not only about the voyage (ordeal, wonder, terror and adventure) but also about Keats. On the 17th, he called their cozy quarters more endearing “than the most stately Palace”; Keats “seem’d happy … cracked his jokes at tea” and was quite himself (2: 340). On the 19th, Keats “looked well—ate well” and “full of his waggery,” egging Severn on “with his golden jokes” and “plying” him for more. Severn and the Captain went ashore for provisions to complement the Captain’s beef, ham and tongue, stocking their larder with 50 apples and 2 dozen biscuits (i.e. cookies) “&c &c.” The Captain was already so endeared to Keats that he went looking for a goat to supply him with milk. One of Keats’s requests to Severn was for “some things from the Chymists” (341). This (Severn did not specify to Haslam) was a bottle of laudanum (opium in alcohol), ostensibly for sea-sickness. Severn didn’t seem to register that Keats wanted it at hand for the physical agony he knew was coming, and at the end may have meant to overdose.

After the initial bon voyage, Severn’s reports start to oscillate. Everyone got seasick on the 19th, though Keats readily took charge (“he dictated surgically—like Esculapius,” son of Apollo and god of medicine). Keats is “looking better,” then “not so well, then “promising … best possible hopes”: that’s just on 19 September (L 2: 342, 338). The 20th had the ship storm-rocked and drenched, “the waves were in Mountains,” the ship rolled violently, and everyone was frightened, “except Keats he was himself all the time … without even complaining” (343). More than a week on, the ship had still not cleared the channel and Keats’s good humor, maintained for his present company, cracked wide open when he wrote to Charles Brown (30 September).

Joseph Severn’s watercolor, “Moonlight at Sea,” presumably completed during one of the calmer parts of the voyage.

Ever since the middle of August, knowing of his destiny to Italy, he had been trying to reach Brown, hoping he would accompany him with the cheer of good spirits and capable management. He was stunned to find out, while on a land-break with Severn from the Maria Crowther’s slow progress westward on the Channel, that Brown was actually back from Scotland and had made no effort to contact him, let alone accompany him. Keats had put off writing the shipboard letter to Brown until he felt he could “enliven [him] with one heartening hope of my recovery” (344). The 30th was the first time he felt up to pen and paper, and his hopes were not strong. The letter is very clean in a steady hand, comparable to the one to Shelley on 16 August: a single sheet, folded in half, three and a half pages of writing, folded and addressed to Brown at Wentworth Place, their pleasant home, a long, long year before. It was not to be a Pleasant letter however, Keats alerts him (f 1; 399). He begins with a qualified report of feeling easy enough this morning but soon wends to polite disappointments in Brown’s silence. Then the floodgates open, I wish for death every day and night to deliver me—not so much from physical pains as from the pain of losing Fanny. Begging Brown to be a friend to her when I am dead (f 2; 400), he says this in flat certainty, before the letter’s darkest passages:

Is there another Life? Shall I awake and find all this a dream? There must be we cannot be created for this sort of suffering. The receiving of this letter is to be one of yours (f 3; 401).

This is about as aggressively aggrieved as Keats gets, a physical wrench with metaphysical thrust.

He tunes the next sentence to pierce Brown with what he says he isn’t saying:

I will say nothing about our friendship or rather your to me more than that as you deserve to escape you will never be so unhappy as I am. (f3, 401)

This is saying much. Having said that the very thought of leaving Miss Brawne is beyond every thing horrible—the sense of darkness coming over me (f 3), he lets himself say that another horrible loss is Brown, whom he knows he will never see again: I feel as if I was closing my / last letter to you. My dear Brown / Your affectionate friend / John Keats (f 4).

The conclusion of Keats’s 30 September 1820 letter to Brown. Image via Houghton Library, Harvard University.

For all the suppressed anger at Brown’s failure in a final chapter of care, Keats’s signing himself affectionate still bears hope that he is held in Brown’s affections. This wasn’t his last letter (we know) but at the time he thought it was. He folded it up, addressed it, sealed it, then did not send it.

Severn knew none of this. When Brown wrote to Taylor just days later, October 5th, it was pretty much to reinforce Severn’s cheerier narrative of Keats:

his spirits were excellent … with all the bustling wit of a man in saucy health … Neither the boisterous weather, nor his antipathies, nor his anger, will do him harm;–on the contrary they will be of service,–they are good physic to his mind, & will help purge away his apprehensions. (L 2:347)

This was part tact with Taylor, but I think Brown was embarrassed, wanting to believe Severn’s account (which Keats enabled), so as to excuse himself for deficient care.

Naples Harbour: sad heart, sick for home

The next letters we have, from Severn and from Keats, were quarantine ones. Writing to Haslam on 22 October (L 2:348), Severn reports the ordeal of the voyage and the great changes in Keats. The “passage has been most horribly rough,” and “a wonder” that “Keats has lived though it.” Rollins prints this as “th[r]ough” and Severn may have meant this; but he may have meant (then didn’t) to start a clause though it…, to convey a depletion from Keats’s having survived. At one point, he tells Haslam, he was so convinced that Keats “would die on the passage” that he was ready to take him back to London. By the Straits of Gibraltar, and the sight of the vast “topaz” of the Rock, Keats seem revived: “great changes … for the better–he seem’d recovering–at least he looked like it.” Then another collapse: two days on, Keats was sick again, assailed by hemorrhages, coughing up blood, night fevers, violent perspiration, “now in a doubtfull state,” Severn postscripts with a beyond normal ful.

The only solace for Keats was that he had spared Mrs Brawne, and Fanny, from having to see this–and worse to come. His letter to Mrs Brawne mentions Severn writing to Haslam, with his request that Severn tell Haslam to share this with her.[6] He did not know that Severn would spare the Brawnes. For his part, Keats wanted, really, to write to Fanny, in the best spirits he could command. He couldn’t trust himself to compose with required composure if he addressed her directly, so he wrote to her mother with affection, and disciplined deflection. His still living hand could no longer manage the penmanship of his letter to Brown a month earlier, despite his knowing that Fanny would see this letter, then his sister Fanny and his friends in London: the Hunts, Haslam, Woodhouse, Taylor and Hessey. He did his best, with moral determination, to be brief and newsy.

He begins promising just a few words about what sort of Passage we had, and the present Quarantine (f 1). Once he started writing, few words became a story, about 600 words filling up four full pages (one sheet, folded in half, with just enough room for folding up, sealing and address; envelopes were too expensive). He talks about the sea air, the harbor sights and new marvels, about his health and disposition, with frequent callouts to Fanny, and ends with affectionate remembrances.

Williamson, plates xliv-xlvii. Click images to enlarge.

Pages 1 and 4 of the ALS. Images courtesy of John Barnard. Click to enlarge.

The quarantine was double-hinged. It was still Prison Maria Crowther, in hot weather, shut in a tier of ships (f 1), the only relief the harbor breezes and cooling nights. Yet it was also site and scene of new marvels, not least the dazzling Italian light, lucid dawns, vivid sunsets. The deep blue waters bustled with merchant crafts and white-sailed vessels, boats of singers come to greet them; vistas of white houses rose along terraced Naples, interspersed with vineyards and olive orchards, Vesuvius beyond topped in purplish smoke. After weeks of ever more meager rations came a wash of wine, flowers, and baskets of fresh food–vegetables, melons, peaches, figs, grapes, silver fish–purchased or provided. Every day brought some novelty. A year ago Keats had been telling Taylor of his love of the marvellous (as if the sea-nymphs quir’d) … the most enticing and surest guarantee of harmonious numbers (Milton’s epic inspiration)–yet dampened by a sense that Wonders are no wonders to me – I am more at home amongst Men and women (ALS, 17 November 1819).[7] Naples, true to its name, opened a new world, of wonders and marvels among real men and women. Just after asking (for the first time) Mrs Brawne, Give my love to Fanny, Keats is inspired into a psychic imaginary: and tell her, if I were well there is enough in this Port of Naples to fill a quire of Paper … it looks like a dream (f 1).

This is marvellous, but also another hinge. Keats senses his fading away from this new world, no longer at home amongst men, especially: – every man who can row his boat and walk and talk seems a different being from myself – I do not feel in the world (f 1-2). The only thing real, too real, was the vexing, over-sharing Miss Cotterell, not named, but referred to as a young Lady in a Consumption: that mirror of medically known bad symptoms that Keats says preyed upon me with the Knowledge of her complaint – the flushings in her face (f 2).

Keats was determined not to whine to Mrs Brawne, so plays himself theatrically:

I would always wish you to think of me a little worse than I really am; and not being of a sanguine disposition I am likely to succeed. If I do not recover your regret will be softened if I do your pleasure will be doubled (ff 2-3)

The run-on syntax of the last sentence is poignant, as if the second thought barely deserved independent considering in a likely impossibility. Having had Keats in her home for a month, Mrs Brawne knew how to read between the jesting lines, to sense what wasn’t being said on the scriptive surface. Keats knows this. His next interlinear move gravitates to Fanny. I dare not fix my Mind on Fanny, I have not dared to think of her. Thinking of her, he clearly is, by proxy fixations, thinking for hours together of having the Knife she gave me put in a silver-case – the hair in a Locket—and the Pocket Book in a gold net – (f 3): gifts leveled to the lock of hair, not for use (the knife is a penknife) but to treasure, fetishize. To say thinking for hours together is not just clock-time, but magnetic psychic time, as if Fanny, hearing of his treasuring, could feel it, too. Show her this, Keats writes just after (f 3). She could not know that these very gifts could, in a swing of a mood, become instruments of self-torture. He would be writing to Brown a week on, “Every thing I have in my trunks that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear. The silk lining she put in my travelling cap scalds my head” (L 2: 351).

Bodily plight and new delights had Keats wavering between two sensations of self: one, the poor forked creature of inevitable human mortality (Ms K 1.53.259)–poor Tom of King Lear on his mind, and by relay his poor brother Tom; another, unexpectedly, and too late, with the world of Italy all before him, had him in imaginary character, a camelion informant of modern cosmopolitan temper:

O what an account I could give of the Bay of Naples if I could once more feel myself a Citizen of this world – I feel a Spirit in my Brain would lay it forth pleasantly – O what a misery it is to have an intellect in splints! (ff 3-4)

On two elegiac sighs of O, not least of this splints is the soft rotation of this world away from the standard phrase, Citizen of the world.[8] When Keats wrote of the exotic, dreamlike Port of Naples, I do not feel in the world, he meant a stunning strangeness. In this second iteration, he meant this world, of the living. He had already entered that feeling of … leading a posthumous existence that he would describe to Brown at the end of November.

He knew–Mrs Brawne knew that he knew–that his letter would be read to, read by, Fanny, and he didn’t want, quite yet, to write a self-obituary. So I am about as I was—Give my Love to Fanny, he had said on his first page (f 1), then again right after splints! this: My Love again to Fanny (f 4), as if these repetitions might conjure her, imagine her reading him while he is alive, and alive to her. To brake a skid into pathos, Keats turns to the rest of the family: tell Tootts I wish I could pitch her a basket of grapes–and tell Sam the fellows catch here with a line a little fish much like an anchovy–a brotherly wink, as if he and Sam might try this sometime together. Keats loved those grapes, a joy in the last days of quarantine supplied by Miss Cotterell’s brother, who seemed to have a Porphyroic skill in coming up “with all manner dainties and luxuries.” Recalled Severn, “Keats never tired of admiring (not to speak of eating!) the beautiful clusters of grapes.” In Italy, Keats found a way to have his grape and eat it, too, to burst a grape against his palate fine and find still more—for the moment (Sharp 60).

He ends his letter with a sociable greeting to the Dilkes, then one more run at Brown: mention to Brown that I wrote him a letter at Portmouth which I did not send and am in doubt if he ever will see it (f 4).[9] The letter unsent is yet another proxy–for Brown’s not seeing Keats, for Keats not seeing Brown–and then, by pained association, everyone Keats knew he would never see again, Fanny most of all. He signs off (f 4), my dear Mrs Brawne / yours sincerely and affectionate / John Keats–. Then he breaks decorum to write in the space still available at the bottom of the page: Good bye Fanny! god bless you. These are the last words he’ll ever write to her, a double good bye, first in the idiom and then in the original sense, heartfelt from a theological skeptic.

The conclusion of Keats’s letter to Mrs. Brawne. Williamson, plate xlvii.

I shall feel a load off me when the Lady vanishes, he said to Mrs Brawne of Miss Cotterell. “The Lady vanishes” is a virtual Keats-meme, from Endymion, to La Belle Dame sans Merci, to Lamia, and finally, Fanny Brawne: I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing, he wrote to Brown, even at the thought of leaving her, in that shipboard letter of 30 September (f 3). Fanny fading from person to figure, from figure to a phantom in the fane of the mind, has Keats repeating eternally in doubled syntax: his seeing her and her vanishing, an Orphic torture that renders a horrible parody of a Lover “winning near the goal.” It is traditionally the one who is leaving who says Good bye! (the one staying behind says Farewell!). With Fanny, Good bye! (he’s leaving her) is also, implicitly, her good bye to him, her vanishing.[10] The sensation of a load off me with Miss Cotterell’s parting is a treachery in wording alone. Keats had told his friend Dilke of feeling “an awful warmth about my heart like a load of Immortality” as he was trying to write Hyperion as Tom, loaded under mortality, was dying in the next room. This physical sensation possesses him again, in sheer mortality, in his next letter, to Brown (1 November), when the lady vanishes because Keats has left her in England, and because, in England, has left him. He wrote only two letters after the quarantine, both, again, to Brown, this one from Naples, the day after they disembarked, and one from Rome, 30 November, the last letter he would, or could, write.

The Quarantine became distinctly less pleasant after October 24. British officers came on board to see what was up, then found they could not disembark, and everyone’s quarters became more cramped in what Severn totalized to Haslam, on 1 November, as “loathsome misery … foul weather and foul air for the whole 10 days kept us to the small Cabin–surrounded by about 2000 ships in a wretched Mole not sufficient for half the number” (L 2: 353). When Keats wrote to Brown on his first day on land, he could report, without any restraint, that no load was off him with Miss Cotterell’s distancing. Even as the “fresh air revived me a little,” he couldn’t “relieve the load of WRETCHEDNESS which presses upon me” from the loss of Fanny: “I cannot bear to leave her … My imagination is horribly vivid about her–I see her–I hear her” (2: 351). This is Keats’s rare (I think, unique) indulgence in all capitals, not only to express the load on his heart but also to convey it to, load it on, Brown’s eyes. When Brown transcribed this letter in his Life of John Keats he wanted to add a footnote that this was indeed Keats’s script, and that Keats could not continue writing many words after this. At the other end of the century, 56 years on, Lord Houghton (R. M. Milnes) could say in his Aldine edition of Keats that the story of this poet of “genius and misfortune” could be summed in “brief abstract”: “The publication of three small volumes of verse, some earnest friendships, one profound passion, and a premature death” (ix).

For all this, the social courage that Keats kept up during the passage and kept up during Quarantine continued to animate a life in words: “at my worst, even in Quarantine, [I] summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life,” he remarked to Brown in that last letter to him–the one in which he had confessed, just words before, “I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence,” weakly—maybe even unconsciously—punning past into passed (L 2:360). If his body was concentrating into a past, Keats’s present tense still had him tuned, habitually, to anatomies of language, playing its sounds and signs in the chances of creative fun. Keats’s letters are full of the materiality of this half-life, in which he has somehow managed to be a Citizen of so many worlds, with a verbal management of information, impression and expression, drawing heartbreak into the pulse of a still “living” hand.[11] Severn remembered and recorded several “excellent puns” from the voyage (KC 2: 132). One, from the Quarantine, was a defense of their cabin boy, “a favourite of us all,” at whom an Italian boatman “used to laugh.” When the bilingual Mr Cotterell was queried about one derision, he translated: “the boy laughd like a beggar.” Keats rose up in indignation, of the kind he had mustered in his schoolboy days against the bullies at Enfield, “tell him he laughs like a damn’d fool.” Cotterell was flummoxed at not being able to give the emphatic, profane English damn’d any Italian “equivalent”–at which discovery Keats exclaimed they “are not worth a damn” (KC 2: 136). Scarcely one day on terra firma Italiana, November 2, he was in “good spirits” on finding new resources for word-play: “he made an Italian Pun today,” Severn reports at the close of a letter to Haslam (L 2: 355).


[1] For more on these tumultuous few weeks, see my essay, Keats to Shelley, 16 August 1820: Load Every Rift).

[2] This ship, built in 1810, had been designed for English coastal trade (Lowell 2: 459).

[3] References hereafter to the voyage and quarantine pages in L 2: 338-55 are abbreviated. Even J. H. Reynolds seems to have received and believed Taylor’s best spin, replying (21 September), “I do not know when I have been more gratified at the receipt of a letter than now, for you give me the best of news, full to the brim, that Keats is positively off for a better Lung-land … departed so comfortably, so cheerfully, so sensibly” (KC 1: 155-56).

[4] Below deck, a narrow galley away from the cargo hold, the “low-ceilinged, twelve-foot-wide, horseshoe-shaped stern had been fitted with six bunks, each … barred with vertical struts” for safety in bad weather. “The cabin was like a vault. The bunks were like coffins” (Motion 538).

[5] My account of the voyage draws on Severn’s letters to Haslam, 19 and 20 September 1820 (L 2:338-44, 353-55) and his 1845 recollections to R. M. Milnes, in KC. Narratives based on his reports and Keats’s letters are shaped by Lowell 2: 465-93; Bate 656-70, Ward 374-83, Gittings 595-606, Motion 537-49, Plumly 249-58, and Gigante 359-66.

[6] Rollins’s text transcribes the original, now held by London Metropolitan Archives (L 2: 349-50). I follow Williamson, plates xliv-xlvii, and for f. 1 and f. 4, the ALS (image kindly supplied by John Barnard).

[7] Keats underlined harmonious numbers in his copy of Paradise Lost 3.38 (amidst a longer passage; vol. I, p. 62).

[8] Citizen of the world is a resonant allusion. Oliver Goldsmith’s satirical letters (1760s) were so titled, and Byron’s title-page epigraph for his fame-making Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812) took the opening sentence, by 1812 a maxim, from Fougeret de Monbron’s Le Cosmopolite, ou, le Citoyen du Monde (1750; London 1753):“L’universe est une espèce de livre, dont on n’a lu que la première page quand on n’a vu que son pays.” [Translation, for ease of readers, even though Byron himself provided no such assistance: “The universe is a sort of book, of which one has read only the first page when one has seen only one’s own country.”]

[9] Portmouth [sic]. Brown says in his Life of Keats (1836-) that he “received this letter” when he was visiting in the neighborhood of Portsmouth (KC 2:80); Keats says that he didn’t send it. Perhaps it was conveyed without Keats’s knowing; perhaps Severn found it unsent among Keats’s effects and gave it to Brown when he came to Italy in March 1822. If so, this revenant from Keats’s pre-posthumous existence would count in historical time as his last communication.

[10] I owe this distinction to Christopher Miller’s nuanced discussion of the last stanza of Ode to a Nightingale (160).

[11] I am grateful for conversation with my colleague Esther Schor on this broader point, and on many matters more, to Garrett Stewart, John Barnard, and Brian Rejack.

Works Cited

Barnard, John. “Keats’s Letters: ‘Remembrancing and Enchaining.’” Cambridge Companion to John Keats. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson. Cambridge UP 2001. 120-34, esp. 127-28.

Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Harvard UP, 1964.

Gigante, Denise. The Keats Brothers: The Life of George and John. Belknap/Harvard UP, 2011.

Gittings, Robert. John Keats. 1968; Penguin, 1979.

Houghton, Lord [R. M. Milnes]. The Poetical Works of John Keats. Aldine Edition. London: George Bell, 1876.

Keats, John. Keats’s Paradise Lost, A Digital Edition. On line: (Milton’s Paradise Lost. A New Edition / Adorned with Beautiful Plates. 2 vols., Edinburgh: 1807)

—-. Autograph signed letters, Harvard Keats Collection (HK), Houghton Library. Cited as MsK, by location: collection, ms., sequence (or by f: folio page)

—-. Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder E. Rollins. 2 vols. Harvard UP, 1958. Cited as L

—-. to Charles Brown, 30 September 1820. MsK 1.87.399-402 (ff 1-4)

—-. to Mrs Brawne, 24 October 1820; cited by f (folio) from the plates in Williamson.

—. to George and Georgiana Keats, 21 April 1819 entry. MsK 1.53.259.

—. to John Taylor, 17 November 1819. Morgan Library. Cited by f (folio)

Lowell, Amy. John Keats. 2 vols. Houghton Mifflin, 1925.

Miller, Christopher. The Invention of Evening: Perception and Time in Romantic Poetry. Cambridge UP, 2006.

Motion, Andrew. Keats, A Biography. Faber and Faber, 1997.

Plumly, Stanley. Posthumous Keats: a personal biography. Norton, 2008.

Severn, Joseph. “Biographical Notes on Keats,” October 1845 (?). The Keats Circle: Letters and Papers. 1948; 2 vols. Ed. H. E. Rollins. Harvard UP, 1969. 2:134-38.Cited as KC.

Sharp, William. The Life and Letters of Joseph Severn. Sampson Low, Marston, 1892.

Ward, Aileen. John Keats: The Making of a Poet. 1963; Viking, 1967. Williamson, George C. Keats Letters and Papers. London: John Lane, 1914. On line at Hathi Trust.

Letter #250: To Mrs. Brawne, 24 October 1820

When the Maria Crowther arrived in Naples Harbor on 21 October 1820, its passengers may have thought their journey was over. It had already been somewhat of a difficult passage, having faced storms and unfavorable conditions in the Channel as soon as they reached the sea on 19 September (after sailing down the Thames from London on 17 September. After slow eastward progress along the southern coast (including some backtracking because of poor weather), the Maria Crowther left England for good sometime around 2 October. More bad weather arrived in the Bay of Biscay, as did two Portuguese warships, leading to some worry that the Maria Crowther might be plundered. Such was not the case, and the remainder of the voyage to Naples passed relatively smoothly. Nonetheless, one imagines the passengers were eager to leave their ship when they were instead informed by the Italian authorities that due to a typhus outbreak in London, all English vessels were being forced to remain offshore for 6 weeks. That meant ten more days until the passengers of the Maria Crowther would truly be finished with their voyage.

And so, on the fourth day of ten spent in quarantine aboard the ship, Keats wrote his last direct communication to Fanny Brawne. And most of the communication was indirect, given that he could only muster the psychic fortitude to address Fanny’s mother, and at times specify particular messages to relay to the daughter. Only in the last line of his fourth page could Keats bring himself to address Fanny with these final written words to her: “Good bye Fanny! God bless you.” The devastation conveyed in that brief but double goodbye is matched by the understatement of Fanny’s entry in her copy of Leigh Hunt’s Literary Pocket-Book upon Keats’s departure: “Mr. Keats left Hampstead.” Given Keats’s own focus on vanishing around this time–he writes of Fanny to Charles Brown on 30 September, “I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing”–it is perhaps appropriate that only a vague outline of Fanny’s original inscription remains.

Fanny Brawne wrote “Mr. Keats left Hampstead” in the entry for 8 September (although he actually left on 13 September). Only a faint trace remains. Image via the Keats House Museum

With that we will leave you to read today’s letter to Mrs. Brawne, even if you may need to come prepared with some tissues for your tears. Text of the letter can be read via Harry Buxton Forman’s 1901 edition of the complete works, or via The Keats Letters, Papers, and Other Relics (1914), edited by George C. Williamson. It features a transcription of the letter and facsimile images of the MS, which we reproduce below. And if you would like to know more about Keats’s journey to Italy, check out this wonderful resource from The Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, “John Keats’s Final Voyage.

Once you’ve read the letter, then check out Susan Wolfson’s latest essay for us, where you’ll learn much more about the letter and Keats’s circumstances during this final part of his life.

Williamson, plates xliv-xlvii. Click images to enlarge.