Keats Takes His Bow

Beth Lau
California State University, Long Beach

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

Certain texts and images invariably bring a lump to my throat and moisture to my eyes: footage of horses running free; the concluding lines of Paradise Lost; and Keats’s last letter to Brown. “I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow” (Letters 2: 360). The last sentence scans iambic tetrameter and creates a memorable image of a figure self-consciously exiting a social setting. Keats described such a situation in a 20 September 1819 letter recounting an anecdote about his friend John Hamilton Reynolds: “You know at taking leave of a party at a door way, sometimes a Man dallies and foolishes and gets awkward, and does not know how to make off to advantage—Good bye—well—good-bye—and yet he does not—go.” Reynolds, he says, was in this position and “got out of it in a very witty way.” After numerous delays, his friends finally said “be off,” whereupon Reynolds “puts the tails of his coat between his legs, and sneak’d off as nigh like a spanial as could be” (Letters 2: 207-08). If Keats’s “awkward bow” recalls this comic scene, however, it also elicits wrenching sadness, as readers from Brown onward realize that Keats is bidding farewell to his friends not for a brief period but for all time.

Keats always found the experience of separation from loved ones painful, perhaps, as Leon Waldoff argues, as a result of early and repeated losses in his family (27-30). Charles Cowden Clarke reported that, when a teenage Keats was reading aloud Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, “his eyes fill[ed] with tears, and his voice faltered when he came to the departure of Posthumus, and Imogen saying she would have watched him—‘Till the diminution / Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle; / Nay follow’d him till he had melted from / The smallness of a gnat to air; and then / Have turn’d mine eye and wept’” (126). This image of the receding figure recurs in Keats’s statement in his 30 September 1820 letter to Brown, “The thought of leaving Miss Brawne is beyond every thing horrible . . . I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing” (Letters 2: 345). No wonder Keats could “scarcely bid [Brown] good bye even in a letter.” The final sentences of Keats 30 November 1820 letter offer a complex mix of humor and pain, a self-deprecating gesture suffused with the anguish of a final leave-taking. In the blend of contrary emotions it evokes, Keats’s reference to his “awkward bow” recalls the image of “Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips / Bidding adieu” in the Ode on Melancholy (22-23).  

Keats seems to realize that this is likely to be his last letter. In contrast to his two previous letters to Brown (30 September, 1 November), which gave vent to his misery over separation from Fanny Brawne and hardship on the journey to Italy, this one is written in a calmer spirit and is all the more poignant for the emotional restraint it exhibits. Keats’s characteristic empathy for others is on display, even as he reports his own suffering. “There, you rogue, I put you to the torture,” he says, after writing what he knows will give pain to his friend. “[B]ut you must bring your philosophy to bear—as I do mine, really—or how should I be able to live?” (Letters 2: 360). He reassures Brown of his own fortitude, surely as a way of comforting his friend, in effect saying, “Don’t worry about me, I am coping and bearing up under my difficulties.” Keats goes on to praise Dr. Clarke’s care, conveying the comforting news that he is receiving good medical attention, and he instructs Brown to send messages to various friends and family members. He is saying good-bye to his loved ones and assuring them that they are in his thoughts–even if he has to do so through an intermediary, because it is too painful for him to write to them directly.

One of the most striking incidents for me in Severn’s account of Keats’s final days is when Keats asks his companion if he has ever seen someone die and says, “well then I pity you poor Severn—what trouble and danger you have got into for me—now you must be firm for it will not last long” (Letters 2: 378). Four days later, as he approached the end, Keats told Severn, “I am dying—I shall die easy—don’t be frightened—be firm, and thank God it has come” (Keats Circle 2: 94). That “don’t be frightened” to me is remarkable. In the very throes of his own impending death, Keats could enter into his friend’s suffering and difficulties and offer consolation to him. This same consideration for others’ feelings and desire to ease their pain is evident in the 30 November 1820 letter. And thus Keats bows out of his friends’ and subsequent readers’ lives, to be heard from directly no more.

Keats’s early death has a different impact on me than those of other Romantic writers. Shelley’s and Byron’s deaths, for all their tragedy, seem somehow fitting and contribute to those poets’ reputations as glamorous young rebels. Keats’s death of consumption at age 25, by contrast, just seems wrong, a cosmic injustice. With every reading of a biography or the letters, my mind resists and cries out against this fate. Keats was altogether too young; he was just coming into his full power as a poet; he was denied the experience of consummating his relationship with the woman he loved. It’s not fair, we protest. Who has not wished he or she could travel back in time, equipped with appropriate antibiotics, to save Keats for even a few more years of life, consciousness, and creativity?

An alternative fantasy I have is of bringing Keats’s spirit into the present and revealing to him how popular and admired his poetry, letters, and personality have been. I imagine taking him to the library and showing him the rows and rows of books written about his work and life. I see him amazed, humbled, touched, mildly embarrassed and mildly amused, as he gazes at the titles written on the spines and selects various books, flipping through the pages to see what others have written about his poetry. As he begins to comprehend the extent of his posthumous fame, all the readers who have relished his work and the scholars who have analyzed every word he ever wrote, I hope he would finally feel vindicated and proud that he did achieve his goal of gaining a place “among the English Poets” (Letters 1: 394).

Of course, neither of these fantasies can be realized. They are the stuff of Romance, which we must relinquish as we accept the stubborn truth of what actually happened. Keats died in extreme physical and mental pain, believing he had failed in his ambition. The only way we can resurrect Keats and keep him alive is by continuing to read and reread his work, by writing more books, articles, and online commentaries about his poems and letters, seeking to discover new patterns and implications which, as Keats says about Shakespeare’s plays, “must be continually happening, notwithstandg that we read the same [piece] forty times” (Letters 1: 133). Keats is a canonical writer because his poems are inexhaustible. No matter what critical approach comes into fashion—biographical, New Critical, Marxist, New Historicist, gender studies, psychoanalytic, intertextual—it can be applied fruitfully to Keats’s writing, illuminating some new aspect but never comprehending all of the potential meanings.[1] “When old age shall this generation waste” and our current cutting-edge theories fade into irrelevance, Keats’s poems and letters will remain, “a friend to man” and woman, offering new insights and enduring appeal (Ode on a Grecian Urn 46-48).

As November 2020 nears its end, we read Keats’s last extant letter, 200 years after he composed it in his cramped set of rooms in Rome. We feel over again the tragedy of his too-brief life and admiration for his remarkable talent and generous character. We are grateful to Brown and all of Keats’s friends for preserving his letters so that others have been able to read them. Likewise, we are indebted to the various collectors, librarians, and editors over the years who have curated and published the letters. Finally, we express our appreciation to the creators of the Keats Letters Project, who have made the letters newly available in digital format, which will disseminate them to new generations of readers in the twenty-first century.

To read Beth Lau’s earlier essay for the KLP, click the following link: “Indolence and Disinterestedness”


[1] Jack Stillinger makes a similar point in “The Story of Keats”; see esp. 118-25.

Works Cited

Clarke, Charles Cowden, and Mary Cowden Clarke. Recollections of Writers, 1878. Centaur Press, 1969.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Edited by Hyder E. Rollins, 2nd ed., 2 vols., Harvard UP, 1965.

—. The Poems of John Keats. Edited by Jack Stillinger, Harvard UP, 1978.

The Keats Circle: Letters and Papers and More Letters and Poems of the Keats Circle. Edited by Hyder E. Rollins. 2nd ed., 2 vols., Harvard UP, 1965.

Stillinger, Jack. “The Story of Keats.” 2001. Romantic Complexity: Keats, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, U of Illinois P, 2006, pp. 112-25.

Waldoff, Leon. Keats and the Silent Work of Imagination. U of Illinois P, 1985.

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