“Consumption,” Desire, and the Refuge of Death in the 25 July 1819 letter to Fanny Brawne

John C. Leffel and Karla Alwes
SUNY Cortland

Re: Keats’s 25 July 1819 letter to Fanny Brawne

Keats’s letter of 25 July 1819 to Fanny Brawne makes a series of rhetorical and thematic moves which anticipate (and link the epistle to) other notable letters to Brawne as well as several of his poems. Most profoundly, the letter offers an early example of the intimate, vexed entanglement of disease, death, and desire that punctuates the late letters and poetic efforts. Though penned before he experienced the infamous hemorrhage from the lungs (3 February 1820) that offered to Keats the clearest signal of his serious illness and impending death, the letter reveals how a series of preoccupations and personal oppositions (sickness and health; “liberty” and constraint; love and death) were already centering around the capacious and slippery trope of “consumption” in the letters and poems well before the harrowing blood-spitting episode, described by Brown, offered the definitive sign of “consumption” that prompted the poet’s self-diagnosis.

Keats begins by expressing his “sorrow” over Brown’s recent account of Fanny Brawne’s “ill health.” What is striking here is how quickly Keats turns from solicitude over his beloved’s condition to a bluntly direct expression of his own dis-ease, tethering it to his impatience to be with her: “Brown to my sorrow confirms the account you give me of your ill health. You cannot conceive how I ache to be with you: how I would die for one hour—for what is in the world?” The “confirm[ation]” of Brawne’s reputed ill health prompts a melancholic focus on Keats’s own “ache[s],” which have been transmuted into expressions of his sexual frustration: he would willingly “die for one hour” with Brawne. But there is more going on here than merely the hyperbolic rhetoric of an impatient young poet in love.  

Indeed, in many of his letters to Fanny Brawne, Keats poses the question of a metaphoric death or dying, of the soul as well as the body. Further, “dying” is early seen as a gateway to the imagination. “I look upon fine Phrases like a Lover,” Keats writes to Benjamin Bailey a few weeks later, thereby associating the active, and often disappointing, imagination with love that also disappoints. The allusion to death as a part of the “luxury” of love and lovers is first seen in “Sleep and Poetry,” in which he asks to be able to “die a death of luxury” so that his youthful spirit may follow Apollo, at whose altar Keats notably begins and ends his writing career, “like a fresh sacrifice.” This notion of a willful “sacrifice,” of a “death of luxury,” which we encounter in Keats’s insistence that he would “die for one hour” with Brawne at the beginning of the 25 July 1819 letter, reemerges towards the end of the epistle when he writes, “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.” Like so many of the poems, this letter places death (or more specifically dying) at the center of a richness of delight: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die,” the speaker of “Ode to a Nightingale” tells us. The rich immediacy of the “now” of the nightingale ode becomes, in the letter to Brawne, “the hour of my death.” Along with her “Loveliness,” the precise moment of his death is one of the “two luxuries” over which the poet may “brood” in his walks, evincing most likely a mood similar to that which prompted the writing of the letter itself.

The letter further emphasizes the richness of the nexus between love and death when the writer asks to “take a sweet poison” from his lover’s lips, one that will send him out of the world, a world that “batters too much the wings of my self-will.” Interestingly, despite the emulation known to exist for Keats as to his predecessor Shakespeare—allegedly he would set up a portrait of Shakespeare on his writing table as a signet of inspiration, sometimes, as in April 1817, rearranging the décor of an inn to write under the watchful eye of his “Presider”—Hyder Rollins’s note to the allusion here suggests Pope’s “Still drink delicious poison from thy eye” (22), from “Eloisa to Abelard.” Notwithstanding that the “eye” is not the “lips” (which also played a role in Keats’s Endymion, serving as “slippery blisses”), the lines from the death scene in the final act of Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet seem to have the stronger claim as source. When Juliet discovers the dead Romeo, she kisses him, believing the cup of poison she finds in his hand may still “hang on” his lips, to make her “die with a restorative” (V. iii. 164-66). The final kiss between the lovers becomes the “tonic” that cannot, unhappily, prove deadly to Juliet, who finds her true “restorative” in the phallic dagger instead. The sensuality with which the young Keats bathes his poetry thrives in his letters, thereby necessitating the prominent use of lips as portal to the “life of sensation” he seeks in his writings as well as in his own life. Immediately preceding his death with a kiss, Romeo ironically calls his lips “the doors of breath” (V.iii.65). The lovers have died “a death of luxury” in the hour of their deaths, the same that Keats broodingly seeks to possess for himself. In an earlier letter to Fanny Brawne (1 July 1819) he asks his lover to “write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been.” The too-empty cup from which Juliet tried to drink the poison becomes more sensual, with her lips “touching” Romeo’s in the same way Keats asks to “touch” the shadow of Fanny Brawne’s kiss through his own. While both Romeo and Juliet die with a kiss, the young Keats will succumb to his own death, in less than two years, with neither kiss nor love to comfort him.

“You absorb me,” Keats tells Brawne in the letter of July 25. He is “absorbed” in the same way he believes a poet to be. In a letter to Richard Woodhouse (27 October 1818), Keats tells him that the poet

has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character… A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body….When I am in a room with People,…then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me that I am in a very little time annihilated.

Fanny Brawne, who “absorbs” (he will use the same verb later, in the 13 October 1819 letter) Keats’s identity into her own, becomes, like the “fine Phrases” that Keats looks upon “like a Lover,” the object of his imagination and passion. In short, she becomes poetry to the poet whose identity is “in a very little time annihilated.” The poetry is fed by a sometimes recalcitrant imagination; a similar fear of losing her love is also made manifest in his letters to Brawne. She, and the imagination itself, too often become a “deceiving elf” for Keats, when the “fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is fam’d to do” (“Nightingale,” 73-74). The diminutive term “fancy” (for imagination) invokes what he believes to be a salubrious effort to separate the power of the imagination from the poet’s own—an attempt at denial?—and in this letter of 25 July the separation desired is from his propensity to allow himself to be “hurt” and “absorbed” through his love for Fanny. “I wrote myself your vassal,” he says to her, but “burnt the Letter as the very next time I saw you I thought you manifested some dislike to me.” He goes on to mention a part of a previous letter from her “which hurt me.” He has been absorbed by Fanny, but not so his pain.

In the 1 July letter Keats asks Brawne if she is not “very cruel” to him, a common antecedent to the melancholy that subsequently occurs in the later letters to her. He seeks a consoling letter from her, one that will be “rich as a draught of poppies to intoxicate me.” The metaphoric potion sought in this letter, like the potion Juliet hoped for, would take him away from the “sort of pain” that “should haunt him,” as does death, because of the perceived cruelty from the woman from whom he needs everything. As the Dreamer in “The Fall of Hyperion,” who quaffs “a cool vessel of transparent juice, / Sipp’d by the wander’d bee” and falls into a “cloudy swoon,” or the Demeter figure of “To Autumn,” who is “sound asleep, / Drows’d with the fume of poppies…”, the poet himself seeks the escape that only the “intoxication” he receives from Fanny Brawne may provide.

The prevailing emphasis on dis-ease and “pain”—or, more specifically, strategies for coping with or escaping from that pain—is precisely what links the 25 July letter to the poetry and to other epistles to Brawne. When Keats writes that “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,” he stages a fantasy that he returns to several times in the late writings: to satisfy his frustrated sexual desire for Fanny (to “possess” her “Loveliness”) and to escape his mental and physical sufferings and illness through Death at the same “minute.” We see clear parallels here to notable passages from the poems, particularly the eroticized encounter with Death from stanza 6 of the nightingale ode: “Darkling I listen; and, for many a time / I have been half in love with easeful Death, / Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme, / To take into the air my quiet breath” (l. 51-54). Ten days or so before the 25 July letter, in a letter which Rollins tentatively dates as 15 July 1819, Keats makes a similar move: complaining of his “irritable state of health,” he addresses Fanny as his “sweet Physician” before confessing that “you and pleasure take possession of me at the same moment. I am afraid you have been unwell. If through me illness have touched you (but it must be with a very gentle hand) I must be selfish enough to feel a little glad at it. Will you forgive me this?” As in the “Ode to a Nightingale,” illness, desire and death have become fascinatingly, even perversely, entangled.

Indeed, in his study Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture (1998), critic Jonathan Dollimore cites the 25 July letter in his analysis of what he calls “self-disidentification,” or the “pleasurable death of the self” in Western thought and culture (xxii). And given the centrality of Shakespeare in Keats’s critical and creative imagination, it is intriguing to note the significance of Hamlet to Dollimore’s account:

As Hamlet famously meditated, to die is a consummation devoutly to be wished. From the earliest times, death has held out the promise of a release not just from desire but from something inseparable from it, namely the pain of being individuated (separate, differentiated, alone) and the form of self-consciousness which goes with that—what philosophers like Schopenhauer call the principle of individuation (principium individuationis). In other words, death holds out the promise of a release from the very individuality whose formation would have been unthinkable without it. (xx-xxi)

Hamlet’s parsing of death as a “consummation” in this account—meaning, as Dollimore suggests, “both satisfying climax and being consumed or vanishing into nothing” (xxi)—drives right to the heart of the matter: Keats’s anxieties regarding the “entrammel[ment]” (1 July 1819) of his freedom and individuation and the “absorption” of his identity by means of his passionate, frustrated longing to fulfill his desire. In this light, the 25 July letter encapsulates the larger rhetorical moves and narrative economy of Keats’s controversial late letters as well as of his romances and late lyrics by representing desire as both impeded by and realized through the transmission of disease (and dis-ease), and most powerfully, through death itself, which he figures as the moment in which the longing for the fulfillment of desire and the longing to escape disease and suffering are both “consummated.” For Keats, illness and the subsequent inevitability of death become the condition through which his desire is translated and fulfilled, thus forming the solemnly eloquent relationship between the 25 July 1819 letter of melancholic brooding and the similar letters, above, that speak to the power of displacement, deferral, and unconsummated desire in the poet and his poetry.

Contributor Bios
John C. Leffel is Associate Professor of English at SUNY Cortland. Specializing in British literature and culture of the long eighteenth century, he has published articles on Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth, and Elizabeth Hamilton, as well as on the Anglo-Indian marriage market. He is currently completing the chapter on Austen’s Juvenilia for the forthcoming Routledge Companion to Jane Austen, and received a 2019-2020 Huntington Library short-term research fellowship to prepare a critical edition of Edward Topham’s never-published farce of early British India, Bonds without Judgment; or, The Loves of Bengal (1787). 

Karla Alwes is Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at SUNY Cortland. She specializes in the British Romantic period, with emphasis on the works of Keats. She is the author of Imagination Transformed: The Evolution of the Female Character in Keats’s Poetry (Southern Illinois P, Carbondale, 1993), as well as numerous articles on Keats, Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf, and Katherine Mansfield.  

Works Cited
Dollimore, Jonathan. Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture. New York: Routledge, 1998.

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