Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology

Mapping Keats’s Progress
A Critical Chronology

  • Jan: Keats’s younger brother George returns from America, seeking family money; Upon the whole I dislike Mankind; I am very idle; Otho the Great rejected for early production, now submitted to Covent Garden, to be turned down; T wang-dillo-dee; feels the vapidness of the routine of society; poem: Ode on a Grecian Urn published
  • Feb: George returns to America; hemorrhage: Keats worries it is a death-warrant; to Fanny Brawne: a rush of blood came to my Lungs . . . at that moment thought of nothing but you; thinks about annulling engagement to Fanny; I am recommended not even to read poetry much less write it. I wish I had a little hope; I have left no immortal work behind me—nothing to make my friends proud of my memory—but I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things; claims he has not had a tranquil day for six months; fevered, depressed, and anxious
  • Feb-May: Keats’s longing and sometimes agonizing letters to Fanny Brawne: to Fanny in Feb: all we have to do is be patient; to Fanny: How illness stands as barrier betwixt me and you!
  • March-April: fever, heart palpitations, tight chest, anxiety, nervousness, depression
  • March: Brown: Poor Keats will be unable to prepare his Poems for the Press for a long time; Brown reports that Keats desires to be remembered: poem: works a little on Lamia
  • April: doctor tells Keats there is nothing the matter with me except nervous irritability and a general weakness of the whole system which has proceeded from my anxiety of mind of late years and the too great excitement of poetry
  • April-May: Keats: tight chest; bad medical diagnosis: illness is due to anxiety associated with writing poetry, not a real illness
  • May: poem: La Belle Dame sans Merci published; moves to Kentish Town; to Fanny Brawne: I am greedy of you
  • June: Keats: serious hemorrhages; moves to live with Leigh Hunt, to be taken care of; entertains taking up medical profession; upset with preface to final collection, written by others; increasing money difficulties
  • July: publication of Keats’s last collection; great worries about his health; advised to relocate to Italy
  • July-Aug: jealous, fevered feelings about Fanny Brawne: I have been occupied with nothing but you . . . You are to me an object intensely desirable . . . I cannot live without you
  • Aug: the world is too brutal for me; acknowledges the kindness of the Hunts; moves back to Wentworth Place, cared for by the Brawnes; in a very anxious condition and precarious health; makes a will; A winter in England would . . . kill me; decides to go to Italy, hopes Brown can go with him July; Shelley invites Keats to winter in Italy with him, Keats declines; has hopes of cheating the Consumption
  • Sept: positive reviews of Keats’s last volume are appearing; assigns copyright of his three volumes to Taylor & Hessey, receives some money; Keats: I wish for death every day and night to deliver my from these pains; sails to Italy, with Severn; pained by separation from Fanny Brawne, wishes for death
  • Oct: Keats: his condition declining, more hemorrhaging; arrives in Naples, Italy, with Severn; I do not feel in the world; ship quarantined
  • Nov: Keats: fears, despair, unrelenting fever; arrives in Rome, takes rooms with Severn; I will endeavor to bear my miseries patiently [ . . . ] It surprised me that the human heart is capable of containing and bearing so much misery; I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence; last known letter (to Brown) ends, I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.
  • Nov-Dec: Keats extremely ill, suffering, vomiting blood; Severn, increasingly stressed, cares for Keats
  • Dec: according to Severn, Keats says the continued stretch of his imagination has already killed him
  • 1820: death of King George III—his son, the Prince Regent, becomes George IV; trial of Queen Caroline; failure of the Cato Street Conspiracy and other civil unrest, including the Radical War; general election increases Tory majority; Regent’s Canal completed; Shelley publishes Prometheus Unbound; Blake completes his prophetic books; Florence Nightingale and Friedrich Engels born; revolts in Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece; Antarctica discovered; first digital mechanical calculator patented (the Arithmometer)

21 October 1820: Arrival in Naples: Not in This World

From London to Naples to Rome

Click the map to see a fuller view of the neighbourhoodtrue
Click the map to see a fuller view of the neighbourhood

On 17 September, at the London Docks and with his friend, the young painter Joseph Severn, Keats steps on board the brigantine rig Maria Crowther (the boat is designed for cargo, not passengers.) A few other friends—Richard Woodhouse, John Taylor, and William Haslam—will travel as far as Gravesend with Keats and Severn. Keats is to voyage to Italy, with hopes to restore his sinking health. There is little doubt he is consumptive—the so-called wasting disease or white plague—and what we call pulmonary tuberculosis. Blood-letting and restrictive diets make his condition worse, as do remedies ranging from laudanum to mercury. That the diagnosis he gets points to emotional or mental issues (as well as agitation caused by thinking about poetry) as the causes of his condition is also unfortunate, and Keats himself often refers to his emotional state (that can be boiled down to nervous anxiety and occasional depression) as the cause of his difficulties. On the last day of September, he surveys his condition, and, in his sadness crossed over with hopelessness, he turns a little philosophical: we cannot be created for this kind of suffering.

Moon light at sea, by Severn while on board the Maria Crowther (at Keats House)
Moon light at sea, by Severn while on board the Maria Crowther (at Keats House)

On 21 October, thirty-five days after boarding, Keats arrives in Naples, only to have the vessel quarantined for ten further days over fears of typhus originating in London. Conditions on board during the quarantine are terrible, especially after a voyage with such constricted quarters. He cannot even rouse himself to write about the beauties of the Bay of Naples. On 31 October, the day of his 25th birthday, Keats finally sets foot on shore. From Naples, thinking about his love for Fanny Brawne completely overwhelms him, and he attempts, though he cannot, to avoid thoughts of what might have been. His feelings are coals of fire, and conjuring one of Wordsworth’s major tropes while questioning his fate, in a letter of 1 November to his closest friend, Charles Brown, he writes, It surprised me that the human heart is capable of containing and bearing so much misery. Was I born for this end? This in fact summarizes an important examining point in Keats’s poetic thematics. What is the deep meaning of human suffering?

After getting a visa, Keats sets off for Rome from Naples a week later. He arrives 15 November.

The Bay of Naples, c.1830
The Bay of Naples, c.1830

Keats is in poor condition; chances for recovery are impossibly slim. He will receive well-intended medical attention from a physician, Dr. James Clark, including blood-letting and eating restrictions. Keats is fevered, in pain, and has been spitting up blood. Symptoms that are earlier centered in his lungs seem now to have spread to his stomach, which, given that pulmonary tuberculosis can cause bleeding in the intestines, is not surprising. The illness may have lingered and progressed slowly for as much as two years. Keats fully witnessed the deaths of both his mother and his youngest brother, Tom, to the illness, and so he knows what is coming.

Keats is, then, well aware of his dark prognosis, and, even while in quarantine in Naples, his thoughts were of the inevitable—in a way, he feels his life is already over: to Mrs. Brawne, the mother of his love, Fanny, he writes, I do not feel in the world (?22 or 24 Oct).

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Ode on a Grecian Urn

1.

  • Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness, 
  • Thou foster-child of silence and slow time, 
  • Sylvan historian, who canst thus express 
  • A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme: 
  • What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape 
  • Of deities or mortals, or of both, 
  • In Tempe or the dales of Arcady? 
  • What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? 
  • What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? 
  • What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

2.

  • Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard 
  • Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; 
  • Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d, 
  • Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone: 
  • Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave 
  • Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare; 
  • Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, 
  • Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve; 
  • She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, 
  • For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

3.

  • Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed 
  • Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu; 
  • And, happy melodist, unwearied, 
  • For ever piping songs for ever new; 
  • More happy love! more happy, happy love! 
  • For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d, 
  • For ever panting, and for ever young;
  • All breathing human passion far above, 
  • That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
  • A burning forehead, and a parching tongue. 

4.

  • Who are these coming to the sacrifice? 
  • To what green altar, O mysterious priest, 
  • Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies, 
  • And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed? 
  • What little town by river or sea shore, 
  • Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel, 
  • Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn? 
  • And, little town, thy streets for evermore 
  • Will silent be; and not a soul to tell 
  • Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

5.

  • O Attic shape! Fair attitude! With brede 
  • Of marble men and maidens overwrought, 
  • With forest branches and the trodden weed; 
  • Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought 
  • As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral! 
  • When old age shall this generation waste, 
  • Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe 
  • Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, 
  • “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all 
  • Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

[Text based on the published version in Keats’s 1820 collection.]

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La Belle Dame sans Merci:
A Ballad

I

  • Oh, what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
  • Alone and palely loitering?
  • The sedge has withered from the Lake,
  • And no birds sing!

II

  • Oh, what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
  • So haggard and so woe-begone?
  • The squirrel’s granary is full,
  • And the harvest’s done.

III

  • I see a lily on thy brow,
  • With anguish moist and fever-dew,
  • And on thy cheeks a fading rose
  • Fast withereth too.

IV

  • I met a Lady in the Meads,
  • Full beautiful, a faery’s child,
  • Her hair was long, her foot was light,
  • And her eyes were wild.

V

  • I made a Garland for her head,
  • And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
  • She looked at me as she did love,
  • And made sweet moan

VI

  • I set her on my pacing steed,
  • And nothing else saw all day long;
  • For sidelong would she bend, and sing
  • A faery’s song—

VII

  • She found me roots of relish sweet,
  • And honey wild and manna dew,
  • And sure in language strange she said—
  • I love thee true—

VIII

  • She took me to her elfin grot,
  • And there she wept and sigh’d full sore,
  • And there I shut her wild wild eyes
  • With kisses four.

IX

  • And there she lullèd me asleep,
  • And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!—
  • The latest dream I ever dreamt
  • On the cold hill side.

X

  • I saw pale kings, and princes too,
  • Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
  • They cried—‘La belle dame sans merci
  • Thee hath in thrall!’

XI

  • I saw their starv’d lips in the gloam
  • With horrid warning gapèd wide,
  • And I awoke, and found me here
  • On the cold hill’s side.

XII

  • And this is why I sojourn here,
  • Alone and palely loitering,
  • Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
  • And no birds sing.