‘He is gone…’ Joseph Severn on the death of John Keats

Keats, sketched by Severn as he sat by the death-bed

Rome. 27 February 1821.

My dear Brown,

He is gone–he died with the most perfect ease–he seemed to go to sleep. On the 23rd, about 4, the approaches of death came on. “Severn-I–lift me up–I am dying–I shall die easy–don’t be frightened–be firm, and thank God it has come!” I lifted him up in my arms. The phlegm seemed boiling in his throat, and increased until 11, when he gradually sunk into death–so quiet-that I still thought he slept. I cannot say now-I am broken down from four nights’ watching, and no sleep since, and my poor Keats gone. Three days since, the body was opened; the lungs were completely gone. The Doctors could not conceive by what means he had lived these two months. I followed his poor body to the grave on Monday, with many English. They take such care of me here–that I must, else, have gone into a fever. I am better now–but still quite disabled.

The Police have been. The furniture, the walls, the floor, every thing must be destroyed by order of the law. But this is well looked to by Dr C.

The letters I put into the coffin with my own hand.

I must leave off.

J. S.

This goes by the first post. Some of my kind friends would have written else. I will try to write you every thing next post; or the Doctor will.

They had a mask–and hand and foot done–

I cannot get on–

Joseph Severn was a young painter, keen to ‘get on’ by extending his artistic education in the ‘eternal city’. It was, and has been easy for some to suggest that this was the primary motivation for his attendance on John Keats during his final months in Rome. If true, he surely took on much more than he expected.

Keats - death mask

Sharing cramped accommodation on the Maria Crowther on the voyage to Rome he quickly saw a different side to his friend the poet and realised he knew little about the true depth of Keats’s grief, particularly in relation to the separation from Fanny Brawne. In lodgings at  26 Piazza di Spagna in Rome and despite an initial rallying, Keats’s health quickly deteriorated and for two months Joseph Severn nursed John night and day, as no horror was spared either man – the death from consumption was painful and tragically drawn out. Keats longed to die, but shocked that even the comfort of faith was denied him, the deeply religious Severn prevented Keats’s suicide, confiscating a treasured overdose of laudanum. The loss of strength, of control over his own destiny tormented Keats to the point of abusing Severn with ‘unprovoked malevolence’ and ‘suspicion and impatience’. But Severn was a calming presence and Keats recognised his behaviour towards him was unreasonable. Eventually, Keats did seek some comfort in the faith Severn clung to. Eschewing the Bible, which he could not believe in, he asked Severn to find a copy of Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Dying and regular readings from it, Severn reported, calmed them both.

By February Keats had been close to death on more than one occasion but, thwarted, awoke angry to another day of torment.  Severn was exhausted by the nursing but he took few breaks and was there until the very end, as he describes in the letter above. He accompanied Keats’s coffin to the Protestant Cemetery in Testaccio, Rome.

I prefer to regard Joseph Severn as a young man on the fringes of the loyal group of friends drawn to the charismatic Keats; as one by one those claiming a special friendship found reasons not to accompany him to Italy, he stepped in to take his place as the ‘friend of Keats’. In doing so he upstaged men such as Leigh Hunt and Charles Brown who were amongst those that considered Severn too ‘lightweight’ an intellectual companion for Keats. He was, in fact, the perfect foil and proved himself to have a strength of character and devotion that surprised those back in England when they heard details of John Keats’s last days.

Joseph Severn became something of a celebrity in Rome through his association with Keats and his artistic career was undoubtedly enhanced by it, although he did much to promote the reputation of his friend as both poet and man. On his death in 1879 he was buried next to Keats in the Protestant Cemetery, his stone inscribed ‘the Devoted Friend and Death bed Companion’ of a man by then recognised as one of the ‘Immortal Poets’.

There is so much to admire in this young man of just 26 who, 191 years ago today, experienced first hand the dawn after the death of John Keats.

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 musèd rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die, 
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.

Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats, Stanza 6

10 Replies to “‘He is gone…’ Joseph Severn on the death of John Keats”

    1. It is so very sad. Those who have questioned Severn’s motives for accompanying Keats should read Severn’s accounts of the final two months and reassess their view of him as a ‘lightweight’ or opportunist.

  1. What a beautiful, moving letter. It kind of makes me wish we didn’t have phones and cars and had, instead, to rely on pen and paper to convey our feelings to people rather than giving them a call or popping round for a chat.

    1. I would love to write letters now, with a real pen (I have so many, but when did I last buy a bottle of ink?) on lovely paper. We are so used to having auto correct and instant messaging that we are all out of practice. Shame!

    1. I expect there were a few talent-less celebs around in the early 19th century – they just didn’t get the relentless publicity they do now. Keats certainly didn’t achieve overnight fame poor chap. He died fearing he may be forgotten.

  2. How could anyone doubt Severn’s intentions? Only a TRUE friend would give succour in such a situation, yet stay to put up with verbal abuse. I absolutely agree with “rinsimpson” – if Severn had had access to an iPhone then we wouldn’t have such a touching letter in our possession today. (Hopefully, he would have had the good taste to not take a photo with it and post it on his blog!) Thanks for a lovely post!

  3. I think Severn was a self righteous bastard denying Keats his Laudenam
    Which would have eased his suffering imeasureably
    Friends like that are a curse in your darkest hour.

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