Forty years ago this autumn, I spent a week working at a small wooden table on a tiny ironwork balcony in Rome. The balcony was directly above the Spanish Steps. The apartment was on the second floor of 26 Piazza di Spagna. It was the apartment where John Keats died at 11 o’clock at night on February 23, 1821, with the famous injunction to his faithful companion, the painter Joseph Severn. “Severn—Severn—lift me up for I am dying—I shall die easy—don’t be frightened—thank God it has come.”
My balcony was built onto the room at the back of No. 26 (to the left as you look up from the steps): the room where Severn, Keats’s nurse through those last four agonizing months of tuberculosis, sometimes managed to snatch a few hours of exhausted sleep. It was not Keats’s own room, the famous bedroom with the marble fireplace and the daisies “growing over him” on the ceiling and the sound of the Bernini fountain plashing in the piazza, which every visitor rightly remembers. It was the back room, the proper place for a biographer.
I was actually working on a life of Shelley. But for those six days it was the life of Keats, or rather his death, that haunted me. Every creak that ran through the old polished wooden floorboards of the apartment behind me broke my concentration and made me think, painfully and uneasily, of the dying man, and the letters from Fanny Brawne he would not open, and the opium painkiller that was taken from him, and the poems he was forbidden to write. Finally, as a sort of protective charm, I turned to Shelley’s “Adonaïs” (1821), the famous Olympian elegy inspired by Keats’s death, lifting it into the less painful stratosphere of myth:
Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep—
He hath awakened from the dream of life—
It was only while reading this poem that the idea, not of Keats’s death but of its exact opposite, Keats’s awakening, his extraordinary survival after death, first struck me. The imaginative impact of Keats’s life—his “orphaned” childhood, his letters, his poetry, his friendships, his illness, his agonizing love affair—has continued unbroken for nearly two hundred years. It has retained a magnetic force, not really matched in its personal immediacy by any other Romantic poet—neither by Shelley nor even by Byron. During that week, below me on the Spanish Steps, there always seemed to be some young figure standing or sitting beyond the buckets of the flower sellers, similarly reading from a book, and looking anxiously up at the second floor of No. 26. I cannot believe it has changed to this day. Why should this be?
The “living hand” of his famous late fragment, possibly the last poem he ever wrote, really does reach out toward us and make a claim:
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood,
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d. See, here it is—
I hold it towards you.
In part, this must be because his poetry is so richly embedded in his wonderful letters, so that the two together form a natural autobiography of haunting power. Many of his most celebrated short poems simply rise out of the pages of the long letters he dashed off, appearing, as he put it, “as naturally as the leaves to a tree.”
“To Autumn” for example, perhaps his most perfect poem, simply sprouts from a description of warm-looking stubble fields outside Winchester—“Aye better than the chilly green of the spring”—and concludes with a smiling, throwaway comment: “I hope you are better employed than in gaping after weather.”
The youthful animation of these letters is constantly astonishing. Who could resist the way he frames his early life-plan, to put a knapsack on his back, and “to write, to study and to see all Europe at the lowest expense. I will clamber through the Clouds and exist.” Or his explanation why he never intends to marry: “The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window pane are my Children.” Especially as this is written approximately two months before he meets Fanny Brawne.
His gift for entering imaginatively into physical objects is equally beguiling. The way he hoisted himself up, looking “burly and dominant” when he first met Spenser’s description of “sea-shouldering whales”; or mimed the “pawing” of a dancing bear, or the rapid flurry of a boxer’s punches like “fingers tapping” on a windowpane. Or those famous moments of imaginative attention and empathy. “If a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.” Or simply eating a ripe nectarine: “It went down soft pulpy, slushy, oozy—all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry.” Or even entering into the spirit of a billiard ball, so he could feel “a sense of delight from its own roundness, smoothness, volubility, & the rapidity of its motions.” As he summarized this power: “Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream—he awoke and found it truth.”
But besides these matchless letters, his contemporaries also wrote vividly about him in short formal memoirs—his school friend Charles Cowden Clarke on his childhood and medical apprenticeship; his editor Leigh Hunt on his early poetry; his friend and amanuensis Charles Brown on his Hampstead days; and Joseph Severn on his dying. In particular, Brown’s description of Keats writing “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819) on a kitchen chair under a plum tree has achieved a lasting image of creativity not dissimilar to William Stukeley’s description of Isaac Newton conceiving of “universal gravity” under an apple tree:
In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale. The writing was not well legible; and it was difficult to arrange the stanzas on so many scraps. With his assistance I succeeded, and this was his Ode to a Nightingale, a poem which has been the delight of every one.
Yet John Keats’s survival in the popular imagination, his “posthumous existence” as he called it (angrily, to his doctor in Rome), has achieved an altogether different kind of life of its own. This was already stirring, long before the modern biographies, in the many paintings of the English Pre-Raphaelites, notably J.E. Millais’s The Eve of St. Agnes (1863) and Keith Waterhouse’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1893), which drew so richly on Keats’s imagery. He floats back quite unexpectedly in the science-fiction short story by Rudyard Kipling, called “Wireless” (1910), in which Keats’s voice is poignantly resurrected across the airwaves. Indeed Keats, perennially popular with students, has emerged as a cult figure in the recent fashion for literary tattooing. Quotations from the odes and even Endymion—“A thing of beauty is a joy forever”—are gracefully emblazoned around naked arms, wrists, and ankles.
Most influential of all has probably been his glamorous, willowy, unshaved reincarnation by Ben Whishaw in Jane Campion’s 2009 movie, Bright Star. Here the center of the myth is firmly relocated in the final Keats–Fanny Brawne love story. Or more unconventionally, in the emotional triangle formed between them and Keats’s best friend and faithful amanuensis, Charles Brown. This triangular geometry of attraction, rivalry, and jealousy is curiously reminiscent of Campion’s previous film The Piano.
In biographical fact this love story, or love triangle, occupies only the last twenty months of Keats’s life—essentially between late June 1819 (the first love letters to Fanny) and his death in Rome in February 1821. It is often forgotten that Endymion, Hyperion, “The Eve of St. Agnes,” “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” and the five great odes were already written by then, and Keats was increasingly ill and emotionally unstable. For the last four months the lovers were apart, and Keats had stopped writing altogether, except for a few brave and tragic letters, mostly to Brown, but not to Fanny. How significant is the love story for the writer’s story? Or, a rather different matter, how important for the poet’s popular survival?
There have been at least ten major literary biographies of Keats over the last fifty years, and several of them remain classics of the genre. Walter Jackson Bate’s large, stately, old-fashioned study of 1963 is still unsurpassed in its tender, patient treatment of the poetry. Aileen Ward (also 1963) brings unrivaled emotional insight into the poet at work. Robert Gittings (1968), a British radio producer who spent half a lifetime editing the manuscripts of Keats’s odes, fitted them into the most captivating of all the straight biographical narratives, while Andrew Motion (1997), who inspired Campion’s film as well as writing a novella that imagined Keats living to the age of fifty (The Invention of Dr. Cake, 2003), is perhaps most perceptive about Keats’s mysterious love life, including the long shadow cast by his wayward mother, Frances Keats, and the complex, agonizing emotional end-game of the Fanny Brawne affair. It is also hard not to conclude that each of these biographers, in their different ways, fell passionately in love with their subject.
Yet fresh and more dispassionate points of view are still possible. Denise Gigante, in The Keats Brothers, gives us the story as seen essentially from the outside, through the eyes of Keats’s younger brothers Tom and especially George, the least like the poet.
George Keats, born in 1797, was the Keats brother who married and prospered. He and Georgiana Wylie emigrated to America in 1818, where they struggled to establish themselves as pioneers along the Ohio River. They met John James Audubon, lived briefly in his deluxe log cabin (silver tea set, piano, turkey carpets), and got entangled in his steamship and sawmill businesses, which almost bankrupted them. But by 1836 they had established themselves and their children in Louisville, Kentucky, and built a large mansion with four Doric pillars, known as the Englishman’s Palace. They are an adventurous and attractive couple, but the real fascination of their story lies in the transatlantic perspective, as it were, that they bring to brother John.
The contrast in the brothers’ characters is especially revealing. George is a natural entrepreneur, straightforward, cheerful, outgoing, and businesslike, a man—as Audubon observes—who can learn to chop logs, while John has an essentially dreamy, evasive temperament. Outside his own circle, he is seen as moody, unreliable, even something of a spendthrift, “melancholy and complaining.”
Keats himself of course recognizes these differences, and writes movingly of George as his first protector:
George is in America and I have no Brother left…. [He] always stood between me and any dealings with the world—Now I find I must buffet it—I must…begin to fight—I must choose between despair & Energy—I choose the latter.
We see their different views on marriage, or on money, or on children. Keats wishes that one of Georgiana’s offspring will be “the first American Poet”; and later writes delightfully that her daughter is the “very gem of all Children—Aint I its Unkle?”
Keats also sends George and Georgiana some of the most memorable letters in English literature. (They now reside in the Houghton Library, Harvard, so worn by admirers’ fingers that they are encased in plastic like religious relics.) For example, the forty-page “Journal” letter written between February 14 and May 3, 1819, includes the first version of “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” Keats’s disquisition on life as “a vale of Soul-making,” the comic-epic meeting with Coleridge on Hampstead Heath, a verse satire on his ebullient friend Charles Brown (“a melancholy Carle”), an erotic dream and sonnet inspired by Dante, and the first of the great odes, “To Psyche.”
Gigante’s style as biographer is bustling and informative, if sometimes rather impressionistic. She loves lists and inventories, and takes twelve pages to get George and Georgiana aboard their emigrant ship docked in Liverpool. Meanwhile, without waiting, and probably as impatient as the reader, Keats and Brown have gone off to Scotland.
But she makes many helpful discoveries, such as finding alongside the notorious attack on Keats as one of the “Cockney Poets” in the Quarterly Review an equally revealing attack on the “Cockney Pioneers” of America. Far from reducing Keats, this fraternal view of a more vulnerable man has the paradoxical effect of making Keats even more striking and vivid, as no doubt Gigante intended. As George reflected: John “was open, prodigal, and had no power of calculation whatever.”
The book is constantly enlivened by mischievous touches. In old age, Georgiana was remembered for her caustic wit and her scandalous remarriage to an engineer twenty years her junior, John Jeffrey, whose street lamps lit up the whole town as well as her. Oscar Wilde, when he came to Louisville on tour in 1882, tremulously examined Keats’s manuscripts (before Harvard secured them), and lectured passionately to the astonished Ohio pioneers on Beauty and “that godlike Boy.”
The familiarity of Keats’s story is precisely the thing that makes it such a challenge for any new biographer. Nicholas Roe confronts this in John Keats: A New Life with an unusual combination of scholarship, speculation, and deep background research. Though traditional in form, the whole biography is astonishingly fresh and observant, with a magical sense of Keats’s shifting moods and workplaces. Meticulously researched and precisely visualized, it produces a hypnotic portrait of Keats, day by day and sometimes hour by hour, in numerous settings: London, Hampstead, Scotland, Devon, the Isle of Wight. Throughout Roe has a special gift for the odd, revealing detail: while struggling to finish his epic Hyperion, Keats got a black eye from a cricket ball.
The fine evocation of the poet’s disturbed city childhood—his father died when he was eight, his mother when he was fourteen—is brilliantly fed back into the complex imagery of the later poetry. Roe’s deep knowledge of Keats’s wide and raffish circle of London friends—Leigh Hunt, Benjamin Haydon, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, John Reynolds, Joseph Severn, and especially Charles Brown—makes us see the poet from multiple angles, in all his fierce contradictions, so sympathetic and so strangely modern.
For a start, Roe reminds us that Keats’s literary life was not only short but remarkably uncertain. Keats published only three books in his lifetime: Poems (1817); Endymion (1818); and Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820). The first two were virtually destroyed by the critics; and Keats died believing he had failed: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Thomas Carlyle could still opine in 1871 that “Keats wanted a world of treacle.”
From age fourteen he was always trying to decide on a professional career. His ambition constantly altered, and only in retrospect—when he was dying—was it uniquely that of a lyric poet. At one time or another he seriously considered becoming a physician at Edinburgh University; a ship’s surgeon aboard an Indiaman; a professional dramatist at Drury Lane; a literary journalist for the London Magazine; a tea merchant in the City of London; a freedom fighter with Simon Bolívar in Brazil; and most bizarre of all, as advised (surely provokingly) by his legal guardian Abbey, a hatmaker in the West End.
Dramatizing this contingent, shape-shifting quality is one of the great strengths of Roe’s big, robust book. He states in a combative preface that “the great Romantic poet” was “also a smart, streetwise creature—restless, pugnacious, sexually adventurous.” Roe has steadily developed this account from a previous academic study, John Keats and the Culture of Dissent (1997), in which he set out “to restore the vivacious, even pugnacious, voices of Keats’s poetry…to rehabilitate the ‘Cockney School.’” He has also minutely explored its background in Fiery Heart (2004), a lively biography of Keats’s journalistic mentor Leigh Hunt and the atmosphere of radical politics surrounding him.
Despite a certain scholarly gravitas, Roe too reveals a genuine passion for his subject. There is a telltale trail of “author’s photographs,” faithfully following Keats through southern England, Scotland, and Italy, with a particularly evocative study of the Old Mill House, in Bedhampton on the Chichester estuary, where Keats started work on “The Eve of St. Agnes” in January 1819. All Keats biographers go to Rome; but Roe’s researches even took him to New Zealand, on the trail of the later life of Charles Brown, where he delivered an oration at Brown’s graveside.
Roe is especially strong on Keats’s “unsettled, orphaned” childhood and his education in the North London suburbs of Edmonton and Enfield, rather than in the city itself. He describes Keats as drawing peculiar inspiration from this world of urban borders and shorelines, “casements and chasms,” and shadowy transitions. He projects these images back into the poetry with often startling freshness and effect. The contorted stone statues of “Raving and Melancholy Madness,” which had transfixed Keats as a schoolboy outside Bedlam, the local lunatic asylum, later become the suffering gods of Hyperion. It is interesting to compare this with Aileen Ward, who writes: “He had studied the Elgin Marbles hour after hour till the silent eloquence of the Parthenon friezes spoke through every gesture of his fallen gods.”
Roe gives special extended attention to the twenty-two-year-old Keats’s tour of the Scottish Highlands with Charles Brown in 1818. They slogged over 640 miles with backpacks and notebooks, scaled Ben Nevis, and had a notable liquid encounter with the spirit of Robert Burns and the weird Celtic hallucinations of Fingal’s Cave. All the time Roe shows Keats harvesting sounds and images, making a physical preparation for the huge metaphysical effort he was about to undertake. The trip also produced a particular bond between the two young men.
Keats came back to the daily and nightly bed-nursing of his tubercular brother Tom, in a tiny claustrophobic apartment at Well Walk, Hampstead. This calvary, a premonition of his own to come, dominated the last three months of the autumn of 1818, and prepared for the composing of the great odes. Robert Gittings considered this “the single most significant experience” of Keats’s life. Roe narrates it with quiet power, and links it skillfully to Hyperion, which Keats was writing in a corner of the sickroom even as his brother lay dying. When we know this, the opening of this unfinished epic poem, in the form of a blank verse sonnet, takes on a stunning visual and psychological force:
Deep in the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon, and eve’s one star,
Sat grey-haired Saturn, quiet as a stone,
Still as the silence round about his lair;
Forest on forest hung above his head
Like cloud on cloud. No stir of air was there,
Not so much life as on a summer’s day
Robs not one light seed from the feathered grass,
But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest.
A stream went voiceless by, still deadened more
By reason of his fallen divinity
Spreading a shade: the Naiad ’mid her reeds
Press’d her cold finger closer to her lips.
From here on, Roe’s handling of the major poetry is frequently brilliant, if sometimes idiosyncratic. Drawing on his own previous investigations in John Keats and the Culture of Dissent, he gives a remarkable account of “To Autumn.” He makes us see it afresh by framing it inside a long newspaper article (“The Calendar of Nature”) by Leigh Hunt, which Keats had evidently read in The Examiner. The article contains seasonal nature notes on September—“the month of the migration of birds…of nut gathering, of cyder and perry-making…swallows…loads of fruit on the trees”—mixed with political journalism (the bitter “harvest” of the Peterloo massacre), and a stanza by Keats’s favorite, Spenser: “Next him September marched eke on foot;/Yet was he heavy laden with the spoyle/Of harvest’s riches….” The topical echoes and connections leap out from Roe’s account, giving the poem a new sense of resonance and immediacy, yet without in any way damaging its perfect calm and sweetness, its glowing sense of “ripeness to the core.” This is a very considerable achievement.
Roe makes a similarly inspired commentary on the heartbreaking sonnet of literary ambition and premonition, “When I have fears that I may cease to be…” Roe runs it alongside two sonnets of Shakespeare, and invokes the “ghostly Ossianic epics that he fears he may not live to write.” He adds that it was written by “an edgy Keats, excited and unsettled at Hunt’s and Hazlitt’s ideas, awed by the sheer abundance of his own imagination.”
Probably Roe’s most controversial reading is that of the “Ode to a Nightingale.” He omits all reference to Brown’s classic account of the “plum-tree,” and suggests instead an altogether darker context: that the poem is the work of a drug addict, a man with a “long-term…opium habit.” The ode is therefore “a drug-inspired dream-vision,” comparable to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and, even more strangely, to De Quincey’s Confessions.
This oddly reductive interpretation is ironically based on another observation by Charles Brown, that after Tom’s death, Keats began “secretly taking, at times, a few drops of laudanum to keep up his spirits.” No doubt he did so, but this seems a world away (literally) from true drug addiction, as anyone who knows the contemporary letters of Coleridge on that painful subject will testify. For once Roe’s presentation closes down a poem, rather than opening it up.
One might immediately set against it Roe’s fascinating reading of “The Jealousies, or The Cap and Bells,” which has been studiously overlooked by most biographers. This is Keats’s strange, late Byronic satire written in the summer of 1820, only months before he died, desperately encouraged by Brown, in an effort simply to keep Keats at work. As Roe observes, despite all the circumstances Keats comes up with a witty, nimble form of light verse that is strangely original and had “terrific potential.” Here he is on his favorite subject of claret, but now as his ludicrous Emperor Elfinan swallows down a bumper:
Whereat a narrow Flemish glass he took,
That since belong’d to Admiral De Witt,
Admir’d it with a connoisseuring look,
And with the ripest claret crowned it,
And, ere one lively bead could burst and flit,
He turn’d it quickly, nimbly upside down,
His mouth being held conveniently fit
To catch the treasure: “Best in all the town!”
He said, smack’d his moist lips, and gave a pleasant frown.
Roe shrewdly adds that this kind of poetry suggests how Keats might genuinely have had a future as a verse dramatist; while combined with some of the “rodomontades” of his letters (what we might call “riffs”), he also suggests that he might equally have become a comic novelist in the manner of Dickens.
Like Gittings and Motion before him, Roe is particularly thoughtful on the treatment of Keats’s women, and the subtle way in which they move from his life and letters into his poetry: becoming “transformed” into the fatal Belle Dame, the cruel Isabella, the sensuous Madeline, the sinuous Lamia, the icy Moneta (even, it has been suggested, into the “full-throated” Nightingale). Long before Fanny Brawne, there is the unknown Beauty glimpsed at Vauxhall gardens; there is Jane Cox, the bold exotic parlor “Leopardess,” who probably became the “Lamia” (“striped like a zebra”); above all there is the mysterious Isabella Jones, about whom almost nothing is known for certain: her dates, her education, her voice, the color of her eyes.
Keats may possibly have had some kind of affair with her before meeting Fanny Brawne. He wrote an amusing, seductive account of her “very tasty” apartment in Islington, North London, which he visited alone and unchaperoned in October 1818. It had an “aeolian Harp; a Parrot a Linnet—A Case of choice Liquers &c &c.” He certainly kissed her, and what’s more recorded it. She loaded him with grouse and other treats for the dying Tom (a psychologically acute gesture), and according to his friend Benjamin Bailey supplied the idea for “The Eve of St. Agnes” and “The Eve of St. Mark.” Chronology would suggest that the sexual force of these poems was probably inspired by Isabella rather than Fanny Brawne. There is even the possibility, which Roe considers, that the sonnet “Bright Star” was originally written for her, not Fanny.
Gittings believed she was Keats’s lost first love; Motion is less certain. Roe investigates her in forensic detail, establishing a slightly louche but attractive background, a seductive personality, unattached but with a rich Irish “patron,” and an interest in young literary types. It seems that Isabella Jones “collected” promising young poets, flirted with Keats’s publisher Taylor, and had a simultaneous interest in the young author Barry Cornwall. Significantly, Keats burned Isabella’s letters soon after he had met Fanny Brawne. He appears to mock her, retrospectively, in a love letter to Fanny of July 1819. “I have met with women whom I really think would like to be married to a Poem and to be given away by a Novel.” Perhaps it was a passing infatuation, or merely a fancy; a cold pastoral on both sides? In a letter to Taylor of 1821, having read the terrible accounts of Keats’s death in Rome, Isabella Jones criticized Severn for making a fuss about it all, and coolly referred to Keats as “the fine-hearted creature we both admired.” She remains puzzling and mysterious, even to Roe.
Roe’s restrained treatment of Fanny Brawne herself is surprising. Their passion does not catch fire until June 1819, when Keats was away in the Isle of Wight, alternately writing Lamia and the first of an explosion of love letters to Fanny. He suddenly bursts out: “Love is my religion.” It continues, with increasing intensity and desperation, until Keats’s death twenty months later. It includes some striking erotic poetry, not only “Bright Star” but also the palpitating sonnet “The day is gone…”:
The day is gone, and all its sweets are gone!
Sweet voice, sweet lips, soft hand, and softer breast,
Warm breath, light whisper, tender semi-tone,
Bright eyes, accomplish’d shape, and lang’rous waist!
Faded the flower and all its budded charms,
Faded the sight of beauty from my eyes,
Faded the shape of beauty from my arms,
Faded the voice, warmth, whiteness, paradise,
Vanish’d unseasonably at shut of eve,
When the dusk holiday—or holinight—
Of fragrant curtain’d love begins to weave
The woof of darkness, thick, for hid delight;
But, as I’ve read love’s missal through to-day,
He’ll let me sleep, seeing I fast and pray.
Andrew Motion gives up nearly a fifth of his six-hundred-page biography to this love story, quoting extensively from Keats’s letters to Fanny, and all five of his desperate late poems to her. Both Bate and Gittings are rather less effusive. By comparison Nicholas Roe is positively austere, covering the whole episode in less than forty pages (compared to Motion’s 120). He quotes from only one of the “Fanny” poems, and only fragments from the love letters. He narrates the final illness in the form of a diary, a plain record of the sickroom, almost without commentary. Emotionally the effect is undoubtedly powerful. Yet it is almost as if he were trying to protect Keats from Fanny Brawne.
Instead he lays unusual emphasis on the unexpectedly successful publication of the Lamia volume in June 1820, and its impact on Keats’s ever-widening circle of friends and admirers, now including Charles Lamb, John Clare, Coleridge, Barry Cornwall, and even the acerbic Francis Jeffrey of the Edinburgh Review. Perhaps this is his own way of granting Keats a “posthumous existence.”
Despite the familiarity of the Keats story, several enigmas remain. One of the most fascinating, strongly thrown into relief by Roe’s biography, is the unlikely nature of his friendship with bluff, cynical, womanizing Charles Brown, starting with the athletic Scottish tour of 1818. Brown was in fact eight years older than Keats, had traveled in Russia, and had had a successful opera staged at Drury Lane in 1814. He clearly became the substitute brother and confidant, once George left for America and Tom died.
The time together sharing the house at Wentworth Place, Hampstead, between December 1818 and May 1820, was the period of Keats’s greatest creativity. In this respect Brown significantly antedates Fanny Brawne. For many months they were working opposite each other at the same table. Brown helped him combat the terror of tuberculosis in the spring of 1820, and kept alive the possibility that he might expand the range of his writing and actually make a living from it.
It became an intimate friendship, emotionally more intense than either would quite admit. Keats hesitatingly uses the word “heart” in expressing his feelings of gratitude to Brown:
I wish, at one view, you could see my heart towards you. ’Tis only from a high tone of feeling that I can put that word upon paper—out of poetry.
In turn, Brown later said he had not realized how far Keats had “entangled” himself about his own heart. Brown once drew a very striking and romantic picture of Keats, his hair a bramble of curls, and his fist resting thoughtfully on his cheek (see illustration on page 97). This drawing seems an act of devotion, revealing feelings that could not otherwise be expressed. The friendship was temporarily shaken by jealousy and misunderstanding in May 1820, when Keats bitterly reproached Fanny for her “habit of flirting with Brown.”*
It is clear that both Brown and Fanny always felt guilty that they had not accompanied Keats to Rome. Perhaps in some way they were rivals in love. Fanny wore mourning for years, though she did eventually marry. Brown married but almost immediately abandoned his wife, a young Irish serving girl. He was psychologically prevented from writing his friend’s full biography, as he longed to do, by some unspoken form of regret. The short memoir that he finally pulled together just before he emigrated with his son to New Zealand in 1841 has many of the features of a delayed love letter. In this, it set the tone for most of these subsequent modern biographies. It explains why they are all so different yet all so excellent; and why Keats has survived so vividly. He has survived because he has been greatly loved.
New and appealing light is thrown on Brown by the recent publication of “New Letters from Charles Brown to Joseph Severn,” edited by Grant F. Scott and Sue Brown (Romantic Circles, 2007). He writes: “Know, my dear Severn, I feel towards you as a brother for your kindness to our brother Keats.” ↩