by Ian Reynolds
The poet John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five. Most scholars and biographers record that he died at around 11 pm on Friday, February 23rd, 1821, but his gravestone records the date as February 24th. (1) So which is true? This post will seek to find the answer, and explore how the confusion arose in the first place.
Keats died of what we now know to be pulmonary tuberculosis. The story goes that in early February of 1820 he caught a fever and had a haemorrhage — coughed up blood — and by virtue of his medical training, Keats deemed this was arterial blood, thus signifying what he construed as his ‘death-warrant’. In August 1820, on the advice of his medical professionals, it was proposed that the best outcome for Keats would be to move abroad to somewhere with a milder climate. Funds were subsequently raised and in September he set off by sea bound for Italy, together with his friend the painter Joseph Severn. They arrived in Rome via Naples in mid November 1820. It is the Joseph Severn letters to others in the Keats circle, and later memoirs that are largely relied upon to record the tragic events leading up to his death.
He was buried on Monday February 26th at the Cemitero Acattolico (2)—the so-called Protestant Cemetery in Rome — the burial registry has the following entry:
John Keats, English Poet
Died the 24th of February, 1821
The gravestone reads:
On the fifty-eighth anniversary of his death an engraved plaque was placed in the wall of 26, Piazza di Spagna near to the window of the room in which Keats died:
Here is a brief summary (3) of other erroneous dates of John Keats’s death:
In the preface of later editions of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, Author of Endymion, Hyperion, etc, originally published in July 1821, it states that “John Keats died of a consumption, in his twenty-fourth year on the 27th December 1820.”
Leigh Hunt in Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries (1828) repeats the date as December 27th 1820.
Sir Vincent Eyre in ‘The Old Stones of Rome’ a lecture, given in Rome in 1875, has the date as February 21st 1821.
GC Williamson in The Keats Letters, Papers and Other Relics forming the Dilke Bequest (1914) has it as February 20th 1821.
Sir BW Richardson’s The Disciples of Aesculapius’(1900) has February 3rd 1821.
William Sharp in Century Magazine (1906) has February 27th or 28th 1821.
In 1861 Severn was considering a revised inscription for the gravestone. He first wrote Feb 26th but later changed this to Feb 24th (4).
For the purpose of this discussion it is best to ignore all of the above erroneous dates as they are clearly all obviously wrong (save for Severn’s Feb 24th). They are mentioned only to record the oft-repeated errors that can and did occur. In the immediate aftermath there was confusion because letters between Severn and other members of the Keats circle could take many weeks to reach England from Rome. When these actual letters eventually did arrive they were eagerly passed around, often being transcribed by one person, and given to another. Transcription in this context means that the original handwritten letter is copied by another person; sometimes errors in the original are ‘corrected’ in the copy, or if words are illegible the person doing the transcription will substitute or add what he/she thinks what the word, or intent was. It logically follows that the more transcriptions there were, the greater the chance for errors to creep in — particularly when we have subsequent transcriptions of transcriptions. Some material can become very inaccurate, especially in the case when the original letter has been lost, and all that’s left is a transcription.
To further compound the question of accuracy, some of the key witnesses, namely Joseph Severn and Charles Armitage Brown, wrote memoirs and letters in relation to Keats, often many years later. Some had transcription and factual inaccuracies which were later amended and embellished, including, for example, William Sharp’s, Life and Letters of Joseph Severn of 1892 (5). Brown’s Life of John Keats was not published until 1937, but his papers which he wrote in 1836-7 were included in Richard Monckton Milnes, later Lord Houghton’s, Life, Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats published in 1848 (6). Sharp’s biography of Severn became a primary reference source for many biographers and scholars, including Sir Sidney Colvin (1920), Amy Lowell (1925), Sheila Birkenhead (1944 and 1965), Aileen Ward (1963), Walter Jackson Bate (1963), and Robert Gittings. All borrowed from Sharp and Milnes. According to Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs, edited by Grant F Scott, Severn’s memoir ‘My Tedious Life’ was the main source for Sharp’s narrative of Keats’s final months in Rome (7). This memoir was written in 1873—six years before Severn’s death and fifty-two years after Keats’s.
To return to the date of John Keats’s death. But what is death? For the purpose of this discussion the medical determination of death is the irreversible cessation of heartbeat and breathing (cardiopulmonary death) and the irreversible cessation of the brain (brain death). A review of the correspondence from Rome follows. Note in particular the circumstances and the reported timings leading up to the moment of Keats’s death: the actual time is critical.
Milnes records a Severn journal entry for February 27th, 1821 (8)
Feb.27th — He is gone; he died with the most perfect ease —he seemed to go to sleep. On the twenty-third, about four, 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 eleven, when he gradually sunk into death, so quiet that I still thought he slept…
Amy Lowell (1925) quotes from Sharp (9)
He is gone. He died with the most perfect ease. He seemed to go to sleep. On the 23rd, Friday, at half past-four, the approaches of death came on “Severn—I—lift me up—for I am dying. I shall die easy. Don’t be frightened! Thank God it has come”. I lifted him up in my arms and the phlegm seemed boiling in his throat. This increased until eleven at night, when he gradually sank into death so quiet, that I still thought he slept.
Note that the Lowell letter differs slightly from the previous Milnes letter, notably the time of 4 versus 4.30, when the approaches of death, allegedly came on. There is a further unfinished letter dated March 3rd 1821 (Keats Shelley Memorial Bulletin, 1, p 43) (10)
—at ½ past four he said—to lift him up in bed—I kept holding him until 11 o’clock, when he died in my arms.
In a letter dated March 6th 1821, Severn writes to John Taylor (Keats’s friend and publisher) to confirm the events of the preceding days. The text is similar in places to the unfinished March 3rd letter (11):
—23rd at 4 oclock afternoon—the poor fellow bade me lift him up in bed—he breathed with great difficulty—and seemed to lose the power of coughing up the phlegm…” “…I held him in my arms—the mucus was boiling within him—it gurgled in his throat—this increased—but yet he seem’d without pain—his eyes look’d upon me with extreme sensibility but without pain—at 11 he died in my arms—
I have somewhat laboured the point about why February 23rd became the widely accepted view of the date John Keats died, even though ‘Feb 24th 1821’ is recorded on the gravestone and elsewhere. There are two factors to consider here. Firstly, the convention of Roman timekeeping prevalent at the time of his death; specifically the fact that any time after dusk would be attributed to the following day. In other words, the new day would begin at 6pm (12). So according to Roman convention, if Keats died after 6pm it would be deemed to be on the 24th, and not the 23rd. But there is significant doubt about the February 23rd date irrespective of Roman timekeeping. In Severn’s letter of February 27th he writes “The phlegm seemed boiling in his throat, and increased until eleven, when he gradually sunk into death, so quiet that I still thought he slept…’. The obvious question is— at that point was he sleeping, dying or already dead?
Severn wrote that he had not slept for four, five or nine days (depending on which letter you read). He must have been a total emotional wreck — exhausted and worn-out by the grim reality of the situation he found himself in. Dr James Clark, the physician who attended Keats in Rome, was not present at the alleged time of death. It is not recorded if he visited 26 Piazza di Spagna between the hours of 11 and midnight on February 23rd, but he could have done, because he lived directly across from the house and had been routinely seeing Keats on a daily basis, reportedly often up to four to five times per day. Joseph Severn was the only witness. His is the only testimony.
Summary and conclusion
When questioned in later years about the date of Keats’s death, Joseph Severn would reply that the date on the gravestone was “the most reliable” record (13). That date is February 24th 1821. In a letter written in 1937, Sir William Hale-White, head of Guys Hospital in London for many years and author of Keats as Doctor and Patient (Oxford University Press, 1938) wrote
It appears that at eleven at night on February 23rd Keats was dying. Whether he lingered until past midnight before his pulse stopped, it is impossible to say but it may have been that he did and thus the actual date of death became February 24th.
I much doubt whether we shall ever get any conclusive evidence as to the exact time at which his pulse stopped, but the entry in the Register of Burials in the Protestant Burial Ground in Rome is strongly in favour of the 24th. (14)
Perhaps we should leave it there: ‘The end came near to the midnight between the 23rd and the 24th of February, 1821’; this is according to the English clock time — by Roman time the date was the 24th.
Ian Reynolds is a retired mechanical engineer who lives in Oxfordshire. He has a personal interest in those associated with the Keats-Shelley Circle, and poets of the Romantic period, especially John Keats. He is unaffiliated. Ian’s other interests include reading, listening to music, particularly rock and jazz, road cycling and wine.
1. Everest, K. (2006, May25). Keats, John (1795–1821), poet. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: et al
2. John Keats is located in Tomb no. 159, Gravestone S31, (Zone A, Plot 51) of the Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners in Testaccio, Rome. For further information see http://www.cemeteryrome.it
3. Rollins, Hyder E, The Keats Circle: Letters, (2nd Ed 1965), Cambridge MA: V1, 107, fn5, p 225-226
4. Pershing, James H, ‘John Keats: When Was He Born and When Did He Die?’, PMLA, Vol.55, No3 (Sep., 1940)
5. Sharp, William The Life and Letters of Joseph Severn, (1892), London: Sampson Low, Marston and Co
6. Milnes, Richard H, Life, Letters and Literary Remains, of John Keats (1848), Edward Moxon, London: hereafter called ‘Milnes’
7. Scott, Grant F, Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs (2005), Aldershot/Burlington VT: Ashgate,: “My Tedious Life” included in entirety pp 625-664
8. Milnes, V2, p 93
9. Sharp, p 94
10. Pershing, p 806-807
11. Rollins, V1, 107, pp 223-228
12. Rollins, V1, fn 5, p 225-226
13. Pershing, p 810
14. Pershing, p 813
For further information on William Sharp’s process of writing see Scott, Grant F, ‘Writing Keats’s Last Days: Severn, Sharp and Romantic Biography’ Studies in Romanticism, Vol 42, No1 (Spring, 2003), pp 3-26
Davies, Michael (ed), Chantler, Ashley (ed), Shaw, Philip (ed); Literature and Authenticity 1780-1900: Essays in honour of Vincent Newey, (2011), Farnham/Burlington VT: Ashgate: see in particular pp 39-49 ‘Undefinitive Keats’ by Nicholas Roe