Nice ink, Keats

by Gareth Evans


An ephemeral post seems to be a good place to talk about doodles. In their purest form, you may have little idea when you start how either will finish. The youthful Keats’s marginal sketches in his 1815/1816 medical notebook are more purposeful than this but were nevertheless created to fill some unexpected vacuum of time. By any other hand they would be overlooked, however, this medical student was to become a poet, one who relished meaningful imagery. Together these miniature flower portraits appear like hieroglyphs that have yet to been interpreted. That they are so minute adds to their obscurity, the book itself is only 18.5 by 11 cm, while good graphic reproductions can be hard to access. In fact, I only first started thinking seriously about the sketches when I saw the original on display at the Keats House Museum some time ago.


Their instant of creation seems to be a hiatus in the course of a lecture during Keats’s study at the United Hospitals of Guy’s and St Thomas’. Unlike some other parts of Keats’s existing notes this is clearly not a fair copy, but raw notes taken down in the lecture room. Astley Cooper is a probable candidate for the lecturer, a draw for the Hospital’s prospective students, he came to be known as ‘the greatest surgical teacher in Europe’. The lines of Keats’s writing begin to curve as they move down the page around a hand that held the quick-moving pen with an iron grip. Then, mid- sentence, when an alternative manipulation of a dislocated jaw is about to be revealed, the writing stops.


Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London


Lectures within a hospital that housed the lecturer’s in-patients may have been liable to this sort of interruption. Keats was left in mid-flow with a pen nib quivering with ink. He may have just tapped the ink back into the inkpot before it dried up while the – no doubt mildly frustrated – students waited for any sign of whether the lecture would continue or not. If this indeed was the state of affairs, he seems to have dissipated his nervous energy by the dispatch of some small sketches.


First, he draws a flower, one that could be seen as having elements of both the ambiguous and the exact. The wild pansy (viola tricolor) is a native flower that is not short of cultural and poetical associations. Among the ragbag of names applied to it are heartsease and love-in-idleness. Traditionally some people have seen two, or sometimes three, faces kissing in the outline of the petals. A poetical book-name was added, sometime in the 1500s, from the French pensée (‘thought’).


Scientifically, the wild pansy does not conform to a precise description; the markings on the face of its flower being variable within certain parameters. The outline of the distinctive pansy of Keats’s time was still close to the wild type, called by plant breeders ‘horse-faced’ (always popular in gardens, early 19th-century plant breeders were beginning to bring it into the fold of ‘fancy flowers’ by selection and hybridisation, a process that was to eventually lead to the round-flowered, blousy type familiar to us from garden centres and supermarkets).  Ornate and diverse, the wild pansy has the appearance of being purposefully streaked with pigment. Often the upper petals, or ‘ears’, are purple, also spots can occur near the ‘eye’ of the plant around which there can also be radial streaks, or nectar lines as we now know they are.


As in his poetry, Keats could visually recall and characterise a flower without the need of a model. Interestingly, this species’ natural variability means that he can be accurate while at the same time have some license. Within the outline he added precise strokes to represent the top two petals in horizontal half-moon shapes and a splatter of dots around the central ‘eye’. Also, he characteristically captured what might be called the gesture or posture of the whole plant: in this case the wild pansy’s recognisable ‘chin-up’ flower on a high, articulated stem.


Leigh Hunt’s sister-in-law Elizabeth Kent deemed it an impertinence to describe such a familiar plant: as she says in her Flora Domestica of 1823, they could be had at ‘a nursery, or Covent Garden flower-market, six or more may be had for shilling, all of them covered with flowers and buds’. In terms of the purest contemporary scientific culture the pansy’s variability was an irritant; given its garden associations it was in danger of being too close to triviality. In the context of Keats’s formal studies his sketch can be seen as a similar act to drawing a likeness of ZZ Top in your lecture notes; a tremor of release, or even rebelliousness.


However, Keats’s sketch appears to be depicting something very particular, not rocker or punk, more Puck. Shakespeare’s ‘little western flower’ was a wild pansy, the source of functional magic that drives the action in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Oberon tells of its conception

Yet marked I where the bolt of Cupid fell.
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound.
And maidens call it ‘love-in-idleness.’
Fetch me that flower. The herb I showed thee once.
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.
Fetch me this herb, and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.


In an age, and a class, which prided itself on exercising a new botanical literacy, authors (including Elizabeth Kent and Leigh Hunt) expressed no doubt in the identity of Shakespeare’s love-in-idleness. The botanical authority William Curtis gave this passage a serious, but also half jocular, justification in his attractive Flora Londinensis, 1777-1798:

Linnaeus remarks [on] the black lines which sometimes appear on the Petals, Milton had observed the same, ‘Pansies sreakt with Jet’. In a poor soil the purple and yellow in the bloom of this flower frequently become very faint, and sometimes fade into a perfect white, this variation in colour gives a propriety to the Metamorphosis of this flower in which Shakespear [sic] pays an elegant compliment to his royal mistress.

‘Viola tricolor’ from Curtis’ Flora Londinensis

In conjuring up the magic flower, the young Keats tapped into his then parallel literary life, while at the same time pointing to an early mentor. He was to go on to make a passionate study of Shakespeare plays in 1817 when, newly qualified, he had left the prospect of a medical career behind him. But as we learn from Robert White’s Keats as a Reader of Shakespeare (1987), of all the plays we can be sure of his familiarity with A Midsummer Night’s Dream during 1816 through his reading of it with Charles Cowden Clarke, son of the headmaster at his school at Enfield.


Keats’s fellow lodger Henry Stephens had still to devise his blue-black ink, so Keats’s ink was probably purple-black or purple-brown oak gall ink. Away from the study of a painful anatomical correction, with his surplus ink he streaks and splatters the white flower he had outlined, ‘now purple with love’s wound’. Was he playing with Cupid’s blot? Here Keats was – appropriately – enacting Puck’s gesture in marking numerous carefully placed spots with ink/juice on the flower’s face as Puck was to on the eyelids of random mortals;

Through the forest have I gone.
But Athenian found I none,
On whose eyes I might approve
This flower’s force in stirring love.
Night and silence.–Who is here?
Weeds of Athens he doth wear:
This is he, my master said,
Despised the Athenian maid;
And here the maiden, sleeping sound,
On the dank and dirty ground.
Pretty soul! she durst not lie
Near this lack-love, this kill-courtesy.
Churl, upon thy eyes I throw
All the power this charm doth owe.
When thou wakest, let love forbid
Sleep his seat on thy eyelid:
So awake when I am gone;
For I must now to Oberon.

Puck grasping pansies. Sir Joshua Reynolds for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, 1789


Sketching to the words of Shakespeare, little wonder that Keats could appear distracted at this time. Here is Charles Cowden Clarke’s story of the reply that the student Keats gave when quizzed about his attitudes to his medicinal training:

he expressed his grave doubt if he should go on with it. ‘The other day,’ he said to me ‘During the lecture, there came a sunbeam into the room, and with it a whole troop of creatures floating in the ray; and I was off with them to Oberon and fairy land’.


In this reading, Keats’s sketch is more a flower of the imagination than of the field or garden, holding multiple meanings during process of its creation. But what of the other three flower sketches? Here there are many things to question and consider. Frustratingly, some that can just be discerned in reproduction have a much greater potential interest; some that are a little clearer are difficult to positively identify. Collectively they can appear like a random chord sequence without obvious significance. However, it is possible that there may be a theme to the sequence, even between just two of them, as one completed sketch suggested another. Of course, there is also Keats’s other early reading; remembering that flowers take on several literary masks according to time and place: daffodil, narcissus, narcisse, asphodel. A passage in Keats’s own early work particularly strikes me. In a poem dated November 1815, he addresses an affected poet friend, George Felton Matthew, for criticising his poetry. With an earnestness which, at best, these sketches possess he chides Matthew; ‘For thou wast was once a floweret blooming wild / Close to the source, bright, pure and undefil’d’.


Whichever way this interesting subject may go, this thought-doodle is spent for now – my intellectual ink has run dry.



Gareth Evans writes articles on the history and culture of plants and their use ( He worked in, and with, botanic gardens for 16 years, specialising in the history of plants and medicine. Recent Highlights include: ‘Seeds of Inspiration’, Linder Memorial Lecture, Beatrix Potter Society, March 2018, and ‘Keats’s Flight from the Vegetable Monster’, a paper at the 4th Bicentennial John Keats Conference 1817.

The Gravestone of John Keats: Romancing the Stone

by Ian Reynolds
John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five on February 23rd, 1821 and is buried at the Cemitero Acattolico—the so-called Protestant Cemetery in Rome (1). Two years later, in the early spring of 1823 his gravestone with epitaph was finally laid at his burial site. (2) Much has been documented about Keats’s final days in Rome. The romantic view is that on his death bed, he declared to his friend and carer Joseph Severn, his dying wishes. These were then recorded in letters sent from Rome by Severn.
This discussion seeks to explore the evidence to determine what Keats’s declared dying wishes actually were in relation to the epitaph on his gravestone. The commonly accepted view is that he wanted the following; his name not to appear on the gravestone; and the sole inscription to read: “HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER”

The actual gravestone text reads:

This grave contains all that was mortal, of a young English poet, who, on his death bed, in the bitterness of his heart, at the malicious power of his enemies, desired these words to be engraven on his tomb stone

JK grave 2

Friends of Keats who were responsible for the epitaph, are principally Charles Armitage Brown (3) and Joseph Severn (4). Years later both were to admit regret for the epitaph. Severn wrote on July 13th, 1836 “…the present gravestone with its inscription is an eyesore to me and more…” (5), while Brown referred to it as “…a sort of profanation…” (6) . These belated pangs of regret help to establish the view that the epitaph was not what Keats wanted.

For the purpose of this discussion, dying wishes are defined as what is stated by the deceased and what is recorded before death. It logically follows that it is not possible to have a dying wish post-mortem (after death)—it must be made by the deceased whilst they are still living—ante-mortem (before death).
We have to look to correspondence from the period to support the common perception of what Keats’s dying wishes were. The most influential source material that many biographers and historians cite from is William Sharp, Life and Letters of Joseph Severn (7) first published in 1892 (hereafter referred to as “Sharp,1892”). Sharp wrote the biography based on “a great mass of letters, journals, reminiscences, and fragmentary records” (8) which Severn’s son Walter had provided. The biography of Severn’s long and varied life was initially planned to be in two volumes, such was the amount of information. But the publisher baulked at this and insisted that Sharp produce it in one volume only—so the book was somewhat squeezed, with voids of missing years, and a narrow focus on the Keats years either side of 1821.
The result is a sanitised version of Severn’s life—the negative played down, or airbrushed out completely, and rough non-complimentary edges smoothed. Whilst it is still an important record (in the absence of anything else) it cannot be entirely relied upon. Sharp had a habit of ‘stitching in’ to sections of the book snippets and paragraphs initially written by Severn, but edited and substantively revised by Sharp. Even for the careful reader, it is very easy to misinterpret—on one page you may have an apparently contemporaneous letter, interlaced with a much later “Recollection” or “Reminiscence” which has been extracted from a Severn memoir, edited or reassembled by Sharp to present a relevant and highly readable anecdote within the narrative. Additionally, Severn habitually added many postscripts to his letters, and it is very easy for the reader to confuse an actual postscript to a letter, with a Sharp “recollection”, based on a Severn “Reminiscence” written many years later.(9) It can become very confusing.
Much of the source material (the Severn papers) included in Sharp,1892 were presumed lost after Sharp completed his book.(10) The Sharp biography thus became the primary reference text in lieu of the original material. Amy Lowell (1925), Sheila Birkenhead (1944 & 1965), Aileen Ward (1963), Walter Jackson Bate (1963), Robert Gittings, et al, all rely heavily on Sharp,1892. The Severn papers eventually surfaced in March 1972 when they were donated to the Houghton Library at Harvard. (11)
Scholars who had access to the Severn papers began to notice discrepancies in Sharp’s interpretation of the material. As far as facts go, we have Severn’s almost contemporaneous letters—particularly those written before Keats’s death—these are relevant, as they are the only record of what Keats’s declared dying wishes were, if any. The significance of this is that Sharp developed the narrative about Keats’s last final days, by interlacing from the “great mass of letters, journals, reminiscences, and fragmentary records” provided to him in the late 1880s.
According to Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs (Ed. Grant F Scott, hereafter referred to as Scott, 2005), Severn’s memoir My Tedious Life was the main source for Sharp from which he developed the narrative for Keats final months in Rome. It was written in 1873—six years before Severn’s death and fifty-two years after Keats’s death. (12)
Consider a fact recorded about Keats’s dying wishes. In Sharp, Severn writes a long letter to Mrs Brawne (the mother of Keats’s fiancée Fanny Brawne) dated February 12th, 1821. This letter records that:

…Among the many things he has requested to me to-night this is the principal, that on his grave shall be this “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”’ (13)

According to the Life of John Keats by Charles Armitage Brown, this letter is actually dated February 8th, 1821 and is addressed to Brown himself. Sharp confused both the date, and Brawne with Brown, but the substance of it does remain relevant, as primary source evidence—in that before death John Keats had declared that he wanted these words on his grave: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”.

Keats on his deathbed, Joseph Severn, 1821

Keats on his deathbed, Joseph Severn, 1821

There is another source of potential confusion in a letter written by Severn to William Haslam on February 22nd, 1821.(14) This is the day before Keats died. Sharp records this letter as does Scott. However, Sharp continues on from the letter and quotes “a memorable passage” from Severn’s unpublished memoirs, included a commentary presented as if contemporaneous to the Haslam letter:

“…From time to time he gave me all his directions as to what he wanted done after his death. It was in the same sad hour when he told me with greater agitation than he had shown on any other subject, to put the letter which had just come from Miss Brawne (which he was unable to bring himself to read, or even to open), with any other that should arrive too late to reach him in life, inside his winding-sheet on his heart–it was then, also, that he asked that I should see cut upon his gravestone as sole inscription, not his name,(15) but simply, ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’” (16)

Here in Sharp, we have a much later recollection by Severn, edited and enhanced by Sharp for readability, almost seamlessly stitched into the narrative.
As Keats makes no reference to “sole inscription” and “not his name” in any correspondence, the question remains as to where these ‘wishes’ emanate from. The root source can be traced to six months after Keats’s death. In August 1821, his friend and publisher John Taylor, writes to Severn: (17)

“…I find by your letter to Mr. Haslam that you have designed a tomb in the form of a Grecian altar, with a lyre, &c. This is said to be executing, I think, by some English sculptor, but you want an inscription. I can conceive none better than our poor friend’s melancholy sentiment, ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ It is very simple and affecting, and tells so much of the story that none need be told. Neither name nor date is requisite. These will be given in his life by his biographer. So, unless something else is determined on, let this line stand alone. (18) I foresee that it will be as clear an indication to posterity as the plainest, every-day inscription that one may find in Westminster Abbey…”

The aforementioned was proposed perhaps for reasons of dramatic gravitas. In Taylor’s opinion, Keats’s name was not necessary, and that “Here lies one whose name was writ on water” should be the sole inscription. Severn and Brown both picked up on this. The Taylor suggestion was to be later transmuted into a ‘dying wish’ of Keats, although it originated some six months after he had died.
To conclude, before Keats’s death we have confirmation in the Severn letter to Brown dated February 8th, 1821 that Keats wanted: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. This was the single declared dying wish of John Keats in relation to his epitaph. The idea of the “sole inscription” and “not his name” was instigated posthumously by John Taylor in his August 1821 letter to Severn, and later executed by Joseph Severn. The evidence would strongly suggest that Keats’s dying wishes (such as they were) were duly fulfilled. Keats wanted “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. He got this, and more. Everything else that appears on the gravestone epitaph was created posthumously by others—and not by John Keats.
I am indebted to Grant F Scott, Professor of English at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, for taking the time out of his busy schedule to point me in the right direction on some dates to letters and events cited in this paper. For me the most important reference source was his Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs (2005)  which was a huge help and inspiration.
I am also grateful for access to Romantic Circles electronic edition. This is a scholarly resource which features New Letters from Charles Brown to Joseph Severn, Editors: Grant F Scott & Sue Brown ( 2007: Revised 2010).
I will be following this post with another on John Keats’ gravestone itself, looking particularly at the text ‘Who, on his death bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart, at the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired…’
1. 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
2. No exact date. Joseph Severn to William Haslam, June 1st 1823 “I have just put up the Tomb to poor Keats—it has cost me £16” p242 ed. Scott, Grant F, Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs (2005), Aldershot/Burlington VT: Ashgate.
3. Charles Armitage Brown. Born Lambeth, London 1787, died New Zealand 1842. Met Keats 1817. Walking tour of Lake District of England, Northern part of Ireland, & Scotland with Keats in early summer 1818. Keats lodged with Brown at Wentworth Place, Hampstead from December 1818. For further information on Brown see Richardson, Joanna, Keats and his Circle, (1980), London:Cassell pp 25-27. See also Grant F Scott & Sue Brown, New Letters from Charles Brown to Joseph Severn: Character of Charles Brown 15-18;
4. Joseph Severn. Born Hoxton, London 1793, died London 1879. Buried Rome Tomb no. 173, Gravestone S32, (Zone A, Plot 65) of the Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners. Painter and diplomat. Met Keats 1816. Travelled with Keats to Rome September 1820. See Richardson pp104-107. For character see also Scott, 2005 ‘The Eternal I’ pp 8-15 & letter 19, p149-151 & letter 48, p246 (underlined text).
5. November 26th, 1836. Sharp, William The Life and Letters of Joseph Severn, (1892), London: Sampson Low, Marston and Co: p165.
6.  New letters of CAB,Letter 42
7. Sharp, 1892
8. Sharp, 1892 preface p v (opening sentence)
9. For further information with illuminating commentary on Wm Sharp’s process of writing the book 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
10. Scott, 2005 p563
11. See Harvard Library Bulletin 21 (October 1973): 449
12. Scott, 2005 p567. Note: My Tedious Life included in its entirety in Scott, 2005 pp 625-664
13. Sharp, 1892 pp 89-90 & Life of John Keats by Charles Armitage Brown (1937) Oxford: OUP pp83-88 [letter dated February 8th, 1821], and Rollins (1965, no 166, 2:91 (essentially same as Sharp, 1892 pp 89-90)
14. Sharp, 1892 pp 92-93 – see also Scott, 2005 pp 135-136
15. Bold added to “as sole inscription” & “not his name” by this author
16. Sharp, 1892 p93
17. Sharp, 1892 p107
18. Bold added by this author
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.Ian Reynolds

Meeting Keats on the Spanish Stairs

by Ellen O’Neill
October 21 is a fateful date for John Keats and myself: he landed in Italy in 1820 in a last-ditched effort to find relief in the warmth of the Italian sun to cure his diseased body, and I landed on the earth (as did Coleridge).

Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble,
Ancient footprints are everywhere.
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold dark night on the Spanish stairs…

When I Paint My Masterpiece, Bob Dylan

I first began visiting Rome in 1999 when I enjoyed the friendship of an American Benedictine monk studying at Sant’Anselmo. The graves of Keats and Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery were top priority for my very first days. And then the Keats-Shelley House at the Spanish Steps.  The house was closed when I went, and back in that day, it wasn’t easy to find out when it would be open.
I visited Rome throughout the first decade of the new century, and each time the house was closed. (When I finally did first enter, I met Catherine Payling, the museum’s curator. She told me that instituting regular open hours for the public was one of her big missions.) And so it was in August 2010 that I arrived when the building was open and the pilgrimage was achieved to finally enter the apartment where John Keats died on February 23, 1821, at the shockingly young age of 25.
What is it about those Stairs?
The Scalinata is one of the strangest of tourist phenomena, because we all have steps. These are the longest and widest in Europe, but that in itself wouldn’t attract so many visitors. They connect the Piazza di Spagna to the Trinita dei Monti church, which dominates the view of the stairs. It is one of the French churches of Rome, built in 1585. The stairs were built in 1723 to 25, bequeathed by a French diplomat to link the Bourbon Spanish Embassy to the Holy See. So yes, it was Spain and France vying for Roman cultural power that produced this magnetic spot. Oh good, glad something explains it.
Then came the Brits
It is hauntingly lyrical that two giants of English Romanticism—Keats and Shelley—died and are buried in Italy. Keats was in a very weakened state when his doctor and friends thought a last ditched effort to get him in the Italian sun would help his TB-shattered body.
Keats leaves London in September 1820 with his friend Joseph Severn, and lands in Naples on October 21— today—which happens to be my birth date (and Coleridge’s in 1772). It’s a small factoid of history that has given me a cosmic connection to him even beyond my English major’s love of his work. He arrives in Rome in November, settles into an apartment at 26 Piazza di Spagna, and three months later, on February 23, 1821, he dies at 25.
Capturing the Bright Star
I saw Jane Campion’s biopic Bright Star on the plane to China in April 2010, four months before my successful pilgrimage. Even the tiny size of a seat screen couldn’t diminish the sense of the poetic life she captured on film. From Roger Ebert’s review:
“What Campion does is seek visual beauty to match Keats’ verbal beauty. There is a shot here of Fanny in a meadow of blue flowers that is so enthralling it beggars description.”
What struck me is the shot of Fanny in her white room with the white muslin curtains softly blowing. It’s a visualization of the “bliss” that overfills Fanny after her first walk out with Keats. It also captures the soft, light feeling that reading Keats’s poetry can create.
Against all this ‘life’ is a story of almost unmitigated tragedy. A short summary from the Guardian:
“Keats’s life was not merely bookended by tragedy but invaded by it at every turn: when he was 8 his father was killed in a riding accident. His mother’s second marriage collapsed, but not before her husband took possession of most of her wealth. She returned to her children but died when Keats was 10. His brother Tom succumbed to tuberculosis and the poet diagnosed the same fatal disease in himself not long after: one night, having coughed up some blood he is recorded as saying: ‘I know the colour of this blood: it is arterial blood . . . that drop of blood is my death-warrant. I must die.’
In the House today
And that brings us to the foreigners’ quarter of the Piazza di Spagna. The house is very much as Keats found it. His and Severn’s rooms were on the second floor, divided from their landlady’s by a curtain.
I went straight to his bedroom. None of the furnishings are original, because Vatican law decreed that everything be burned after he died. But the structure hasn’t changed, and the most important piece to me is the window looking out onto the Scalinata (my picture from Keats’s window). Here Keats would spend hours watching the river of people meeting, strolling, selling up and down the steps, and the children splashing in Pietro Bernini’s boat-shaped fountain. It was mesmerizing, even in 2010, to see the beauty of the steps from the window: the gorgeous Italian light, the coloring of the surrounding buildings, the sparkling blue sky.
And the saddest part of the apartment is the ceiling: what Keats would have spent hours staring at when his body was too weak to drag to the window.
Keats was a nova for this world: a bright star that was burned out by disease. His story would make anyone think of mortality, especially on their own birthday.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

My father often quoted the first line of Endymion, usually in a sardonic way. He died in early middle age. Keats and my dad will never pass into nothingness. Wings have memory of wings. (And I’ve always loved that Yeats and Keats are separated by just one letter.)
This post first appeared on Ellen’s blog
Ellen O’Neill blogs cultural, literary, and travel pieces as M.A.Peel. She is the Creative Director at The Paley Center for Media in NYC, a judge for the Webby Awards, and a thwarter of diabolical masterminds. Ellen O'Neill

Picturing John Keats

by Suzie Grogan

John Keats has been viewed by many as the very picture of the romantic poet, destined to die poor and at a young age. He was a man who attracted a devoted group of friends who in many ways promoted that image after his death, at the age of 25, from tuberculosis. Disgusted at the treatment he received from prominent literary critics of the early 19th century some suggested that his constitution had been weakened by these attacks; Shelley wrote the poem Adonais, portraying Keats as victim; Byron, hugely popular at the time and disliked by Keats wrote disparagingly of him as ‘snuffed out by an article’ and later in the 19th century Oscar Wilde still spoke of him as a martyr. Thus the perception of Keats as the archetypal frail, sensitive poet became enshrined in 19th- and early 20th-century consciousness.

However, we have written descriptions of him offered by a number of friends and acquaintances in the ‘Keats Circle’ and not one of them suggests frailty or weakness. Poet, critic and friend Leigh Hunt described him as having features ‘at once strongly cut and delicately alive’ suggesting his one fault was ‘in the mouth, which was not without something of a character of pugnacity’. The poet Barry Cornwall (real name Bryan Procter) claimed he had ‘never met a more manly and simple young man.’ Charles Brown, a close friend, described him as ‘though thin, rather muscular’. He had brown hair and hazel eyes and a ‘peculiarly dauntless expression’, Joseph Severn noted, all ‘trembling eagerness’. Others suggested he had an ‘inward’ contemplative look. He was undoubtedly a beautiful young man, but as his biographer Andrew Motion points out the descriptions are always of one ‘at once ‘feminine’ and robust’. Motion has been one of the most recent to write of Keats as a radical, both in politics and in poetry and at last the myth of ‘poor Johnny Keats’ is being erased.

John Keats was born in 1795, the son of the manager of the Swan & Hoop stables and inn, Moorgate, now on the main route into the City of London. He was short and stocky and likened to a boxer; indeed as a child at school he was well known as having a quick temper and always ready to fight his, or another boy’s corner. As an adult he was intense and acutely sensitive and alive to the world around him and his poetry is some of the most sensuous in the English language. Yet for all his ability to literally take you ‘out of this world’ he was not, as some believed ‘unworldly’ and incapable of coping with the barbs thrown at him by the press. He had trained as a doctor at Guy’s Hospital when surgery was in its infancy and savage to a degree we can barely imagine and having given up medicine for poetry he then nursed his younger brother Tom, who was dying of TB, without help. He was loyal and selfless as a friend and was reported to have a great ‘sense of fun’. Clearly, the words of important contemporaries and subsequent eminent Victorians played a large part in perpetuating the myth of the weak and over-sensitive doomed youth, but perhaps posthumous artistic images of him played some part too.Keats mask
There are many likenesses and portraits of John Keats, taken whilst he was alive and painted posthumously, often with reference to each other. The life mask  was taken by the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon in 1816. His younger sister Fanny was particularly fond of this as a likeness, although she thought it had lost something around the mouth; his top lip naturally protruded over the bottom.

John Keats by Joseph Severn, National Portrait Gallery

John Keats by Joseph Severn, National Portrait Gallery, 1818

The picture above is one of the most famous portraits of the poet, a miniature painted by Joseph Severn in 1818 and by way of contrast, the charcoal drawing below is also by Severn and for me is a far more lively portrayal; more representative of the written descriptions of him.

John Keats, charcoal sketch by Joseph Severn

John Keats, charcoal sketch by Joseph Severn c1816

The picture below is a pencil drawing by Charles Brown from 1819, the year in which much of Keats’ greatest poetry was written, but just eighteen months before he died. It seems natural and unforced but so different again that the man that is Keats is ever more blurred.

John Keats by Charles Brown, 1819

John Keats by Charles Brown, 1819

This last sketch is of Keats on his deathbed drawn by Severn to ‘keep me awake’ as he nursed Keats in his final days in Rome in February 1821.

Keats on his deathbed, Joseph Severn, 1819

Keats on his deathbed, Joseph Severn, 1821

This is a tragic portrait. Keats suffered terribly in those last months. He knew he was dying and that there was no hope of recovery but friends supported the doctor’s advice that a winter abroad would give him back his health. So he felt he had to travel with Severn, not a close friend but the only one willing and available, to Italy, away from Fanny Brawne the woman he was passionately in love with and secretly engaged to. He showed anger and bitterness and endured agonies that shocked and frightened Severn. This may be one of the reasons why, following Keats death in February 1821, Severn used his talents as an artist to recreate the sensitive, golden youth; the talented young poet that he preferred to remember and thus this exercise in imagination ensured that representations became more saccharine and anodyne.

Keats at Wentworth Place, by Joseph Severn, National Portrait Gallery

Keats at Wentworth Place, by Joseph Severn, National Portrait Gallery

The portrait above was started by Severn in 1821 and finished in 1823. It is a recreation of Keats in one of his favourite poses, reading in his sitting room in Wentworth Place in Hampstead. Similarly, the one below is Severn again, imagining Keats listening to the famous nightingale of his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ on Hampstead Heath. For me it bears little resemblance to the portraits above and shares nothing of their liveliness. The painting is a fiction, painted twenty years after his death, and for me a dull one.

Keats listening to a nightingale on Hampstead Heath, by Joseph Severn, Keats House, Hampstead

Then there is the portrait below that I fell in love with as a girl of twelve and which was for many years my ‘photo’ of Keats. I learned later that it was painted around 1822 by William Hilton ‘after’ the miniature of 1818 by Severn shown above. I prefer it, but it most certainly is not the ‘real’ Keats.

John Keats by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn. National Portrait Gallery.

John Keats by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn. National Portrait Gallery.

I do not have a detailed knowledge of art or art history, but my sense is that the ‘essence’ of Keats was as hard to capture in paint, charcoal or clay as it was, and still is, to describe accurately in words.

During his lifetime the images vary greatly and after his death they take on the status of memorials, romanticized and although on the surface a ‘likeness’ they are in fact as unreal as the perception of him promoted alongside his poetry for the best part of 150 years after his death.

Statue of Keats at Guy’s Hospital, London


One of the most recent portrayals of Keats is the small statue by sculptor Stuart Williamson at Guy’s Hospital in London unveiled by Andrew Motion in 2007. Stuart Williamson himself suggested it was time to represent Keats as the robust and radical man he was, rather than the passive, sensitive type as he has frequently been represented. I have to say to my untrained eye it is a man older than twenty, but it is important that such a statue to him, by an eminent sculptor such as Mr Williamson, exists.
And last, but by no means least, is the depiction of Keats presented in the 2009 film Bright Star directed by Jane Campion. It focuses on Fanny Brawne and her love for Keats, played by Ben Wishaw. It is a wonderful film, and there is no doubt that the actor will, for many, ‘become’ Keats, as the William Hilton portrait became Keats for me. But lovely as Ben Wishaw is, and brilliantly though he played Keats, he provided only yet another version of a reality that has proved impossible for others to accurately bring to life.
Perhaps that ‘reality’ should then be provided by Keats’ poetry and letters. I hope that over the course of the next few posts they will explain more eloquently why he is still read avidly by students today and why he is taking his place as one of the greatest poets in the English language alongside Milton and Shakespeare, both of whom he greatly admired and who most influenced him.

Suzie Grogan is a professional writer and researcher, working in the fields of social and family history and mental health. Her first book Dandelions and Bad Hair Days: Untangling Lives Affected by Depression and Anxiety was published in 2012 and her second, Shell -Shocked Britain: The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health was published by Pen & Sword History in October 2014. She has two further commissions, including one on the life of an apprentice surgeon-apothecary in the early 19th century, to give her an excuse to write about John Keats.Suzie Grogan
Suzie has a popular blog at No wriggling out of writing and also presents a local radio show ‘Talking Books’ . She is married with two children and lives in Somerset, but has her heart in the Lake District and London.

Diets of the Romantic poets

by Andrew McConnell Stott
Cartoon by Mike Barfield

The most notable meal in the history of English Romantic poetry took place on a Sunday afternoon in late December, 1817, as a garrulous group of men assembled at the London home of the artist, Benjamin Robert Haydon.
The guests included William Wordsworth, the essayist Charles Lamb, one of Haydon’s models, a gatecrasher, and a young unknown named John Keats. According to Haydon’s diary, it was a great success—a big boozy incitement full of laughter, argument, and discussion of topics as diverse as Homer, mathematics, and postage stamps—all in the shadow of the host’s enormous, jostling masterpiece, Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem, which hung on the dining-room wall.
But while Haydon’s “immortal dinner” is never to be forgotten as a high point of Romantic conviviality, there is no record of what the men actually ate. This is perhaps not so surprising given that Romantic poetry is largely unconcerned with food beyond the occasional ripening ear of corn or grapes dangling above the lyre. But even poets have to eat—so what do we know of their diets?
Perhaps it’s telling that the most influential Romanticist was also the least concerned with food. Wordsworth paid scant attention to gustatory matters, celebrating at his table, as in his work, simple country provisions such as fresh bread and milk, cheese, and “hasty pudding,” a gruel of oatmeal boiled in brine. He did, however, accept edible gifts from admirers, and was once given an entire calf’s head.

William Wordsworth by Richard Carruthers, Wordsworth Trust

William Wordsworth by Richard Carruthers, Wordsworth Trust

In contrast, William Blake loved to eat and his wife Catherine was an excellent cook. She also had a habit of serving him up with empty plates as a reminder that he needed to start bringing home some money. Habitually broke, Blake maintained temperate appetites, eating cold mutton and drinking pints of porter from the local pub. (He was particularly offended by wine glasses, which he considered an absurd affectation.) Blake also accepted gifts from admirers, and having once been given a bottle of walnut oil that he didn’t know what to do with, decided to drink it all in one go.

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, National Portrait Gallery, London

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, National Portrait Gallery, London

Two decades of opium addiction wreaked havoc on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s digestion (one of its chief side-effects was an awful, binding constipation). Subject to frequent and recurring “bowel attacks” that made him “weep and sweat and moan and scream,” he was off solid food for weeks at a time, and accordingly ate a lot of broth. He even dabbled in vegetarianism for a while, but believed it gave him insomnia. When he was well, Coleridge loved to go out to dinner, and his hosts never failed to find him the consummate companion—witty, erudite, able to recite long poems by heart, and with more natural intelligence than any writer of his generation—although he could also be a handful. At one dinner party, encouraged by the host, he smashed a window and several wine glasses, and started pitching the cutlery at the tumblers. Coleridge particularly loved apple dumplings.

Coleridge in 1814. By Washington Allston, National Portrait Gallery, London

Coleridge in 1814. By Washington Allston, National Portrait Gallery, London

If the first generation of Romantic poets had an unhappy relationship with food, the second were little better. Lord Byron, scarred by being a “fat school-boy,” had transformed himself into a “leguminous-eating Ascetic” by the time he went up to Cambridge in 1805. But the fat wanted him, and he spent his entire life dieting, caught up in a vomitous cycle of binge and purge, fasting all week and then gorging himself on “a pint of bucelles [Portuguese wine] and fish.” While convinced that he always felt better when he was a bit heavier, he was similarly certain that the extra weight caused him to misbehave, and that it was his duty to “starve the devil out.” Byron rarely accepted dinner invitations and claimed to be especially repulsed by the sight of women eating, although at least some of this can be attributed to the creation of his own myth. When Byron went to Samuel Rogers’ house for dinner, he refused soup, fish, mutton, and wine, and when asked what he did eat, replied, “nothing but hard biscuits and soda-water” (Rogers eventually served him potatoes, “bruised down on his plate and drenched with vinegar.”) A few days later, Rogers met Byron’s best friend John Cam Hobhouse, and asked him how long Byron intended to continue with his diet. “Just as long as you continue to notice it,” was the reply.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Richard Westall

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Richard Westall, National Portrait Gallery, on display at Dove Cottage

Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was prone to forgetting where he was and who he was married to, frequently became so absorbed in thought that he also forgot to eat. A vegetarian from his teenage years, Shelley’s pamphlet On the Vegetable System of Diet (1813) equated rearing livestock and eating meat with man’s murderous urge to war and dominion. When he did eat, his sweet tooth held sway over an array of jam tarts, penny buns, and “panada”—a kind of boiled dough covered in sugar and raisins—and glasses of “spurious lemonade.” He also liked to test the inspirational qualities of various foods, and once badly poisoned himself by eating laurel leaves. Laurel is the garland of the poets, and also contains prussic acid. He also liked to lick tree sap.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran, National Portrait Gallery

Finally, as poor, sickly John Keats spent most of his life battling the twin poetic evils of poverty and illness, he was forced to endure many months on restrictive diets that were intended to restore his health, but only made him weaker. When in good spirits, he was particularly partial to game—hare, partridge, grouse, woodcock and pheasant, which it was the fashion to hang almost to the point of putrefaction before cooking. He washed it all down with buckets of claret, and while the stereotypical image of a weakling Keats doesn’t really permit for him to be an heroic drinker, claret, he said, transformed him into “Hermes.” It was “the only palate affair I am at all sensual in.”

John Keats by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn. National Portrait Gallery.

John Keats by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn. National Portrait Gallery.

Andrew McConnell Stott’s books include The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness, and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian, which won the Royal Society of Literature/Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction and was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and The Vampyre Family: Passion, Envy and the Curse of Byron which we review here. He is Professor of English at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. His Twitter ID is @amstott1789.
Andy Stott

Romantic readings: 'On the Sea' by John Keats

by Colin Silver 
On Monday, 14 April 1817, John Keats took hold of his luggage and climbed aboard a coach from London to Southampton. His destination was the Isle of Wight, and his desire was to work without distraction on his new poem, Endymion (the famous first line, ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’ had already been written). In his luggage, along with his clothes, were a newly acquired seven-volume set of Whittingham’s Shakespeare, a book of Spenser’s poetry, some pens and ink and a picture drawn by his close friend, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon.
The next morning, he disembarked in Southampton’s High Street and went for breakfast at one of the city’s many inns. After breakfast, he walked down to the water – to the quay – in the early morning light. This is the ancient heart of Southampton and it retains much of the character it had at this time so it is not difficult to imagine Keats strolling around the streets ‘viewing the manners of the town’. When he returned to the inn he wrote a letter to be taken back to his brothers in London by a returning mail coach:

I am safe at Southampton – after having ridden three stages outside and the rest in for it began to be very cold. I did not know the Names of any of the Towns I passed through – all I can tell you is that sometimes I saw dusty hedges – sometimes ponds… I felt rather lonely this morning so I went and unbox’d a Shakespeare – ‘There’s my Comfort’. I went immediately after Breakfast to Southampton Water where I enquired for the Boat to the Isle of Wight… it will go at 3, so shall I after having taken a Chop…

Here’s my Comfort’ is a phrase uttered by a character, Stephano, in The Tempest. He enters the scene with a bottle of drink in his hand, singing a song:

I shall no more to sea, to sea,
Here shall I die ashore.
This is a very scurvy tune to sing at a man’s funeral.
Well, here’s my comfort. [Drinks]

After his dinner, or ‘chop’, Keats caught the 3 o’clock ferry, probably a wherry, an attractive wooden boat with both oars and sail which was very common around the Channel ports at this time. By now, Keats had come to love the sea. Even as a schoolboy he had enjoyed the imagery of the ‘sea-shouldering whales’ of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene and more recently, at Margate, he had written of the sea’s

vastness, its blue green,
Its ships, its rocks, its caves, its hopes, its fears,
Its voice mysterious, which whoso hears
Must think on what will be, and what has been.

Now, on this Tuesday afternoon in April 1817, he was sailing to a beautiful, largely unspoilt island with a copy of The Tempest in his pocket.
On Wednesday morning, on the Isle of Wight, Keats woke up in his Newport lodgings and decided to explore the island, to find somewhere to settle. From Newport he took a coach to the little village of Shanklin on the south coast. This was a village of perhaps 150 residents amid a landscape that was famous for its natural beauty. It had the ‘Shanklin Chine’, a cleft in a 300-foot cliff which led down past an old oak tree, a cottage and some fisherman’s huts to the sea. When Keats walked down it, one side was covered in primroses all the way to the water.
Many artists and writers in Keats’ day took notebooks with them on their travels. Shelley’s numerous vellum-bound notebooks still exist and are full of ideas and drawings (Shelley had a penchant for sketching trees and sailboats); these notebooks are now kept in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the New York Public Library. Keats, however, just scribbled his thoughts on scraps of paper and in the margins of his books. In fact, in his writing he was surprisingly messy and disorganised – he underlined and marked whole passages of The Tempest in his brand new volume of Shakespeare, and his markings were anything but neat. Pens were, at the time, mere goose feathers cut with a ‘pen knife’ so they wore out quickly and a writer would require several feathers in the course of a day’s work. Each of them was liable to leave globs of ink on paper and fingers. Keats didn’t care about how he wrote; he cared about what he wrote. He later complained of a fastidious friend who

…affronts my indolence and luxury by pulling out of his knapsack, first his paper; secondly his pens; and last, his ink. Now I would not care if he would change a little. I say now, why not take his pens first sometimes? But I might as well tell a hen to hold up her head before she drinks, instead of afterwards.

Once he had descended the Shanklin Chine, Keats put his thoughts about Endymion to one side and composed a new poem, a Petrarchan sonnet called ‘On the Sea’.
As well as studying The Tempest in volume 1 of his Shakespeare, he had been reading King Lear in volume 7. He later said that the line of Edgar to the recently blinded Duke of Gloucester, when Gloucester thought they were approaching a cliff at Dover, ‘Hark, do you hear the sea?’ (King Lear, Act IV, Scene VI) had haunted him intensely. Now here was Keats, standing in front of the sea as it moved across the sand and shingle below the cliffs at Shanklin, and he listened to it carefully.
On the Sea is a beautiful and technically brilliant evocation of this single experience. Keats used the technique of onomatopoeia throughout the whole of the octave to replicate the hissing of the waves across sand and shingle, as, for example:

It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand caverns

The octave describes the immense bulk and power of the sea but notes that the twice-daily tides are controlled by the moon goddess, Hecate, who (as Tooke’s Pantheon had informed Keats) keeps ‘all the ghosts and spirits in subjection’. Sometimes the sea is very gentle and stays so for days until the wind heaves it up again.
In the sestet, Keats implores people who are ‘vexed’ and have ‘tired eyes’ to enjoy the palliative effect of looking at the sea, and those who have been subjected to too much noise (the implication being people who are trapped in towns and cities, as Keats had been himself for almost the whole of his life) to sit near a cavern and simply listen to it. You will be lost to yourself, as Keats clearly was. When, finally, some intervening thought brings you back to yourself, you will be aware of the ‘music’ of the sea (the verb ‘quired’ in the last line is an archaic form of ‘choired’).
Here is the final version of Keats’ ‘On the Sea’, with its ‘whispering’ octave:

It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
Often ‘tis in such gentle temper found
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be moved for days from where it sometime fell,
When last the winds of heaven were unbound.
O ye! who have your eye-balls vexed and tired,
Feast them on the wideness of the sea;
O ye! whose ears are dinned with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody,
Sit ye near some old cavern’s mouth and brood
Until ye start, as if the sea-nymphs quired!

It is possible that a starting point for ‘On the Sea’ was a piece of music about the sea, the beautiful terzettino, Soave sia il vento [May the wind be gentle] from Mozart’s opera, Cosi fan tutte. Keats would certainly have been familiar with it- it was all around him. Italian opera was staged at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket throughout the 1810s, and Keats’ new friend, the famous writer and editor Leigh Hunt, had reviewed Cosi fan tutte for his newspaper (the Examiner). A seat in the gallery cost just five shillings and the price remained the same for decades. Opera was also performed at the hugely popular Covent Garden Theatre. From 1813 onwards, concerts, including selections from Cosi fan tutte, were performed by The Philharmonic Society of London at the Argyll Rooms on the corner of King Street. This venue was just around the corner from the studio of Keats’ friend Benjamin Robert Haydon, a man who loved the opera. Finally, Keats’ school friend Edward Holmes was Mozart’s first English biographer, and Keats still met him occasionally at the house of a mutual friend, the musician Vincent Novello, where Mozart was played.
Keats loved Mozart’s music. He called Mozart ‘divine’ and once said that the beauty of a woman had kept him awake one night ‘as a tune of Mozart’s might do’. Soave sia il vento is an aria that a man who was familiar with Mozart could hardly fail to recall if he had escaped from the city and was standing on the shore watching the movement and contemplating the ‘temper’ and the ‘music’ of the sea:

Soave sia il vento [May the wind be gentle]
Tranquilla sia l’onda [May the waves be calm]
Ed ogni elemento [And may every one of the elements]
Benigno risponda [Answer warmly]
Ai nostri desir [To our desires]

Whether Keats wrote ‘On the Sea’ while standing on the shore at Shanklin, as scratchy scribblings on a scrap of paper, or composed it more carefully back in his lodgings, we will never know, but it was included in a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds the very next day. By that time, however, Keats had packed up his meagre belongings and moved to new vistas, on the road to Carisbrooke.
Colin Silver lived for many years near the Lake District. He developed a deep interest in the life and work of the great 19th century art critic John Ruskin whose house overlooked Coniston Water. Following Ruskin, Colin developed a love of the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Romantics, particularly Keats and Shelley.
When he moved to Oxfordshire, Colin continued his studies and began writing articles on a freelance basis for the Oxford Times’ Limited Edition magazine. His subjects included Keats, Shelley, Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites, Shakespeare and the celebrated 19th century physician Henry Acland. His first book, John Keats and Benjamin Robert Haydon: The Pursuit of Beauty of Truth is now available from Amazon.

‘Moods of my own Mind’: Keats, melancholy, and mental health

by Suzie Grogan
‘The psychotherapist’s capacity to be with uncertainty is a defining but unsung feature of the profession….’

Diana Voller

Sound familiar? As someone who finds the letters written by John Keats as fascinating and enlightening as his poetry, I recognised that Voller (a London-based counselling psychologist) is drawing on Keats’s views on ‘negative capability’. Indeed, she subsequently refers to his letter of 1817, addressed to his brothers George and Tom, in which he develops this concept, considering a poet to be most successful when free of any pre-occupation with evidence and objective reasoning, and in which he compares himself, indirectly, with Coleridge:

“… – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”

Voller’s belief in the therapeutic importance of Keats’s words reinforces my own perception of Keats as counsellor, physician of the mind, and source of solace in a world that is, in his words, at times a ‘Vale of Tears’.

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:

Here in the Ode on Melancholy  Keats is accepting what many refuse to acknowledge these days – that we must age, that we all die. Many therapists work with clients for whom the denial and fear of aging and death causes serious emotional distress. For Keats, it is only our acceptance of the suffering that is an inevitable part of life, and death, that can really open our eyes to the beauty that surrounds us, thereby enabling us to grow.

There have been periods in my life when health and family issues have left me struggling, unable to accept the seeming randomness of events that beset me. And I found then, and still find, much to comfort me in my favourite, much thumbed, old edition of the letters and poems of John Keats.

There has been some discussion about whether Keats himself experienced depression, or other undiagnosed mental health issue. Nicholas Roe, in the most recent biography of Keats, suggested that his ‘up and down moods’ were caused by an addiction to opium, which he took to ease the sore throat that was the precursor to the tuberculosis that eventually killed him. That is disputed, but he certainly experienced depressive episodes:

“I am troubling you with Moods of my own Mind or rather body – for Mind there is none. I am in that temper that if I were under Water I would, scarcely kick to come to the top…”

He was prone to fits of anger, especially in his youth and he had periods of intense creativity followed by a deep lethargy. Whether he would today have a clinical diagnosis of, say, bipolar disorder is impossible to say. In his short life he experienced the loss of his father to an accident, his mother and youngest brother Tom to tuberculosis, and his second brother, George, to America. He was separated from his sister by her guardian, was always short of money, and though conscious of his talent, not always confident of success. Towards the end of life, with mortality pressing upon him, he was beset by insecurities, jealousy, and depression, probably exacerbated by the tuberculosis ravaging his body. Grief and fear bring their own lows that are a natural response to tragedy, or frustration, rather than a clinical depression. Keats certainly recognised his moods, and would take action to address his anxieties, and in taking the following steps was way ahead of advice given in the 21st century to those suffering overwhelming anxiety or panic attacks:

“I feel I can bear real ills better than imaginary ones. Whenever I find myself growing vapourish, I rouse myself, wash and put on a clean shirt brush my hair and clothes, tie my shoestrings neatly and in fact adonize as I were going out – then all clean and comfortable I sit down to write.”

To George and Georgiana Keats, September 1819

We will never have a definitive diagnosis, but we do know that Keats understood ‘madness’. He was brought up close to the Bethlehem Hospital – better known as ‘Bedlam’, the notorious asylum presided over by Cibber’s huge statues ‘Raving Madness’ and ‘Melancholy Madness’, and would have seen terrible psychological suffering during his years of medical training. These experiences inform the writing of both poetry and letters, and it means we can trust in his empathy and appreciation of the links between mood and creativity, anxiety and ambition, death, loss and fear. It is why, I think, he remains so relevant today, and why he still appeals to many young people who can find aphorisms and philosophical principles in his work that resonate with their own struggles to make sense of the world.

Looking at some of his most famous words, for example, we can see interesting comparisons with current therapeutic practices, and they express, far more eloquently in my opinion, some of the many motivational quotes that fill our social media timelines….

On mindfulness: “The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing — to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts.”

To George & Georgiana Keats, September 1819

 “I scarcely remember counting upon any happiness – I look for it if it be not in the present hour, – nothing startles me beyond the moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights, or if a sparrow come before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.”

To Benjamin Bailey, November 1817

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger: “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!”

To George & Georgiana Keats, May 1819.

 On being true to yourself: “Think of my Pleasure in Solitude, in comparison of my commerce with the world – there I am a child – there they do not know me not even my most intimate acquaintance – I give into their feelings as though I were refraining from irritating a little child – Some think me middling, others silly, other foolish – every one thinks he sees my weak side against my will – I am content to be thought all this because I have in my own breast so great a resource”

To George Keats, October 1818

Don’t judge a man until you walk a mile in his shoes: “We read fine things but never feel them to the full until we have gone the same steps as the Author…”

To John Hamilton Reynolds, May 1818

On being loved for your real self: “I love you the more in that I believe you have liked me for my own sake and for nothing else. 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.”

To Fanny Brawne, July 1819

John Keats wrote letters of incomparable intelligence and unselfconscious beauty to comfort, to cheer, to express love, and to work through his own philosophy of life. We can read his words and better understand human nature, appreciate his generosity of spirit and to know that even across the centuries we are not alone. In his letter to Reynolds in 1818 he also says ‘axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses….’; those axioms are worked out in all of us every day. Keats knew the essence of what it means to be human and Diana Voller is right to highlight the strength that comes with being able to live with uncertainty – it builds a resilience we all need in this fast changing and troubled world.

Suzie Grogan is a professional writer and researcher, working in the fields of social and family history and mental health. Her first book Dandelions and Bad Hair Days: Untangling Lives Affected by Depression and Anxiety was published in 2012 and her second, Shell -Shocked Britain: The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s MentaSuzie Groganl
Health was published by Pen & Sword History in October 2014. She has two further commissions, including one on the life of an apprentice surgeon-apothecary in the early 19th century, to give her an excuse to write about John Keats.

Suzie has a popular blog at No wriggling out of writing and also presents a local radio show ‘Talking Books’ . She is married with two children and lives in Somerset, but has her heart in the Lake District and London.

Keats and ‘Negative Capability’

by Lucy Tutton
It was in December 1817, in a letter to his brothers, that we see John Keats first use the term Negative Capability. He set out what he believed was necessary to become what he called a “Man of Achievement” or one who is “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.” As the famous couplet from Ode on a Grecian Urn reads: “Beauty is truth and truth beauty – That is all/ ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

We can see this sentiment reflected in his letters. In 1817, in a letter to Benjamin Bailey, he wrote that “what the Imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.” This letter was written just one month before the Negative Capability letter, and we can see Keats setting out the ground work for what would become the final concept. He stated that whatever a person perceived as beautiful must be the truth, whether it be in art or poetry or music. A person must be able to accept whatever they perceive as true without questioning how or why; this is the only way they can become a ‘Man of Achievement.’ Keats spent much of his, albeit short, career striving to become one such man. In the following post I will be discussing the origins of Negative Capability, how Keats developed it as his circumstances changed, and also whether or not Keats ever achieved his goal of becoming ‘negatively capable’.

First of all, I would like to point out the irony of studying Negative Capability, a subject which requires the reader to be content with “half-knowledge”; an irony that Keats himself was aware of during his constant quest to achieve it. He longed for “a life of Sensations, rather than thoughts” but found himself unable to be happy with “half-knowledge”. He was a thinker, but longed to be among the dreamers of the world.  In addition, I do not believe that Keats ever saw himself as a “Man of Achievement,” nor did he consider himself to be a master of Negative Capability. He was ambitious, yes, but incredibly hard on himself.

We need only look at his self-written epitaph to get an idea of how the young poet saw himself. He died at the age of 25, his gravestone bearing the words Here lies one whose name was writ in water. His name being “writ in water” gives the impression that he believed his words would fade and evaporate. It is understandable, given his poor health and the deterioration of his mental state, that his epitaph reads in such a way, however, we can see these uncertainties and doubts even in his earlier poetry. Consider the sonnet When I have fears that I may cease to be. It shows perfectly both Keats’ ambition and his fears should he not survive to reach his goals. Keats knew exactly what he wanted to achieve, just not how to get there. Especially towards the end of his life, after watching his mother and brother die of consumption, the same disease which would eventually claim his own life, Keats became more and more disillusioned with his original concept of Negative Capability. He didn’t give up on it completely, however, he changed and twisted it in order to create a goal that he considered to be reachable.

In a letter he wrote to close friend, Benjamin Bailey, Keats’ insecurities and doubts at his own ability to achieve Negative Capability become clear:

I am continually running away from the subject – sure this cannot be exactly the case with a complex Mind – one that is imaginative and at the same time careful of its fruits – who would exist partly on sensation partly on thought.

He credits Bailey, stating that his is one of these minds. However, it would appear that Keats himself saw “existing partly on sensation partly on thought” as an easier target than Negative Capability. In a letter written to Richard Woodhouse in October 1818, Keats talks about the “Chamelion poet,” or one who possesses such “egotistical sublime” that he is “without self, without character”. Keats wrote that “what shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the Chamelion poet.” This is because the “Chamelion poet”, as Keats sees him, does not have any consideration for whether or not his argument is valid, or if there is any rational reasoning behind it. This idea of the “Chamelion poet” can be seen to have similarities with Negative Capability. To be negatively capable, a person must be able to completely disregard the need for rational explanations, in the same way that the “Chamelion poet” disregards logic. Nearly a year after Keats wrote this letter, he is still toying with the idea of a “life of Sensations”, but he is still struggling to achieve it.

It seems that Keats’ own self-doubt is what truly prevented him from becoming completely negatively capable.

I know nothing I have read nothing and I mean to follow Solomon’s directions of ‘get Wisdom- get understanding’ – I find cavalier days are gone by. I find that I can have no enjoyment in the World but continual drinking of Knowledge – I find there is no worthy pursuit but the idea of doing some good for the world…there is but one way for me – the road lies th[r]ough application of study and thought.

This statement creates something of a paradox for Keats. He intended to become a master of Negative Capability, a real “Man of Achievement”, and yet the only way he could do so was through the acquisition of knowledge. In 1819, Keats wrote that “nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced” and yet he denied himself the opportunity to travel because he believed he hadn’t read enough, nor did he know enough. He denied himself life experience because he felt that his true calling lay in education and knowledge. Keats was young, ambitious and unforgivably hard on himself. It seems that he never truly talks himself out of his struggle between his need for knowledge and his determination to become negatively capable.

What I am suggesting, therefore, is that Keats ultimately compromised in his need for Negative Capability, reaching instead for a sort of happy medium between intellect and imagination. “I was never afraid of failure,” he wrote, “for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.” It is not surprising that this move away from his original musings on Negative Capability correlated with his deterioration in health. In 1820, in a letter to his fiancée, Fanny Brawne, he wrote:

‘If I should die,’ I said to myself, ‘I have left no immortal words behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had the time I would have made myself remembered.’

It would appear that in order to become “among the greatest” before he died, Keats decided to aim for something he perceived to be more realistic. He died at the age of 25 from tuberculosis, a disease that he most likely contracted from his younger brother whilst he was attempting to nurse him to health. His symptoms first appeared in 1820, and having a medical background and seeing both his mother and his brother die of the disease it seems likely that he would have known what was going to happen. Having to face his own mortality at such a young age led him to question his life, his achievements (or, as he saw it, the lack thereof), and his eventual demise.

Keats was fully aware of his contradictions and his limitations, or at least the ones that he perceived himself to have. In the letters grouped between the dates of 14th February – 3rd May 1819, all of which are addressed to ‘The George Keatses’ he wrote about the “disinterestedness of Mind”, presumably the ability to separate intellect and the imagination, remaining only with what the imagination alone perceived to be the truth. He stated “I perceive how far I am from any standard of disinterestedness.” It is clear that Keats struggled to separate his need for thought and knowledge from his perception of the truth, thus preventing himself from becoming a “Man of Achievement.” He was stuck in a cruel cycle; he constantly questioned how he could become one of these men, and in doing so he drove himself further away from his goal. He believed so fervently in the importance of Beauty and Truth, however, he could find no other way of coming by it himself other than through education and learning, which seems to oppose a person’s ability to be negatively capable.

I am three and twenty, with little knowle[d]ge and middling intellect. It is true that in the height of enthusiasm I have been cheated into some fine passages; but that is not the thing.

We can see clearly Keats’ inability to view himself as anything other than mediocre, despite having achieved so much for a man who was so young. Furthermore, in a letter to Benjamin Bailey composed in 1819, he puts the “fine writer” in second place next to the “human friend Philosopher”. We can see that Keats was truly torn between his quest for truth and his quest for knowledge.

In his essay entitled ‘Was Negative Capability Enough for Keats?’, critic R.T. Davis concludes that, for Keats, Negative Capability was “temporarily convenient”, stating that by the end of his career “he was impelled by his experience both of living and writing to reach after that fact and reason which he had once said were small considerations for a great poet.” This much is true; with his change in health and circumstance, the young Keats did find himself reaching after “that fact and reason”, desperately trying to understand why his life had turned out in the way it had. However, I would not agree with Davis in stating that Negative Capability was just “temporarily convenient” for the young poet; this much is obvious from reviewing his letters. In February 1819, in a letter to George and Georgiana, he wrote:

I myself am pursuing the same instinctive course as the veriest human animal you can think of…staring at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness – without knowing the bearing of any one assertion, of any one opinion –

He consistently aimed for Negative Capability, referring to it throughout his letters, or at least to something similar. We are fortunate that his letters are easily available to read alongside his poetry; it gives us a unique opportunity to see the, often complicated, thought processes behind his work. His quest for beauty never ceased, just his way of finding it. Faced with his brother’s mortality, followed swiftly by his own, he wanted only to be remembered as a great poet. Ideally the way he would have become one was through Negative Capability, yet he doubted his own abilities in achieving the concept that he had created. Instead he found a medium; one who can exist “partly on sensation, partly on thought.” It was less that Negative Capability “was not enough for Keats”, it was that Keats could not picture himself, a man of “middling intellect” achieving it; therefore he could not.

Lucy Tutton graduated in July 2014 with a degree in EnglishLucy T Literature from the University of Birmingham, during which time she studied Shakespeare, Victorian Literature and Metaphysical Poetry. She wrote her final year Research Project on the subject of Keatsian Negative Capability.
She currently works as an Academic Coach in English Literature and Language. She will return to University in September 2015 to begin a Masters degree in Literature and Culture where she intends to undertake modules in Victorian, Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite Literature.

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