The celebrated Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) died in Rome on 23 February 1821, after a long battle with tuberculosis, which had also killed his mother and younger brother.
Keats left for Rome in September 1820 accompanied by the young painter Joseph Severn, who had agreed to care for him. The trip was a last-ditch effort to save Keats’s life, as Rome was known for its warm climate and for having the best medical care in Europe. He was to be cared for by the Scottish-born doctor James Clark, who had a medical practice at Piazza di Spagna in Rome. Severn had agreed to accompany Keats to Rome because Keats’s closest friends were unable to make the trip because of family or other commitments. Severn also saw an opportunity to paint in Rome while caring for the poet – he himself was building a career as a painter and had just won a travel fellowship which enabled him to make the journey.
Keats left behind his first taste of success and acceptance as a poet when he made the trip, having faced harsh reviews in his early career. He was also secretly engaged to a woman he was besotted with and whose mother had been nursing him at their home in Hampstead, north London, before his departure to the Eternal City. He also left his sister and brother behind – his brother George by now married and living in America – not knowing if he would ever see them again. The journey to Rome was ostensibly a huge step towards recovering his health – but given the deaths of his mother and younger brother, Tom, from the same disease, the thought of death must have been playing on his mind during the voyage to Naples and then Rome. They arrived in Naples the day after Keats’s birthday on 31 October 1820 and spent the following week travelling to Rome.
He carried with him a marble stone given to him by his fiancée, Fanny Brawne, who used it to cool her hands during needlework. It is said he held onto it throughout the days of his debilitating illness in rooms overlooking the Piazza di Spagna, which James Clark had found for Keats and Severn. Keats was just twenty-five when he died, having spent his final months strolling round Rome, before being confined to his room overlooking the Fontana Barcaccia by Bernini – which it is said he loved to gaze out upon. It was a small pleasure in a young life greatly curtailed by illness.
Keats was a great admirer of Shakespeare – and despite no formal education as a writer, his sensitivity and seductive use of language meant his legacy as a poet, by the end of his life, was thought to have been on course to rival Shakespeare’s own use of language.
Just five foot tall, Keats had been apprenticed as an apothecary after his parents’ deaths – giving him cruel insight into his own medical condition and the prognosis. He was placed on a restrictive diet and frequently bled as part of his treatment in Rome, leaving him physically weak – tragically, the cure of the day for TB did little to help his condition and his lungs were found to be completely destroyed by the time of his death.
Keats did not write while in Rome, except letters to friends and family – and could not bear to be near books , except towards the end of his life, when Severn was dispatched with a book list to fulfill. It appears that, having arrived at the brink of success as a poet only this for this to be cruelly dashed by illness, he could not bear to be around books until the end. The cruelty of his demise is further emphasised by the fact he had become engaged, but could not afford to marry until he had some success and an income, so personal happiness was cruelly snatched from him, also.
The tragedy of poets and artists is a long tradition – the painter Caravaggio (1571-1610) had arrived in Rome following the death of his parents and with his inheritance clutched in his hands, only to die young from fever on a beach, after evading the forces of the law and possibly the Knights of St John for various crimes and misdemeanours.
Keats was talked of as a generous and humorous man with a sense of family duty towards his siblings, being the eldest son of the family. He had been born in the City of London in 1795, to a family who owned a livery stable. There was little hint of poetry in his known family history – but a profound sense of tragedy in the deaths of his parents and younger brother, which overshadowed his work and mood.
Perhaps tragedy is the natural midwife of artistic expression, given the number of musicians, poets and painters whose lives have been coloured with early personal loss.
The house where Keats spent the last days of his life is situated at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome – and can be visited by the public, including the room where he died. The house is known as the Keats-Shelley house, as the writer Shelley also boarded there. The furniture in the room Keats stayed in is not original, as all the furniture in his room was burned following his death because of the then perceived risk of cross-infection.
Visiting in a quiet moment – out-of-season or alone early in the morning – is advisable to be able to appreciate fully the life that Keats led there: alone, with his friend Joseph Severn caring for him, with Severn painting in a small backroom. Even now, staring out at the busy Piazza di Spagna from the solitude of the bedroom, it is easy to understand how Keats must have felt, knowing he was dying at the age of twenty-five, in a foreign city, away from those he loved and just as he had won his first positive reviews for his work – which would have not only led to a brilliant career, but would also have enabled him to marry the woman he loved.
We mourn the loss of young lives now as then, so it is not hard to appreciate the tragedy of a young man facing death nearly 200 years ago, with the same hopes and ambitions left unfulfilled. He was, apparently, not a religious person – with no firm belief in heaven or the afterlife. But the details of his life and his work live on for us as an example of what it is to be brilliant and brave in the face of adversity and death.
Ironically, his most famous poem, Ode to a Nightingale, was possibly written at Spaniards Inn on Hampstead Heath in north London, so his journey in life took him from Spaniards Inn in London to Piazza di Spagna in Rome.
The poem describes a struggle between the actual and the ideal, using the theme of unity with nature, as in death – a fact of life he had witnessed through the death of family members while being young himself and enjoying all youth offered, from the physical pleasure of being alive, to the sights and sounds of nature. The poem includes many classical references, as was the norm – including references to Bacchus, the Roman god of drunkenness and revelry; and Lethe, the river of forgetfulness and one of the five rivers of the Greek underworld in classical mythology. He wrote the poem in around 1819, after hearing a nightingale sing near his home on Hampstead Heath – just two years before he would lie awake and listen to the sound of the Fontana Barcaccia’s waters in Piazza di Spagna at night and be comforted by the sound as he lay awake knowing he was dying.
The little boat-shaped fountain is still there – and people now gather round it to eat ice cream, throw in roses and coins and enjoy the sunshine. In another era, Keats would have been sitting at his window gazing at the piazza, wishing he could join us all in life.
For information on visiting Keats-Shelley House in Rome see a previous post.
Also see the Keats-Shelley House website and a virtual tour of the salon.
Images copyright A. Meredith