200 years ago Keats asked to be put into the Cave of despair

On Monday 15 November 1819 Keats wrote to his friend the painter Joseph Severn

My dear Severn,
I am very sorry that on Tuesday I have an appointment in the City of an undeferable nature; and Brown on the same day has some business at Guildhall. I have not been able to figure your manner of executing the Cave of despair, therefore it will be at any rate a novelty and surprise to me—I trust on the right side…
(You had best put me into your Cave of despair.)
Ever yours sincerely
John Keats

[Severn’s picture ‘Una and the Red Cross Knight in the Cave of Despair’ would go on to win the Royal Academy’s gold medal 1819.]

200 years ago Keats wrote to his brother

My dear George,

You must think my delay very great. I assure you it is no fault of mine. Not expecting you would want money so soon I did not send for the necessary power of attorney from Holl[and] and before I received your Letter which reached me in the middle of the summer at Shanklin. I wrote for it then immediately and received it about ten days ago. You will also be much disappointed at the smallness of the Sum remitted to Warder’s: there are two reasons for it, first that the Stocks are so very low, and secondly that Mr. Abbey is unwilling to venture more till this business of Mrs. Jennings’s is completely at rest. Mr. Abbey promised me to day that he would do all in his power to forward it expressing his wish that by the time it was settled she would make no claim the Stocks might recover themselves so that your property should not be sold out at so horrible a disadvantage…

Our affairs are in an awkward state. You have done as much as a man can do: I am not as yet fortunate. I should, in duty, endeavour to write you a Letter with a comfortable nonchalance, but how can I do so when you are in so perplexing a situation, and I not able to help you out of it. The distance between us is so great, the Posts so uncertain. We must hope. I am affraid you are no more than myself form’d for a gainer of money. I have been daily expecting to hear from you again. Does the steam boat make any return yet?
Whether I shall at all be set affloat upon the world depends now upon the success of the Tragedy I spoke of. We have heard nothing from Elliston who is now the Renter of Drury Lane since the piece was sent in which was three weeks and more ago. The reason may be that Kean has not return’d, whose opinion Elliston will partly rely on…

I have not been to see Fanny since my return from Winchester—I have written and received a letter from her. Mr Abbey says she is getting stouter…

Mr. Abbey shows at times a little anxiety about me he wanted me the other day to turn Bookseller. Why does he not make some such proposal to you? Yet he can not care very much for I till yesterday had had no money of him for ten months and he never enquired how I liv’d: nor how I had paid my last Christmas Bills (still unpaid) though I repeatedly mentioned them to him. We are not the only toilers and sufferers in the World. Hunt was arrested the other day. He soon however dated from his own house again…

I have been endeavouring to write lately, but with little success as I require a little encouragement, and a little better fortune to befall you and happier news from you before I can write with an untrammell’d mind. Nothing could have in all its circumstances fallen out worse for me than the last year has done, or could be more damping to my poetical talent—I comfort myself in the idea that you are a consolation to each other…

Mrs. Jennings has not instituted any action against us yet, nor has she withdrawn her claim, I think I told you that even if she were to lose her cause we should have to pay the expenses of the Suit. You urg’d me to get Mr Abbey to advance you money—but that he will by no means do—for besides the risk of the law (small enough indeed) he will never be persuaded but you will loose it in America. For a bit of a treat in the heart of all this I had a most abusive Letter from Fry—committing you and myself to destruction without reprieve…

My dear Sister God bless you and your baby girl. The enquires about you are very frequent—My dear George I remain, in hopes,
Your most affectionate Brother
John Keats

[The power of attorney came from Thomas Fry, who was living in Holland.
Warder seems to have been an intermediary who acted to send money to George.
Mrs Jennings was a distant relation who was threatening to sue the Keats family for a share of Tom’s inheritance.
Leigh Hunt’s arrest was for non-payment of a bill — not his first time.
The steam boat which Audubon had persuaded George to invest in had already sunk before he handed over his money.
Keats’s low opinion of the previous twelve months (“nothing … could have fallen out worse for me than the last year has done”) is in stark contrast to the view of his fans who see it as his “Living Year”.]

200 years ago Keats wrote to the painter Joseph Severn

On Wednesday 10 November 1819 Keats wrote to Severn about his painting ‘The Cave of Despair’

Dear Severn…
I am glad to hear you have finish’d the Picture and am more anxious to see it than I have time to spare: for I have been so very lax, unemployed, unmeridian’d, and objectless these two months that I even grudge indulging (and that is no great indulgence considering the Lecture is not over till 9 and the lecture room seven miles from Wentworth Place) myself by going to Hazlitt’s Lecture. If you have hours to the amount of a brace of dozens to throw away you may sleep nine of them here in your little Crib and chat the rest. When your Picture is up and in a good light I shall make a point of meeting you at the Academy if you will let me know when. If you should be at the Lecture to-morrow evening I shall see you—and congratulate you heartily…
Your sincere friend
John Keats

[One year later Severn would be the friend who cared for Keats during his last months in Rome.]

200 years ago Keats wrote to his sister

Around Tuesday 26 October 1819 Keats wrote his sister for the first time in almost two months:
My dear Fanny,
My Conscience is always reproaching me for neglecting you for so long a time. I have been returned from Winchester this fortnight and as yet I have not seen you. I have no excuse to offer… I shall expect to see you the next time I call on Mr. A. about George’s affairs which perplex me a great deal…
I have left off animal food that my brains may never henceforth be in a greater mist than is theirs by nature—I took lodgings in Westminster for the purpose of being in the reach of Books, but am now returned to Hampstead being induced to it by the habit I have acquired in this room I am now in and also from the pleasure of being free from paying any petty attentions to a diminutive house-keeping. Mr. Brown has been my great friend for some time —without him I should have been in, perhaps, personal distress—as I know you love me though I do not deserve it, I am sure you will take pleasure in being a friend to Mr. Brown even before you know him.—My lodgings for two or three days were close in the neighbourhood of Mrs. Dilke who never sees me but she enquires after you—I have had letters from George lately which do not contain, as I think I told you in my last, the best news… It is better you should not be teased with the particulars… his mercantile speculations have not had success in consequence of the general depression of trade in the whole province of Kentucky… I have a couple of shells for you you will call pretty.
Your affectionate Brother John ——

200 years ago Keats read ‘Lamia’ to Joseph Severn

On Sunday 24 October 1819 Keats (living in Wentworth Place again) had a visit from Joseph Severn, who heard him read ‘Lamia’.

She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue,
Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,
Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d;
And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed,
Dissolv’d, or brighter shone, or interwreathed
Their lustres with the gloomier tapestries—
So rainbow-sided, touch’d with miseries,
She seem’d, at once, some penanced lady elf,
Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.
Upon her crest she wore a wannish fire
Sprinkled with stars, like Ariadne’s tiar
Her head was serpent, but, ah, bitter-sweet!
She had a woman’s mouth with all its pearls complete:
And for her eyes: what could such eyes do there
But weep, and weep, that they were born so fair?
As Proserpine still weeps for her Sicilian air.
Her throat was serpent, but the words she spake
Came, as through bubbling honey, for Love’s sake,
And thus; while Hermes on his pinions lay,
Like a stoop’d falcon ere he takes his prey.

‘Lamia’ Book i, lines 47-67

200 years ago Keats probably wrote his ‘Bright Star’ sonnet

On Thursday 21 October 1819 Keats returned to Wentworth Place to live with Brown again. An early sharp snowfall on this day makes it likely that this was when he wrote ‘Bright Star’:

Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

200 years ago Keats gave up his rooms in College Street

On Tuesday 19 October 1819 Keats left the rooms in College Street. He wrote to Fanny Brawne from the Dilkes’ rooms in Great Smith Street:

My sweet Fanny,
On awakening from my three days dream (“I cry to dream again”) I find one and another astonish’d at my idleness and thoughtlessness. I was miserable last night—the morning is always restorative. I must be busy, or try to be so. I have several things to speak to you of tomorrow morning. Mrs. Dilke I should think will tell you that I purpose living at Hampstead. I must impose chains on myself. I shall be able to do nothing. I should like to cast the die for Love or death. I have no Patience with any thing else—if you should ever intend to be cruel to me as you say in jest now but perhaps may sometimes be in earnest, be so now—and I will—my mind is in a tremble, I cannot tell what I am writing.
Ever my love yours
John Keats.