200 years ago Keats wrote these chilling lines

Around December 1819, Keats wrote these lines on a blank space in  ‘The Cap and Bells, or The Jealousies’ (the poem he was composing at the time):

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.

[This could have been Keats practising his dramatic style—or possibly expressing his anguish over Miss Brawne. He would live for another 14 months, but, as his biographer Walter Jackson Bate noted, these were ‘the last serious lines he was ever to write.’]

200 years ago Keats didn’t spend Christmas with Fanny Brawne

On Saturday 25 December 1819 Keats and Charles Brown spent Christmas Day in Westminster as guests of Mr and Mrs Charles Wentworth Dilke.

Brown and Dilke seem to have spent much of the day writing fairy tales together. It is not clear how Keats amused himself, but this Christmas must have been very different from that of 1818, when he had just moved into Wentworth Place (as Brown’s lodger and the Dilke’s next-door neighbour), and was invited to spend Christmas Day at Elm Cottage by Mrs Brawne (whose daughter Fanny would later write that it was ‘the happiest day I had ever then spent’).

In April 1819, the Brawnes moved in to what had been the Dilkes’ side of Wentworth Place — but it seems that Keats was not invited to spend Christmas Day with them. Was the relationship between him and Miss Brawne too stormy? Was arranging to spend the day 3½ miles away one of Brown’s attempts to wean Keats from his infatuation?

200 years ago Keats delayed his Christmas visit to his sister

On Wednesday 22 December 1819 Keats wrote to Fanny Keats: ‘I promised to see you before Christmas day. I am sorry to say I have been and continue rather unwell, and therefore shall not be able to promise certainly.’

[His last visit had been on 18 November. He didn’t get to see her before Christmas — or ever again. Six weeks after he wrote this his sore throat worsened, with the first episode of coughing blood marking the start of his fatal illness.]

200 years ago Keats painted a brave picture of his prospects for his sister

On 20 December 1819 Keats wrote to his sister:

My dear Fanny—
When I saw you last, you ask’d me whether you should see me again before Christmas. You would have seen me if I had been quite well. I have not, though not unwell enough to have prevented me—not indeed at all—but fearful lest the weather should affect my throat which on exertion or cold continually threatens me.—By the advice of my Doctor I have had a warm great Coat made and have ordered some thick shoes—so furnish’d I shall be with you if it holds a little fine before Christmas day.

I have been very busy since I saw you, especially the last Week, and shall be for some time, in preparing some Poems to come out in the Spring, and also in brightening the interest of our Tragedy.—Of the Tragedy I can give you but news semigood. It is accepted at Drury Lane with a promise of coming out next season: as that will be too long a delay we have determined to get Elliston to bring it out this Season or to transfer it to Covent Garden. This Elliston will not like, as we have every motive to believe that Kean has perceived how suitable the principal Character will be for him. My hopes of success in the literary world are now better than ever.

Mr. Abbey, on my calling on him lately, appeared anxious that I should apply myself to something else—He mentioned Tea Brokerage. I supposed he might perhaps mean to give me the Brokerage of his concern which might be executed with little trouble and a good profit; and therefore said I should have no objection to it, especially as at the same time it occurred to me that I might make over the business to George—I questioned him about it a few days after. His mind takes odd turns. When I became a Suitor he became coy. He did not seem so much inclined to serve me. He described what I should have to do in the progress of business. It will not suit me. I have given it up…

I received a note from Mrs. Dilke a few days ago inviting me to dine with her on Xmas day which I shall do. Mr. Brown and I go on in our old dog trot of Breakfast, dinner (not tea, for we have left that off), supper, Sleep, Confab, stirring the fire and reading… On Tuesday I am going to hear some Schoolboys Speechify on breaking up day…

This moment Bentley brought a Letter from George for me to deliver to Mrs. Wylie—I shall see her and it before I see you. The Direction was in his best hand written with a good Pen and sealed with a Tassie’s Shakspeare such as I gave you—We judge of people’s hearts by their Counten-ances; may we not judge of Letters in the same way?—if so, the Letter does not contain unpleasant news—Good or bad spirits have an effect on the handwriting… This is close muggy weather as they say at the Ale houses.

200 years ago Keats began a satirical poem

In late November 1819 Charles Brown encouraged Keats to write a satirical poem in the style of Byron, ‘The Cap and Bells, or The Jealousies’, which would lampoon the Prince Regent’s flagrant love life and notoriously unhappy marriage. Here are the opening stanzas:

I
In midmost Ind, beside Hydaspes cool,
There stood, or hover’d, tremulous in the air,
A faery city ’neath the potent rule
Of Emperor Elfinan; fam’d ev’rywhere
For love of mortal women, maidens fair,
Whose lips were solid, whose soft hands were made
Of a fit mould and beauty, ripe and rare,
To pamper his slight wooing, warm yet staid:
He lov’d girls smooth as shades, but hated a mere shade.

II
This was a crime forbidden by the law;
And all the priesthood of his city wept,
For ruin and dismay they well foresaw
If impious prince no bound or limit kept,
And faery Zendervester overstept;
They wept, he sinn’d, and still he would sin on,
They dreamt of sin, and he sinn’d while they slept;
In vain the pulpit thunder’d at the throne,
Caricature was vain, and vain the tart lampoon.

III
Which seeing, his high court of parliament
Laid a remonstrance at his Highness’ feet,
Praying his royal senses to content
Themselves with what in faery land was sweet,
Befitting best that shade with shade should meet:
Whereat, to calm their fears, he promis’d soon
From mortal tempters all to make retreat,—
Aye, even on the first of the new moon
An immaterial wife to espouse as heaven’s boon.

[Hydaspes: thought to refer to the River Ganges.
Elfinan: one of the Lords of Fairy in Spenser’s Faerie Queene.
Zendervester: the Zend-Avesta is the sacred book of Zoroastrianism.]

200 years ago Keats told his publisher not to publish anything

On Wednesday 17 November 1819 Keats wrote to his publisher

My dear Taylor,
I have come to a determination not to publish any thing I have now ready written; but for all that to publish a Poem before long, and that I hope to make a fine one. As the marvellous is the most enticing and the surest guarantee of harmonious numbers I have been endeavouring to persuade myself to untether Fancy and to let her manage for herself. I and myself cannot agree about this at all. Wonders are no wonders to me. I am more at home amongst Men and women. I would rather read Chaucer than Ariosto.
The little dramatic skill I may as yet have, how ever badly it might show in a Drama, would, I think, be sufficient for a Poem. I wish to diffuse the colouring of St. Agnes eve throughout a poem in which Character and Sentiment would be the figures to such drapery. Two or three such Poems, if God should spare me, written in the course of the next six years, would be a famous gradus ad Parnassum altissimum. I mean they would nerve me up to the writing of a few fine Plays—my greatest ambition—when I do feel ambitious. I am sorry to say that is very seldom. The subject we have once or twice talked of appears a promising one, The Earl of Leicester’s history. I am this morning reading Holingshed’s Elizabeth.
You had some books awhile ago, you promised to lend me, illustrative of my subject. If you can lay hold of them, or any others which may be serviceable to me, I know you will encourage my low-spirited muse by sending them—or rather by letting me know when our Errand cart Man shall call with my little Box.
I will endeavour to set myself selfishly at work on this Poem that is to be.
Your sincere friend
John Keats—

[This was the only time he referred to the Earl of Leicester project. His next poem would be the satire ‘The Cap and Bells’.]

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.]