Piazza di Spagna
by LINDA EDDINGS
I am ashamed of writing you such stuff.
The last days of John Keats involved a great deal of wishing for death. Indigestion plagued his stomach, and the severity of his symptoms from tuberculosis drove him to leave England for Naples, where it was thought that a better climate would enhance his prospects. Because of his illness and general low prospects, none of Keats’ friends wanted to accompany him to Naples. Instead an acquaintance would go.
The young painter Joseph Severn had little in the way of money, so he took on the job of caring for Keats. Storms prevented them from going any farther than Northampton at first, and Keats was deeply bothered by a female passenger suffering from consumption. He had observed years earlier that “Milton meant a smooth river.”
Keats had already left his previous life behind when he boarded the Maria Crowther. He penned goodbye letters to his sister and fiancée, both of whom were named Fanny. On board the Crowther he could not even muster the strength to masturbate and regretted never having sex with Fanny Brawne. “I should have had her while I was in health,” he complained to a friend.
She contrived to disappoint me in a way which made me feel more pleasure than a simple kiss.
Because of an outbreak of typhus in London, the Crowther was quarantined for ten days. Keats described his chest as burning with the fire of hot coals, and continued to regularly write letters to his friend Charles Brown. Penguin has recently put together the best of Keats’ letters in a single collection, and although some are childish, others contain the best writing of the period.
He understands many a beautiful thing, but then, instead of giving other minds credit for the same degree of perception as he himself possesses, he begins an explanation on such a curious manner that our taste and self love is offended continually.
After his ship was again quarantined outside of Naples. Keats moved to Rome, into an apartment at the Piazza di Spagna. “The very thing I want to live most for will be the great occasion of my death,” he explained somewhat insincerely in one of his last letters. He spit up what Severn noted was “fawn-coloured phlegm,” and Keats’ doctor predicted diarrhea. Their plan for daily walks through the plaza was now out of the question.
Severn gave up the responsibility for administering opium to Keats’ doctor, because he was giving John too much of the substance. Dr. Clark hired a nurse because Severn would stay up all night sketching Keats to keep him company, never bothering to sleep. “He talks of a quiet grave as the first rest he will ever have,” Severn wrote.
Severn had never eaten so well in his life as he did by Keats’ bedside. He served Keats bread and milk every day, because it was all the man could keep down. For himself he had fish or meat, and always pudding afterwards. He loved the convenience of having fresh produce in Italy. Keats finally feel asleep for good one night in Severn’s arms.
Casts were made of Keat’s face, hands and foot. Doctors found in the autopsy that his lungs had been entirely devastated for the past two months. Despite not really knowing each other all that well, Severn and Keats are buried next to each other in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery. All of Keats’ friends in Italy put daisies on his grave.
Linda Eddings is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Simon.
“Words” – Seinabo Sey (mp3)
“Pretend” – Seinabo Sey (mp3)