On Sunday September 17, 1820, John Keats and his traveling companion, the young painter Joseph Severn, sailed for Italy, where it was hoped that the poet’s ailing health would benefit from the warmer climate. It didn’t. He died of tuberculosis the following February in Rome, aged just 25.
The last five months of Keats’ life – the sea voyage to Naples, including ten grueling days in quarantine on the bay; the overland journey to Rome; His final weeks in the rooms above the Spanish Steps, now a museum, are the focus of this exciting and original new study. Its author, Alessandro Gallenzi, editor of Alma Books, is well acquainted with Keats’s letters, having recently translated them into Italian. This experience showed him that the final phase of Keats’ much-told story was the least well-documented to date.
The value of the book lies in its author’s passion for uncovering previously unexplored details. By using contemporary public sources, for example, he can determine the exact time of day (just after 9 a.m.) and the weather (cloudy and around 12 degrees) at the moment Maria Crowdera merchant, with Keats and Severn on board, anchored on the Thames near the Tower of London (he is unable to determine the exact quay from which it sailed).
He fleshes out the family history of one of the only two other passengers on the way to Naples: the teenage Maria Cotterell, who, like Keats, was already far from consumerism and was to die not long after him. We learn that her brother, who met her from the boat in Naples where he briefly became friends with Keats and Severn, lived another 50 years and eventually emigrated to New Zealand. Looking at his photo, Gallenzi marvels at the quirks of the story: “Who knows if that man who shook hands with Keats… ever thought we’d be staring at him 150 years later?”
Odd tangents add unexpected color and texture. Traveling through the Campagna on the final leg of their journey to Rome, Severn and Keats witnessed the bizarre sight of a cardinal shooting small birds in his voluminous scarlet cloak and luring his prey by displaying an owl loosely tied to a stick and a little owl swinging mirror. Gallenzi explains that this was the traditional method of skylark hunting and amazingly even tracks down the likely cardinal in question: Annibale della Genga, who according to Stendhal “enjoyed the joys of hunting”. He later became Pope Leo XII.
There’s no doubt that Keats knew he was terminally ill before he set out. A paramedic by training, he had no illusions after his first blood-spitting incident in February 1820, which he called his “death sentence.” So it is interesting to discover that the passport issued to him indicates England as his final destination, as does the local police clearance certificate required for his passage to Naples. Was there some bureaucratic reason for foreigners to call their home country, or was Keats actually hoping to winter in Rome before going home to die, tended to by Fanny Brawne and her mother? Gallenzi shows us how even ineffective official documents can offer moving and important new biographical insights.
Keats wrote no poetry during this period and his own abrupt voice falls silent after November 30 as he writes his very last letter, addressed to his friend Charles Brown, containing his poignant message: “I have always made an awkward bow.” But Severn’s correspondence on the ground offers a harrowing commentary on his downfall. Severn dictated to Keats his own epitaph, ‘Here lies one whose name was written in water’, from which Gallenzi adapts his title.
His decision to focus on these final months adds to our concern at the grotesque physical suffering and bitter mental anguish Keats endured in his final weeks, particularly after suffering a terrible pulmonary hemorrhage on December 10th. This was no sentimental, painless ebb, though he did calm down in the end; opiated, one assumes. He’d packed a bottle of the drug with the apparent intention of putting himself to sleep if the pain became unbearable, although Severn kept it to keep him from intentionally overdosing.
Sometimes the microscopic perspective could have benefited from more contextualization. A fascinating interlude about William Sharp, the Victorian who published Severn’s life and letters, highlights Sharp’s lax editorial attitudes and tendencies toward fabulism, first exposed by Grant F. Scott in 2005. Gallenzi’s exploration of Sharp’s later life as a pseudonymous novelist is a wonderful complement to Scott’s work, but at times it feels as if he’s assuming the reader is as familiar with the material as he is. The layman may feel frustrated about this the slightly wrong claim that “there is no need to go into too much detail now”.
Gallenzi is brilliant on the difficult financing of Keats’ journey, meticulously combing through the sources for new clarity, and on the equally difficult subject matter of his tombstone. In contrast, his literary criticism judgments can sometimes seem a bit sweeping and unnuanced, as if he accepts them unquestioningly quarterly report‘s contemporary verdict on “Endymion”. It might also have been helpful to have a more systematic overview of the history of Keats biography as we are often told that this book corrects the records but does not always carry out exactly how.
Gallenzi’s meticulous commitment to his subject shines through. Though he portrays himself as something of a struggling outsider, he works in and contributes to a long tradition of Keats research. There is no doubt that all Keatsians will appreciate the new details and insights he adds to our picture of the poet’s last five months.