John Keats, whose letters surpass in brilliance and sheer readability most of his poetry, at least in the judgment of some, wrote his final letter to his friend Charles Brown on Nov. 30, 1820. It begins:
“’Tis the most difficult thing in the world [for] me to write a letter. My stomach continues so bad, that I feel it worse on opening any book,--yet I am much better than I was in Quarantine. Then I am afraid to encounter the proing and conning of any thing interesting to me in England. I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.”
One month earlier, Keats had turned twenty-five. He arrived in Rome on Nov. 15, after spending ten days in quarantine on a ship in the Bay of Naples. The sentence beginning “I have an habitual feeling . . .” is the saddest in all of literature. Three sentences later – “There was my star predominant!” -- he rallies sufficiently to quote Shakespeare, his ever-present tutelary spirit: “a bawdy planet, that will strike / Where ’t is predominant.” (The Winter’s Tale, Act I, Scene 2). He declares his love for Brown – and for wordplay:
“I cannot answer any thing in your letter, which followed me from Naples to Rome, because I am afraid to look it over again. I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any hand writing of a friend I love so much as I do you. Yet I ride the little horse, – and, at my worst, even in Quarantine, summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life.”
The clear-sightedness and absence of self-pity in the former medical student is inspiring: “Servern is very well, though he leads so dull a life with me. Remember me to all friends . . .” Try reading the letter, right through these final lines, without tearing up: “I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.” Keats’ loyal friend Joseph Severn, who accompanied the poet to Rome, described his final moments:
“The poor fellow bade me lift him up in bed—he breathed with great difficulty—and seemed to lose the power of coughing up the phlegm—and immense sweat came over him so that my breath felt cold to him—`dont breath on me—it comes like Ice’—he clasped my hand very fast as I held him in my arms—the mucus was boiling within him—it gurgled in his throat—this increased—but yet he seem’d without pain—his eyes look’d upon me with extrem[e] sensibility but without pain—at 11 he died in my arms.”
Keats died on this date, Feb. 23, in 1821.