John Keats, by Charles Armitage Brown, 1819. Courtesy NPG London, NPG 1963.
Two hundred years ago today, the poet John Keats passed away in Rome. He was only twenty-five years old when he died, and had only published 54 poems, but had quite a remarkable poetic career for somebody who hadn’t had a formal literary education. Keats actually trained to be a surgeon through financial necessity, but had always loved literature and reading, and had been greatly encouraged by his old schoolmaster John Clarke and his son Cowden Clarke.
In commemoration of Keats today, I wanted to share something written by him that have fascinated me ever since I watched the 2009 film Bright Star: his love letters to Fanny Brawne (the film was named after the poem he wrote for her).
Keats probably met Brawne in November 1818 at Wentworth Place in Hampstead (now the Keats House), and by Christmas they had declared their love for each other. They were engaged the following October, but were going to wait to marry until after Keats had established himself.
Due to ill-health, Keats travelled to Rome in November 1820, where he eventually died on February 23rd 1821 without their marriage ever occurring.
The letters are so passionate and romantic – unfortunately, we don’t have Brawne’s replies, as Keats either burned them or was supposedly buried with them. I particularly love this section, from a letter Keats wrote to her in July 1819 at the Isle of Wight:
“Will you confess this in the Letter you must write immediately, and do all you can to console me in it—make it rich as a draught of poppies to intoxicate me—write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been. For myself I know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.”
Read more here:
Find the full letter from Keats to Brawne (along with some other selected letters) here and an online exhibition about Keats and Brawne from Harvard Libraries here. Read an extensive biography of Keats and his poetry from Poetry Foundation here.