In A Letter To A Colleague: As An Intro To John Keats


THUNDER BAY – LIVING – Dear Bill Sutherland: In writing from this distance, and with your lively background in the Sports Dept. at the University of Minnesota, you’d likely appreciate knowing the English poet John Keats I’m writing about at present was a fair pugilist as a young man. One notices Keats (1795-°©‐1821) sturdy knuckles in portraits drawn of him in the 19th century.

I also believe my re‐examining of Keats poems as mentioned to you before (and his poem To Autumn which is one of the most anthologized poems ever written) in this season originates from a comparison a Texas professor of mine once made after a story of mine was published. It reminded him of Keats poem: On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer. Keats wrote that in 1816 saying in the beginning, “much have I travelled in the realms of gold, and have goodly states and kingdoms seen…” That was a very benign critique. And so memorable to receive.

Besides, inside some of his most adventurous years (1818-°©‐1819) Keats resume, with his colleague Charles Brown, included having walked across the face of Scotland together before returning to London.

With Keats writing brilliantly and the artist Brown painting and drawing their experiences.

Though Keats seemed one who seemed to be forever up against occurrences. He was soon forced to give his brotherly time with his younger brother Thomas who had tuberculosis. A kind of British plague in those times. Yet his artistic drive was such that Keats was able, remarkably, to continue writing odes and sonnets that were the lifeline of his mind.

As well he had fallen in love with Fanny Brawne. She made Keats feel everyday was Valentines. He wrote incredible letters of passion to her. Also poems of course. His admirable piece to her called Bright
Star was recently made into the title of a New Zealand national film on Keats and Fanny. I’ve always imagined had her name been Brown she might easily have been the muse for the British pop band Herman’s Hermits and their joyful 1960’s tune: Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter.

But fate was closing in on John Keats. He soon contracted the crippling and disparaging tuberculosis.

And like Robert Louis Stevenson (aka RLS to his biographers) in his era who was chronically ill, RLS sailed off to the South Seas and Samoa. Where Samoans called RLS their “natural storyteller.”

Returning to Keats he thought the best for his future would be to take a ship to the warmth the English adored in Italy. He would leave in September 1820.

Here enters Joseph Severn a British artist. Severn will give up all and help Keats with medications and sea worthiness all the way to Rome. What compassion Severn had for Keats. It’s known that in his early twenties there were admiring readers of Keats books who formed what was called the Keats Circle of readers in Britain. They supported all he was motivated to do with poetry.

Well, Severn got Keats to the well spring of Roman culture in Italy. All the while making drawings of Keats for posterity. There being nothing as we have today with the instant technology of developing images with cameras.

With his unrelenting energy Severn took charge of Keats mail back to London. In one written to Fanny Keats regretted not kissing her as an Adieu. Because Keats thought his illness was contagious. He was compassionate in his correspondence to Fanny acknowledging this. While sending his wishes he said he might otherwise have kissed the paper he’d written on.

However in his agony Keats was able to get many of the books, he had brought in a chest on his voyage, to where Severn placed them around his bedside table. While conducting daily sanitation, and medicines, Severn took note of one of Keats final wishes. At some point Keats had spoken about—as we as patrons of our local Brodie Library—that Severn seek a way of sending back loaned books. To friends of the Keats Circle. Quite a lasting gesture as Keats struggled on.

But, here’s an indelible notion about the English loving books. Keats colleague Percy Bysshe Shelley while perishing on a boat that caught a storm was discovered to have a slim volume of recently published poems by Keats in a coat pocket. Harold Bloom, in the Literature department at Yale, has written, “of all the nineteenth-°©‐century poets white writing in English, Keats has demonstrated the most universal power to move readers in our time.” And, so Keats continues to register such a heartbeat in poetry to this day.

Well, Severn must truly have been something. He continued to draw images of Keats. The sketches are so very touching. Severn had a beautiful artisan’s eye. Likely Severn arranged for the making of Keats death mask. Like those made of James Joyce and Ezra Pound in our time.

Severn also became the one responsible for Keats own epitaph. Severn found in the gentle silence of one reaching a fragile ending, where Keats had managed to write his own farewell, “here lies one whose name is writ on water.” It’s marked on Keats headstone and memorial in Rome. Very effective.

Particularly distinctive. Considering the waterways Keats and Severn took to land in Italy.

Getting back to my re‐reading of Severn’s journals besides Charles Brown’s chapters, in years earlier, on their Scottish Tour and walk to see Robbie Burns setting in Ayrshire what is compelling is the attraction they all forged in their work, and for others, a pursuance with a such noble way with words.

To effectively get their images across with a sterling clarity.

In one of the letters Severn penned, sent back to England for the Keats Circle, he wrote on the day Keats faded. Penned in ink, likely, not long after Keats’ wilting. Severn committed to others on February 23, 1851, “Well…he’s gone.” Merely a month earlier at 3 am in the darkness of January lit by a flickering candle Severn noted, “I’m simply drawing, now, to keep awake. Can’t believe the sweat in him.”

Added to his portrayal of Keats on that final day, Severn went on, “He died with the most perfect ease, he just seemed to go to sleep.” And wouldn’t one know Keats passed away in the damp cold of an Italian winter in 1821. Keats passing unfortunately so young in life has had the author John Lithgow compare Keats to the similarly short life span of American actor James Dean. Wit, Lithgow’s what if they’d live longer?

My mother enjoyed sharing Keats poems. We would read them together particularly on her final months. She reached life into her nineties. She passed last year. This week would have been her August 19th birthday. It was Keats poem where he wrote, “a thing of Beauty is a joy forever” that she very much adored.

And it still shines like a lighthouse beacon in the watery channels of life. And our coming ashore to settle, for whatever time we are given, by the embers of our own domestic fireplaces.

Where the cinders of one like Keats life become almost immortal. For his poetic voice has a capacity to warm our hearts with something as inspiring as simply sharing a common reading of English verses while together.

Ronn Hartviksen

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