The Chronicle Review

Who Killed John Keats?

January 12, 2007

Who killed John Keats? I, says the Quarterly So savage and Tartarly; 'Twas one of my feats.

 — Lord Byron

Two months before he died, John Keats claimed he had been poisoned. Shaken and confused, his friend Joseph Severn reported the conversation in a letter that was later partially obliterated: "his dreadful state of mind turns to [per]secuti[on and some]times even murder — he is now under the...was administered to him by an individual in London — "

Although most scholars and biographers have attributed Keats's fears of persecution, betrayal, and murder to consumptive dementia, Keats's suspicions had begun long before 1820 and were not without some justification. In spite of much substantial research on Keats, the death of one of the best-loved poets in the English language remains a mystery. Why did John Keats believe he was poisoned by "an individual in London," and how did his fears of poisoning influence his poetry and letters? The matter is more than a mere literary whodunnit; the enigmatic nature of his demise is vitally important for understanding his poetry and biography alike.

As early as his 1817 stay on the Isle of Wight, Keats described being "narvus" and unwell, plagued by his mistrust of his friends, undefined ailments, and visions of dead poets. A year later, he wrote that he had long "suspected everybody" and admitted to his friend Benjamin Bailey that he felt "full of suspicions" while writing the works for which he is best known today.

Keats had reason to be suspicious: None of his doctors could agree on a diagnosis, attributing his contradictory symptoms to nervousness, heart trouble, or simply too much poetry (they prescribed geometry). Keats, however, was not only a gifted poet, but also a skilled diagnostician who had studied at Guy's Hospital; his observations on his strange numbness, heart palpitations, and gastric distress arose out of solid medical training. "Keats sees all," Severn lamented to Keats's lawyer friend William Haslam; "his knowledge of anatomy makes it tenfold worse at every change." Accurate descriptions of his growing symptoms and suspicions inflected and infected his poetry and letters from 1817 until his deathbed revelation that he thought he had been poisoned.

Despite his amiable nature, Keats was distrustful of his friends and strangers both. "I suspect a few people to hate me well enough, for reasons I know of, who have pretended a great friendship for me," he wrote to his fiancée, Fanny Brawne. "People are revengeful." Even the friendly overtures of the writer Leigh Hunt and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley seemed to have ulterior motives. "Does Shelley go on telling strange stories of the death of kings?" he wrote cryptically to Hunt in 1817. "Tell him there are strange stories of the death of poets — some have died before they were conceived."

Although that was three years before Keats began to succumb to his final illness, he already felt a sense of time running out and feared that his poetic ambitions would be stillborn and hampered by the jealousies of his literary friends. Hunt complained that Keats had "suspicions to excess...[he] suspected both Shelley and myself of a wish to see him undervalued!"

In Keats's suspicious imagination, friends, lovers, and enemies alike persecuted him, and sometimes the lines between them blurred. He suspected his friend Charles Brown of dallying with Fanny Brawne, and Brawne of dallying with a regiment of soldiers. Keats also looked askance at former friends such as the famously unhinged painter Benjamin Robert Haydon. Even Keats's brother George and Keats's guardian, Richard Abbey — who seems to have speculated away a large portion of Keats's inheritance just before the poet's collapse — were not exempt from these suspicions, and he felt vengeful toward some of his reviewers. To a friend, Keats exclaimed about the editor of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, "If I die, you must ruin Lockhart!"

Perhaps one could write off Keats's suspicions, as Hunt does, as "irritable morbidity" arising out of a tuberculosis-induced paranoia or the side effects of the mercury he was taking at the time. Then again, Keats noted how illness relieved his mind "of a load of deceptive thoughts and images" even before his hemorrhage in 1820 or his first drafts of mercury-laden calomel. "How astonishingly does the chance of leaving the world impress a sense of its natural beauties on us," Keats wrote to his friend James Rice of the clarity of vision that came with extreme illness. "Like poor Falstaff, though I do not babble, I think of green fields."

Justified or not, Keats's suspicions were infectious. Fanny Brawne wrote to his sister, "Some day my dear girl I will...give you additional cause to hate those who should have been his friends," adding that Keats had been "murdered by the mere malignancy of the world, joined to want of feeling in those who ought above all to have felt for him." She harbored a particular resentment toward the Reynolds family, who disapproved of her intimacy with Keats, and she complained that he had been "haunted by one or two heartless and demented people" — including, perhaps, the famously narcissistic and vengeful Haydon. Haydon thought of himself as the Napoleon of painters, but he would chiefly be remembered for his journals in which he recorded his "Immortal Dinner" with Charles Lamb, William Wordsworth, and John Keats. Over the years, the volumes became the repository of his prayers, passions, and violent revenge fantasies against purblind humanity. Haydon ended his friendship with Keats by refusing to pay back a loan the poet could ill afford. The death of his former friend continued to haunt him, however, and one night he recorded in his journal how Keats's ghost appeared at his bedside and accused him of a broken promise.

Keats's friend Brown was also haunted by the poet's ghost, who hovered over him disapprovingly whenever he tried to write The Life of John Keats. Perhaps in part to forestall criticisms about not accompanying his friend to Rome, Brown turned all his vitriol on Keats's brother George after the poet died. "George is a scoundrel!" Brown fumed because George had taken a large chunk of Keats's inheritance back with him to America just a week before the poet collapsed. "The world will cry aloud for the cause of their Keats's untimely death, and I will give it." Keats's friend Charles Dilke sided with George against Brown, and the friction between the two eventually ended their 35-year friendship. If Brown's accusations seem extreme, he was taking a cue from Keats himself, who observed, "George ought not to have done this" and apparently never wrote to his brother again.

Nonetheless, Brown also came under the fire of Keats's suspicions. Brown was not the most prepossessing of Keats's friends, but he had an easy flirtatious manner with Fanny that tormented Keats, "doing [him] to death by inches." Brown even gave Fanny a bawdy Valentine that ended with the lines, "Pray were you never spanked/At school for being naughty?" In addition, when rumors began to fly about the mysterious illness of Dilke's father, suspicion immediately fell on Brown, perhaps because his own brother had died of poisoning in 1815, leaving him a sizable inheritance. Though Keats eventually forgave Brown, for a time at least, their friendship was racked by his suspicions.

Brown also turned his ire toward the critics. "After 20 years, with all the charity of which my nature is capable," he reflected in his Life of Keats, "my belief continues to be that he was destroyed by hirelings, under the imposing name of Reviewers." Brown wasn't alone; several of Keats's contemporaries also believed he had been done in by bad press. "Adonais has drunk poison!" Shelley accused in "Adonais," popularizing the view that the critics had slaughtered the young poet by making him rupture a blood vessel.

I first encountered Keats when I was in high school — as the myth of a Romantic poet too sensitive to endure harsh criticism and what Wallace Stevens called "the malady of the quotidian." Yet anyone who spends time studying Keats's life and letters soon discovers that Keats was not simply Shelley's "pale flower...fed with true-love tears, instead of dew," but a natural athlete and healer as well, one who was famous as a boxer in his youth and who reputedly guarded his ailing mother's door with a sword in hand. Though Keats later confessed he had not the nerve of a surgeon, he also sliced into a patient's temporal artery with a steady hand. Keats did escape to flowery bowers in his early poetry; he also never forgot the grim realities of Guy's Hospital, where sawdust soaked up the blood of screaming patients who had to endure amputations without the benefit of anesthesia.

In a college fiction-writing workshop, I was introduced to the concept of "Negative Capability." This is usually defined as the ability to have no self, but when I dutifully went to the library to check out the original letter, I was surprised to find that Keats himself defined the concept quite differently — the ability to be in "uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." The concept of Negative Capability as an aesthetic threshold later became my dissertation topic, and I began to see his tendency to suspect his contemporaries as an extension of this openness of mind.

I also became increasingly fascinated by what is left out of the Keats record. Surprisingly, despite Keats's medical training, no one had investigated his fears of poisoning before. A couple of his biographers have, however, noted in passing, "It catches our interest that so intelligent a man as Clark should have begun to speculate in the same way that Rodd and Dr. Bree had done months before" (Walter Jackson Bate, 1963) that Keats's primary disease was not of the lungs, or argued that he had "some secret physical or medical cause" for leaving England (Robert Gittings, 1968).

Keats's letters are filled with telling gaps and tantalizing secrets — passages mysteriously crossed out, names obliterated, pages missing — apparently because the recipients were trying to protect the anonymity of his fiancée or cover up his suspicions of his contemporaries. In an enticingly incomplete letter he wrote to Brown in 1820, for example, Keats reveals a "secret" that may have something to do with his later suspicions of murder. The original of this letter is no longer extant; the only copy available comes from Brown's Life of Keats, and he omitted several lines and possibly paraphrased others, adding a footnote to explain that the missing sentences contained a secret.

Wrote Keats: "I shall make some confession, which you will be the only person, for many reasons, I shall trust with. A winter in England would, I have not a doubt, kill me; so I have resolved to go to Italy, either by sea or land. Not that I have any great hopes of that, — for, I think, there is a core of disease in me not easy to pull out." Here there are some omissions, then "If I should die..." and more omissions, "I shall be obliged to set off in a month." Brown's note reads: "The omitted passage contained the secret. He went to Italy in pursuance of his physician's urgent advice."

Tantalizing. Some biographers have assumed that the "secret" was of Keats's consumption, but Brown crossed out the passages after Keats had reputedly died of the disease. Nor was the secret simply about Keats's engagement to Fanny Brawne; he had already confessed his love for her to Brown back in September 1818, and they did, after all, share the same house. The crossed-out section of the letter follows an observation about Keats's illness and is tied to his physician's insistence that he leave England immediately, suggesting that Keats's "secret" was connected to his illness.

In 1883, the surgeon B.W. Richardson, who interviewed Keats's former medical-school roommate Henry Stephens for an article in The Asclepiad, attributed Keats's secret to syphilis or gonorrhea. The basis for this theory, however, was the fact that Keats took mercury and used sexual innuendoes in a letter to Benjamin Bailey. In this letter, however, Keats attributes his ill health not to strumpets but to too much reading and depression — a common theory of nervous diseases at the time. One hopes Keats took a Devon maid for a roll in the clover, but there is no concrete evidence for it, and certainly not enough to say he was racked by venereal disease. At this time, Keats never describes in his rather physically candid letters having any of the symptoms of gonorrhea or primary or secondary syphilis (though he did complain of a sore throat, for which several Regency doctors prescribed mercury). The wording of his secret revelation to Brown does, however, indicate that he was suffering from some undisclosed physical trouble — perhaps the poison he claimed had been administered to him while he was in London.

Keats's enigmatic death at 25 surprised both his doctor in Rome and his friends. James Clark stated in 1820 that he "never met an instance where a patient was so quickly pulled down," and Severn reported that he "was taken by surprise at the suddenness of the collapse," as the doctor "had a favorable opinion of his patient, and had encouraged me in thinking that Keats would recover." Forty years after Keats's death, Severn was still haunted by the inexplicability of his friend's collapse: "It seems as if he should be living with me now, insomuch as I never could understand his strange and contradictory death, his falling away so suddenly from health and strength."

To a friend Keats once wrote, "They say men near death however mad they have been, come to their senses" before dying. Whether Keats's fears of persecution, betrayal, and murder were evidence of his insanity or of his final lucidity, they not only influenced his late writings, but also his major lyrics and letters written during his annus mirabilis. The perplexing symptoms his doctors found difficult to diagnose also found their way into his poetry.

Keats has famously been known as the selfless poet of Negative Capability, and yet in many ways, his poetry is also an autobiography of his body. When Keats famously wrote in his "Ode to a Nightingale," for example, "My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains/My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk," he was not simply engaging in an anatomy of melancholy; he actually did feel pains in his heart, numbness, and leaden heaviness, as he described in a letter: "My hand feels like lead — and yet it is [an] unpleasant numbness it does not take away the pain of existence." Elsewhere, he complained of nervousness, fever, wasting, lethargy, a metallic taste in his mouth, chest oppression, and prematurely withered hands, symptoms that also find their way into "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," "Ode on Indolence," "The Eve of St. Agnes," and his Hyperion poems.

In addition, Keats's Fanny poems, "Otho the Great," "The Fall of Hyperion," "King Stephen," and "Cap and Bells; or, The Jealousies" center on themes of intrigue, rebellion, or sexual betrayal. In what may be his final poem, "This Living Hand," the speaker threatens his would-be murderer — perhaps Fanny Brawne, his reviewers, or one of his friends:

This living hand, now warm and capable Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold And in the icy silence of the tomb, So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood So in my veins red life might stream again, And thou be conscience-calm'd — see here it is — I hold it towards you.

The dying hand embodies the Negative Capabilities of Keats's jealous imagination as well as the withered and "nerveless" state of his limbs. In "To Autumn," Keats exhibits his ability to see process in the natural world from core to fruit to decay; here he turns this perception on himself. Coleridge, who shook the poet's hand in 1818, likewise prognosticated to Green, "There is death in his hand."

For Keats, suspicions became inextricably connected to poetics. Both involve "wild surmises" in which the mind entertains all possibilities but remains at ease with partial knowledge. Keats did not simply dislike doctrinaire thinking; his mind had trouble understanding the truth of its conclusions. "I have never yet been able to perceive how any thing can be known for truth by consequitive reasoning," he told Bailey. Yet it was precisely this "consequitive thinking" — consecutive and consequential, logical and sequenced — that he needed to allay or prove his fears of poisoning. Keats, however, did not gather facts and reasons and concrete evidence for his suspicions, but engaged in morbid speculation instead, conjuring up a legion of lovers for his betrothed and assembling a league of assassins for himself with no power to verify or dismiss any of them.

Whatever eventually did him in, Keats's suspicions of poisoning and persecution plagued him until the speculative possibilities that had once inspired him turned into the horror of unregenerative negation, of nothing coming from nothing. Ironically, it was Keats's very Negative Capability to remain "content with half-knowledge" and in "uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts" that made him susceptible to a suspicion that hampered his creativity and ulcerated his stomach. Whether or not there was any truth to his fears of poisoning, Keats's suspicions tortured him until he "saw too far eternal fierce destruction," and there was no coming back from that bourn even if he had survived. Severn lamented, "He says the continued stretch for the imagination has killed him — and were he to recover he could not write another line."

Amy Leal teaches English at Syracuse University. She is at work on a book, "Posthumous Existence: The Enigmatic Death of John Keats," from which this essay is adapted. Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 53, Issue 19, Page B15