The great Romantic poet John Keats was the subject of a previous biographical blog, which can be read if missed by clicking the link below. Keats’ literary brilliance was cut tragically short with his death of tuberculosis at the tender age of twenty-five. One portion of his life which I purposefully did not touch upon in the previous blog were his romances. It is a rather fascinating, albeit sorrowful aspect of Keats’ biography which likely influenced his art, at least to some degree. Before reading on, read the full post on Keats linked below.
Romance Poet: John Keats
JOHN KEATS never married, that much is certain, however he did have two love interests of note. In 1817, while Keats was on holiday to East Sussex, he met and befriended a young lady named Isabella Jones. The depth of their relationship is open for debate, although they remained friends over the years with Jones recorded as one of the first to be notified of Keats’ death in 1821. Via letters, Keats described Jones as “beautiful and elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable, and strange.” Biographers agree that she was likely Keats’ first love and perhaps his first sexual experience. The latter is based on his letters referring to “frequenting her rooms” and comments on kissing her. However, in an era where physical intimacy was not acceptable outside of marriage, the precise meaning of his words cannot be certain. That she was an inspiration for some of the poems Keats wrote during this time is not questioned.
Then, sometime in the autumn of 1818, Keats was introduced to 18-year-old Frances “Fanny” Brawne while visiting friends at Hampstead Heath. The young lady lived with her widowed mother and two younger siblings at a nearby cottage. Fanny was described as spirited, attractive if not particularly beautiful, and popular amongst the bachelors in the area. After the death of his brother Tom, 23-year-old Keats moved into Wentworth Place in Hampstead, the house literally right next door to the home of the Brawnes. Mutual friends, close proximity, and social activities brought the two together frequently. As would be described today, it was love at first sight, at least for Keats as evidenced by his letters. In several letters to male friends dating to these months, Keats penned fervent, explicit, and lengthy passages describing an unidentified woman whom historians deduce was Miss Brawne. In a letter dated July 1819, Keats wrote: “the very first week I knew you I wrote myself your vassal.”
Whether the sentiments of Fanny for Keats were as profoundly reciprocated cannot be definitively known as all letters she wrote to him were buried with him per his request. There is reason to believe she was as intensely in love, as will be explained later, however, even if not as immediately in love, Brawne accepted his marriage proposal early in 1819. There seems to be no debate that for Keats, his love affair with Brawne erased any lingering romantic sentiments for Isabella Jones. Fanny was his new muse, the plethora of poems and sonnets written during this period reflecting a heightened maturity and power.
The engagement was not formalized, as far as is known, and marriage plans were not made, primarily due to Keats’ attempts to improve his financial status with a new publication of his poems. This would not be assured until late in 1819, as noted in the blog two days ago.
Alas, the promise of financial success came too late, as by the end of the year, Keats’ illness had advanced. People may not have understood what caused diseases like tuberculosis, but they knew them to be contagious. Therefore, although Fanny lived next door, their relationship was largely relegated to letters with brief visits. Between his declining health and fear of harming the woman he loved, it seems they spent minimal time together.
“My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you – I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again – my Life seems to stop there – I see no further. You have absorb’d me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving – I should be exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you … I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion – I have shudder’d at it – I shudder no more – I could be martyr’d for my Religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you.” ~John Keats to Fanny Brawne, letter dated October 13, 1819
In February 1820, Keats experienced his first lung hemorrhage, effectively ending any hope of a future with Fanny. Nevertheless, his love endured, as the letter below reveals. The date was not added to the two-page letter, only a poignant note on the outer leaf: “You had better not come to day.” Scholars believe it dates from late February to early March 1820.
My dearest Fanny,
The power of your benediction is of not so weak a nature as to pass from the ring* in four and twenty hours – it is like a sacred Chalice once consecrated and ever consecrate. I shall Kiss your name and mine where your Lips have been – Lips! why should a poor prisoner as I am talk about such things. Thank God, though I hold them the dearest pleasures in the universe, I have a consolation independent of them in the certainty of your affection. I could write a song in the style of Tom Moores Pathetic about Memory if that would be any relief to me. No. It would not. I will be as obstinate as a Robin, I will not sing in a cage. Health is my expected heaven and you are the Houri – this word I believe is both singular and plural – if only plural, never mind – you are a thousand of them
Ever your affectionately
*The ring that Keats refers to was “a seal ring, of agate or cornelian” with “their joint names…engraved upon it.”
Of the 39 surviving letters written by Keats (in his own hand) to fiancée Brawne (a sliver of the hundreds of notes and letters it is believed he wrote to her), this is the only letter privately owned. The other letters are in museums, but can be read in published books available for purchase on Amazon and elsewhere, or for free on Project Gutenberg: Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne.
To sum up the final year of Keats’ short life, he and Fanny remained devoted to each other. In fact, for a month or two prior to Keats’ departure to Italy in September 1820, changes in his living situation resulting in him dwelling with the Brawne family, Fanny doing her best to nurse him back to health. What was said during their final goodbye shall forever be a mystery. Based on surviving letters, Fanny and Keats had fallen even more deeply in love during their last months together. So much so that close friends, particularly Joseph Severn (who accompanied Keats to Rome) viewed the bond as a detriment worsening Keats’ declining health. As Severn wrote while on the ship, “He was often so distraught, with moreover so sad a look in his eyes, sometimes a starved, haunting expression that it bewildered me.”
Keats’ melancholy, as noted by a baffled and concerned Severn, is revealed in a letter from Keats to another friend named Charles Brown:
“I am afraid to write to her – to receive a letter from her – to see her hand writing would break my heart – even to hear of her any how, to see her name written would be more than I could bear…”
The belief by some was that Keats’ death on February 23, 1821 was hastened, to a degree, by depression and extreme heartbreak over Fanny. In turn, this contributed to an unreasoned dislike for Fanny Brawne. It was also known by Keats’ circle of friends that while Fanny admired the poet’s talent, and was supportive of his work in every way, she was not a deep lover of poetry or literature. To those who recognized and were in awe of his brilliance, this alone was unforgivable and unfathomable.
Fanny Brawne mourned the death of John Keats for six years, and would not marry until 1833, more than twelve years after Keats’ death. Her husband, Louis Lindon, would never know of her prior relationship with the by-then famous poet. Fanny eventually confided in her three grown children, sharing the tale of her romance and revealing her collection of over three-dozen love letters. She made them promise to never tell Mr. Lindon, a promise they kept even after Fanny’s death in 1865 at the age of 65. Not until Lindon passed in 1872 did Fanny’s grown children reveal the truth that literally no one knew, not even close friends of the family. They profited substantially from the sale of Keats’ love letters to the mysterious Fanny Brawne, a woman some knew existed but who had rarely been named. As noted previously, letters to Keats from Brawne had been buried with him, so other than oblique references to her in letters to friends (all of whom had respected his privacy) very few knew the truth of the woman who inspired some of his incredible poetry.