The Death of John Keats

John_Keats_after_J._SevernOn a bitter night in 1818, John Keats, the last of England’s great Romantic poets, travelled from central London to his home on Hampstead Heath. He staggered into bed, coughing blood.

Pulmonary consumption, better known as Tuberculosis, has been a scourge of human populations throughout history, as a bacterial disease that attacks the poor, the ill-nourished and the young. Though its symptoms vary widely, depending on which part of the body it infects, the most common are a deathly white pallour, flushed and shrunken cheeks, and mood swings from depression to wild bursts of energy. Those that contract the disease die young (the Bronte sisters, Chekov and D.H. Lawrence to name but a few). Writers and painters in particular have left detailed depictions of the disease (Tolstoy, Maupassant, Edvard Munch) that are more accurate than the clinical descriptions of the physician.

Keats was not only a poet, he had also qualified as a doctor at Guy, but he showed little interest in practising medicine. He wrote one of his best sonnets, Much Have I Travelled in the Realm of Gold, whilst listening to a lecture on the pathology of the liver.

It was almost inevitable Keats would contract the disease; he had nursed his consumptive mother until she died and spent a year nursing his brother Tom through the last stages of pulmonary tuberculosis. He was plagued by money worries and rejected as a writer. On a more personal level, by 1818 he had realised he would never marry his beloved Fanny Brawne. He was also ill-served by hopeless misdiagnosis and the inappropriate attention of well meaning friends.

His first physician, Dr. Robert Bree, a fashionable London doctor, detected no sign of organic disease or “pulmonary affliction”. He announced that Keats’ fever was the result of his poetic imagination, and recommended he start earning his living as a doctor, or to take up mathematics!  He also recommended strong doses of digitalis and exercise. But, he did also suggest a regular, healthy diet.

In July 1819 Keats suffered another hemorrhage and decided to travel to the warm climate of Italy with his friend, the painter John Severn. The nightmare journey, though, eventually to Rome via Naples, weakened him still further.

Dr. James Clark, a resident English physician in Rome, pronounced that the disease resided in the stomach and prescribed antimony, a toxic poison taken in large quantities. He also suggested vigorous bloodletting and a “dainty diet” – an anchovy a day. Lastly he suggested horse riding as suitable exercise. When his friends attempted to seat him on one, however, he fell off and hemorrhaged.

By the end of 1820 even Clark had to acknowledge the end was near. Fortunately perhaps for Keats,  he was unconscious for most of his last two weeks. He died in great pain, drenched in sweat, on February 23, 1821, aged 25. It was an unfair yet lamentably common end to the life of one of England’s finest lyrical poets.

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Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.

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