The enduring mystery of Keats’s last words

K-severnMichelle Stacey at The Paris Review:

Keats’s near obsession with death—“youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies”; “many a time I have been half in love with easeful death”; “now more than ever seems it rich to die”—becomes a palpable entity in this house. A cabinet displays the barbarous-looking instruments he used as a medical student, before he turned to poetry; a portrait depicts his younger brother, Tom, whom Keats nursed until he died of consumption, and from whom Keats almost surely caught the disease that would kill him as well. In the early nineteenth century, the disease killed one in three Londoners, but it was also something of a family curse: Keats had nursed his mother as she died eight years before Tom, and his older brother, George, who had emigrated to America in 1818, would die of it as well, in 1841.

Upstairs, the echoes of mortality reach a crescendo. In the back bedroom, a placard on the bed describes a night in early February 1820, a year before his death, when Keats returned home after catching a bad chill and staggered upstairs in a fit of coughing. A few minutes later, he called to his housemate Charles Brown to bring him a candle, and used it to illuminate a stain on the sheets: blood he had coughed up. “I know the colour of that blood,” Keats said to him. “It is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that colour—that drop of blood is my death warrant—I must die.” In the hallway outside the bedroom, a copy of Keats’s life mask sits beside one of his death mask, and the difference is stark. By 1821, his face had narrowed, his cheeks sunk; he had withered away as his lungs corroded.

more here.