TO JOSEPH SEVERN1
Pisa. 7th Feby 1823.
My dear Severn,
There is one subject in your letter that has employed my consideration, and that to the best of my ability, — I mean the erecting of a monument to Keats’ memory in England. In one word, I cannot but disapprove of it. The fact is this: his fame is not sufficiently general; with the few and the best judges it stands high, but his name is unknown to the multitude. Therefore I think that prior to his name being somewhat more celebrated, a monument to his memory might even retard it, and it might provoke ill nature, and (shall I say it?) ridicule. When I quitted England his works were still unsaleable.2 For that cruel word ridicule I must explain myself; there appeared, some time after his death,3 in one of the Government Newspapers, an article scoffing at him and joking at his death. I did not read it, I could not, but I heard of it, and it put me in a fortnight’s irritation. In prudence we ought to wait awhile. First let his merit be undoubted. Let it not be said that not only bad men have costly tombs with flattering inscriptions, but that now a days bad poets have the like. This will be as unpleasant, as irksome, as discordant for you to read as it is for me to write; but I must tell you the truth, — his name is yet scarce anything in England, — it becomes, and will become, more ennobled every day, — while a monument might throw that happy time back. Ten years hence to my mind will be time enough. You in your affection for him think nothing can be done too much. Alas! I, knowing the wretched literary world, think otherwise. Yet still all this is but one man’s opinion, and one as likely to err as yourself, and from the same motive, though our opinions are contrary. I regret that I am against the interest (in this instance) of your friend the Sculptor, whose name4 I cannot make out in your letter, but if you mention my reasons to that Gentleman, he will surely understand me. I could say much, much more on this head, but why? — you with this already written can fill up the rest. I thank you for the particular account you give of the ceremony of depositing Shelley’s ashes, — that disturbing of other bones,5 tho’ I am by no means scrupulous about such matters, made me start, for it might happen that some living friend of the skeleton should hear of it. Poor Haslam’s loss is dreary indeed,6 — when you write, present my friendly remembrance. So, you have established an English Academy at Rome.7 Well done! You seem to have taken it to heart, and pursued the idea, with the true ardor of a painter. That’s right, my fine fellow, be industrious, go on with your pictures, never flag, never be idle, — O how a sinner can preach holiness! I — I — I — well-a-day! have been for these two months the idlest beast alive, — I do nothing — I think of nothing, — unless a saunter be something, and making love be something. Fine sport here in Italy! I am at least fifteen years younger in all amorous matters than I was in England. What kind tender hearts are here! Ti tum doddle diddle do! Hip, for the Carnival! I’m going to the ball at the Theatre as Sir John Bull, my friend Daniells8 as Lady Bull, and a young Italian as our Servant as Harlequin. If I don’t turn the English into ridicule, call me a Turk. Such a day, — with a belly as big as that of Alderman Curtis! — and my wife!9 <will have bubbies as big as said Alderman’s back side!>10 I’ll visit all the boxes where the English are, and make them furious. They will imagine it is an insolent Italian ridiculing their nation and their bad Tuscan talk. A good idea, eh! boy? If I continue in this mad humour, sempre matto,11 I shall be a mighty disturbance to your solid worship in Florence. Perhaps I shall teach Carlino to give the finishing touch to your best pictures, — or mix all your colours together in the chamber pot, — or lend him my scissors to clip your brushes. Nothing too wild or crazy is to surprise you. I am, as Maworm12 saith, an altered man. You would not know me. Your acquaintance with me is to begin again. I go to bed dancing and get up singing. I’m famous for giving folks huge smacks on the back, tweaking their noses, and pulling their ears, sitting in the middle of the table at dinner with the soup tureen between my legs, walking out in a pair of stilts, breaking old men’s spectacles, running away with an old woman’s bonnet, and tying on young women’s garters, which last I do to perfection, so decently! but, lord! what inflammable flesh they have got! I have some thoughts of turning Monk, but my favourite idea is to be president of an English Academy of Folly, where none are to be admitted who do not go about with a tinkling bell hanging from the lower part of his breeches’ flap, — it will be so expressive. And now, my dear Severn, when you have read this rantipole page, walk soberly into your bed-room, put on your night cap, heave a sigh, squeeze a tear out if you can, and lament over my unfortunate, sad, lost state; while I roar with laughter at all wise fellows like yourself. What say you about our friends in England? For my part I give them up. They are a set of brutes. Every one promised, as it were, to be a battle-dore if I would be the other, and the shuttlecock was to be our letters, — egad! I keep it up, but they let it fall to the ground, and that with an apparent dislike to the sport. I killed Richards, — wrote to another I was sorry to find the poor fellow was dead, and that other (oddly enough) believed he was dead; then came a letter from Richards so gravely expostulating against my foolish joke, as he calls it, that I intend to lay him up with a fit of the gout. Oh! Oh! Oh! what a letter!!!
Your’s sincerely crack-brained,
1 Printed: Sharp 134-135 with errors and omissions, and reproduced in Stillinger 118-119. Brown replies to Severn’s letter of 21 Jan. 1823 (Scott 227-230). Address: Al Signore / Il Signor Giuseppe Severn / Pittore Inglese / No 18 Via di San Isidoro / 2do piano / Roma. Postmarks: PISA; 10 FEBRAR. [Return to the letter]
2 As Taylor confessed to John Clare in his letter of 18 Mar. 1822, “The real admirers of Poetry . . . are very few. Of Keats’s poems there have never yet been 500 sold.” See Tim Chilcott, A Publisher and His Circle: The Life and Work of John Taylor, Keats’s Publisher (London: Routledge, 1972) 51. [Return to the letter]
3 Stillinger quotes from an especially vitriolic “Letter from a Gentleman of the Press” in Blackwood’s Magazine: “I am sorry he is dead, for he often made me laugh at his rubbish of verse, when he was alive” (119n3). [Return to the letter]
4 Joseph Gott (1786-1860), English sculptor. He and his family came to Rome in the late summer of 1822 and moved into Severn’s quarters at 18 Via di San Isidoro. Gott had won the RA Gold Medal for Sculpture in December 1819 when Severn won the Gold Medal for history painting. It is likely that Gott was responsible for the carving on Keats’ tombstone which Severn designed. [Return to the letter]
5 See Severn to Brown, 1 Jan. 1822 (Scott 227). In trying to exhume the remains of William Shelley for reburial with his father’s ashes, as Mary Shelley wished, Severn’s grave diggers uncovered a 5 ½ foot skeleton and quickly abandoned their efforts. [Return to the letter]
9 Sir William Curtis, 1st Bt (1752-1829), banker and politician. “A robust, jovial, coarse-featured, self-confident man of convivial habits and flamboyant tastes, Curtis was a constant target of whig and radical cartoonists” (Oxford DNB). [Return to the letter]
12 Possibly a reference to “Mawworm,” a character in Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World, My Masters (1609), though Brown is confusing two different roles. It is Follywit, another character, who complains to Lieutenant Mawworm that, thanks to his influence, he is “quite altered” from a sober fellow. Brown’s confusion might also stem from the then-familiar character of Maw-worm in Bickerstaff’s adaptation of Tartuffe: The Hypocrite, a frequently performed play. In this play, however, the situation is entirely reversed. Maw-worm is a hypocrite who declares that he has been reformed, having been once a reprobate and a sinner. [Return to the letter]