In the autumn of 1817 Keats’s younger brother Tom became seriously ill with tuberculosis—the disease that claimed their mother’s life in 1810—and rapidly declined in health over the course of the ensuing year. After returning to England in the summer of 1818 from a walking tour of Scotland, Keats, who himself had contracted a bad sore throat while traveling, stayed by Tom’s side during his final months. He would die in December. Though Keats’s own health would not deteriorate significantly for another year, his period of close contact with Tom coupled with the sore throat would prove to be a fateful combination.
By 1820 Keats’s tuberculosis had become so severe that his doctors advised a change in climate. During the poet’s final days, spent in Rome at a house on the Piazza di Spagna, the English artist Joseph Severn (1793–1879) remained by his side. Severn sketched a famously moving deathbed portrait of Keats on 28 January 1821, with the inscription “3 o’clock [in the] morning—drawn to keep me awake[,] a deadly sweat was on him all this night.” In 1825 Severn sent this copy of the original sketch (held at the Keats-Shelley House, Rome) to Keats’s publisher John Taylor, also enclosing a letter and a lock of the poet’s hair. This collection of Keats relics, including the paper packet that once housed the lock of hair, arrived at the Morgan in 1909 as a purchase from the bookseller Frank T. Sabin. This purchase included significant Percy Bysshe Shelley manuscripts (including a poem found in his pocket after he drowned in 1822) and one additional lock of Keats’s hair, cut just before he left England for Italy. The Morgan also owns a third lock, taken by William Haslam and later in the possession of Joseph Severn.
According to the covering letter, this deathbed sketch is the original drawing Severn made “from life” as he nursed Keats in Rome. As Severn writes, “I take this first opportunity of sending to you a little sketch of our dear friend Keats, the only one I have done from the life — I remember you told me in your last letter that you ‘would prefer any thing done from the life, to a mere copy’.” This statement seems to support the idea that the Morgan version of the sketch is the original, though scholarly consensus maintains that the version at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, donated by Severn’s daughter Eleanor Furneaux, came first. The sketch has endured as the best-known image of the poet.
Keats died on 23 February and was buried in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery, his grave marker bearing the epitaph “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” Severn would be buried next to him.