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Who killed John Keats?

December 7, 2009

by John Barnard
from Times

On Friday July 27, 1821, five months after Keats’s death, the Morning Chronicle printed, under the heading “John Keats, the Poet”, a long letter written by someone identified only as “Y”. The letter was reprinted by Edmund Blunden in his book Shelley and Keats as they struck their Contemporaries (1925), with the warning, “Y. may have been C. Cowden Clarke, but the letter does not altogether decide the point”. A quarter of a century later, J. R. MacGillivray noted the existence of the letter in his Bibliography and Reference Guide (1949), and identified the writer as “almost certainly Charles Cowden Clarke”.

MacGillivray cited the letter writer’s description of himself as Keats’s “School-fellow and friend”, and his claims to have been present when Keats was first introduced to Leigh Hunt and to Benjamin Robert Haydon (facts which point to Clarke’s authorship), and concluded by giving a short extract in which Y describes a night he once spent talking to the poet about the recent hostile reviews of Endymion. The letter’s account of Keats’s sensitivity to the critics’ attacks has never been fully integrated into the poet’s biography. That may be partly because the identity of Y is not entirely certain, and partly because Blunden’s book, which was printed in a limited edition of 390, is a collector’s item usually lodged in rare book rooms. But there may be another more important reason. At the heart of the letter is a description of Keats lying awake “through the whole night” talking with “sensative-bitterness” [sic] about the attacks by his critics. This challenges Keats’s own claims that the hostile articles written about him in Blackwood’s and the Quarterly affected him less than his own self-criticism (claims always cited to rebut the myth that he was killed by a review). more

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