What if John Keats had not died in Rome at twenty-five, just as he was coming to realize his gifts? In this audaciously imagined alternate life story, the young poet is pulled back from the brink of death only to find his troubles far from over. He is short on money, far from home, his literary reputation anything but assured—but his life and imagination have been spared, and a new country awaits.
In an Italy at uneasy peace, full of foreign armies and spies, Keats soon finds his loyalties divided. He is drawn into Percy and Mary Shelley’s expatriate circle, resumes his old profession of surgery and falls in with student revolutionaries who are plotting a more radical cure for their nation. His fiancée in London expects his return, and everyone is expecting his next poem, but he has not returned from his deathbed quite the same person—or poet—that he was.
Written with erudition and compassion, Paul Kerschen’s debut novel is a spellbinding historical yarn and a heady engagement with the literature of the past, a thing of beauty in itself and a meditation on the writer’s duty in troubled times.
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Paul Kerschen was born in 1978 and has been a fellowship recipient at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, a title examiner, a software developer, an essayist and reviewer for Music & Literature and the Times Literary Supplement, and a blogger at www.metameat.net. He lives in California. The Drowned Library, a collection of short fiction, was published by Foxhead Books in 2011.
This author is a copyist of Mr. Hunt; but he is more unintelligible, almost as rugged, twice as diffuse, and ten times more tiresome and absurd than his prototype… his nonsense therefore is quite gratuitous; he writes it for its own sake.
The Quarterly Review, April 1818
We venture to make one small prophecy, that his bookseller will not a second time venture £50 upon any thing he can write. It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet.
Blackwood’s, August 1818
He is indeed far gone, beyond the reach of the efficacy of either praise or censure, in affectation and absurdity.
The Eclectic Review, September 1817
Prologue in Hell
He died; but they turned the lock on his bones and shut the ghost inside. Everything had to go on as before. He discovered the persistence of walls, the dominion of furniture. Look long enough into the ceiling and the ceiling ends up inside you.
I have not begun the last work, that of losing things.
They fed him on milk and toast. They bled him from the neck, and they took away the cork-stoppered bottle of laudanum that he had been saving in his travel chest, under the Paradise Lost. Think of your soul! they said. He wept. That bottle, which he had never uncorked, had been his last comfort. The pain cannot get worse. The pain did get worse, every time, and the consolations of his soul went up in bonfires, except for the knowledge that he might kill it. He would swallow from the bottle only once and endure five seconds more. The five seconds stretched forward their fibers, became an hour, and his senses were cut away.
I will tell you what is the life you have saved… the cough and hemorrhage you know. The night sweats are to come. The palpitations. The wasting diarrhea, that empties the structure. You are tending a corpse….
He couldn’t draw breath. His throat scorched. An ocean hung at his lips and he could not drink for weakness. He started awake at night with his sheets drenched and his heart skipping in him like something tumbling over ice. Instead of the old scarlet spittle he now brought up a black vomit into the chamberpot, threaded with clots. Yet he always had enough blood to fill the leeches in the morning. How, then, could anyone believe in his death?
The pain prowled him from side to side and scratched for its exit. He knew it as he had known faces. His skin had begun to sag at the joints, with a waxy cast as if ready to peel away.
He could not play this game forever, always extending the same five seconds.
His ambitions were forgotten. Friendship and love were fond, faraway dreams. Lay them into bed, let them drowse. His secrets were harder to let go, being his alone. That evening field of wheat, dipping its stalks in the wind—will it not survive me? No. Nor the very near things. The wall, the slant of yellow sun. Unwind them from your heart. This sheet and blanket are the span of your being. You lie still as a saint. Do not cling to breath, neither shrink from pain. The world spins outside your door, and from now on will have to answer its own questions. For you there is drowsing and letting go.
He dreamed his death. A physician’s scalpel slit him from sternum to navel. A violet track, the mark of poison, touched his innards.
Was I betrayed?
Someone laughed. You may go to law.
Kindling was heaped under his pallet and set alight. Everything he had touched in life must be burned.
Deep in the earth, where the dead had their courtroom, up and down were turned about. Benches hung in rows above his head and he clambered down an arched ceiling into the well of a dome. A crowd was gathered around a magistrate, and he shoved between their shoulders, calling, who is not dead, let him live! In fact he was saying, I alone am living, let me die, since in the courtroom of the dead every word had its meaning turned about. The pages in his hand were out of order. He could not read a single line from beginning to end, and everything was mixed in with his poems and plays, not his finished work but the abandoned things he had never brought to print. He tried to hide them against his breast, but a bailiff in riding clothes leaned from behind and said, ah, Cockney poetry, the rare wild weed.
On the far side of the crowd there showed a woman’s white hand, a color cool as water. To touch it would end him. He tried to reach around the bailiff, but the man’s shoulders kept moving to block his way.
Thou, spoke the magistrate. Unsay thy farewells.
Thou shalt take up each thread at the place it was dropped. Ravel them back into the whole.
The key turned in the lock. The bone cage cracked open. He was flung upward, tumbling fast as if rising from the bottom of the ocean. The blue arm of night flowed up his limbs, kissed his temples, and a trickle of snow touched his throat. He lifted his chest to suck and a torrent of ice poured into him. He was penetrated to the fingertips and could not be filled. What was this power?
He was drowned; he was alive. With all his heart he had expected to be finished.
Piazza di Spagna 26
A Roman morning is a glass bead on the horizon, pearl-gray to start, then stained by lower lights. Blue rises from the roofs, flat white follows and in a flash of gold the sun mounts the sky and divides the world into light and shade. Knife-sharp shadows cut the piazzas, a lesson in perspective: things stand as they stand. There shall be no doubting of place, nor time, nor substance. All dreams are locked in their cabinets for the day. The light’s edge touched bricks and deep-carved porticos, the bright Bourbon flag over the Spanish embassy, church steps and apartments across the way and the upper-story window that dropped a bar of sun onto the lids of John Keats. He winced and moved his head. The shutters traced a golden diamond on the hearth.
A tread on the steps, a soft rap at the outer door would be the doctor. Severn would receive him in the outer chamber, which was Severn’s to sleep in but outfitted during the day as a sitting room, with a couple of French chairs and a hired pianoforte. Severn set up his easels to block the bed and shuttled around between wooden panels with bright oil sketches, watercolors of Roman scenes and the half-length canvas where he’d chalked out the start of his Royal Academy painting. The doctor, a sober Scotsman who knew his landscapes and classical themes, always stopped to admire the works in progress before continuing into the sickroom. Severn laughed nervously at his compliments.
“Doctor Clark, you very much flatter me. I am always afraid my daubing shall disturb you….”
“But, Mr. Severn, I should say you prefer to daub before a public. Did you not sketch these upon the Pincio?”
Severn gave another high laugh. “One works from life. I can’t very well get the Pincio to come to me.” But he really did take pleasure in being watched. Every so often he would set down his brush and strike poses, running his hand through his curls. He had twenty-seven years to Keats’s twenty-five but had always seemed the younger man.
“Good morning, Mr. Keats.”
The doctor was large, the doorway small, and his shoulders and elbows had a way of filling it. His frock coat blocked the light. As he stepped in, one saw his thin ginger hair and the hooked nose that gave him the look of an eagle, though a kindly eagle, perhaps from a storybook. He opened the shutters and threw southern sun over Keats in bed.
“How did we pass the night?”
Keats muttered in answer. So early in the morning, he felt the breath uneasy in him.
“I think no leech today. If you would oblige me by lifting the nightshirt.”
His large hands undid the clasp of the medical bag, took out the wooden auscultation tube and held it to the patient’s breast. Keats inspired and expired, and the doctor nestled his balding head below, just as Keats had nestled his head against Severn those nights that Severn had carried him choking from room to room.
“Good.” The doctor raised his head. “Clearer by the day. Sit upright, please, and turn your back.”
Keats pushed himself up, arms slightly quaking, and hung his head out the window three stories over the piazza. The steps of Trinità dei Monti had sprouted their carpet of hats and parasols over the young women for hire as artist’s models. At the bottom of the steps carriages stood in line and fountain water shipped over the bow of the elder Bernini’s sinking boat. At times Keats would start in his room, realizing that for hours he had been hearing phantom patterns in the splash, a triple-time dance measure or the iambs from Philaster:
As you are living, all your better deeds
Shall be in water writ—
“What do you feel if I press here?” asked the doctor.
“Pressure,” Keats gasped, “but no inflammation. I should say the liver and pancreas are very well.”
The doctor chuckled, glad to hear the patient making a sally. In Keats’s own ears his voice sounded high, almost childish, since the illness. No one else had remarked on any change. The doctor returned his instruments to their bag, exactly reversing the order in which he’d taken them out, and Severn showed his face at the door.
“The liver is sound,” said Doctor Clark. “The pancreas is sound. I suspect the lungs were well from the start. The greater part may have been an affliction of the mind.”
“The mind,” said Keats.
“A nervous complaint.”
Doctor Clark could talk at length of nervous complaints, their various forms, their connection to bodily ailments—inasmuch as the brain, we now understand, is a fibrous organ like any other. He was kind. More than a doctor he’d been their factotum. He’d secured their rooms across the piazza from his own, gone out to find books in English, arranged for the hire of carriages and the pianoforte, brought sheet music of Haydn for Severn to play. What he said about the nerves was surely correct, and it struck Keats as an attack. He spoke from inside his profession as if it were a coat he had pulled around him, knowing that Keats, who had never taken the surgeon’s examination, must face him naked.
Keats sank back into bed. In his new, weak voice he asked, “Then I may soon return to England?”
The doctor shut his bag. “I recommend against haste. You haven’t the look of a man who has much encountered the Roman sun. Have you been about the city?”
Keats was coming back to walking as a child. His feet had become hilarious foreign implements, to be trusted only while he kept them in sight.
“Mr. Severn? You haven’t taken Mr. Keats onto the Pincio?”
Severn smiled narrowly. “Mr. Keats yesterday said that he found the stairs, er, of a difficulty to rank with German philosophy.”
“My life is in England,” said Keats.
“It shall wait for you there,” said the doctor. “I fear to send you on a sea voyage if the onset of winter should precipitate another attack and require you to be shipped back here in six months. Let the Roman spring do its work. Given the Roman summer, in a month or two I might suggest a removal to the hill country.”
“Consumption killed my younger brother,” Keats said.
The doctor lifted his brows and, getting no further information, turned his look to Severn.
“They prescribed him bloodletting,” he continued, “and a vegetable diet. Tom would not quarrel with physicians. Only when he was near his end did he whisper that more than anything in the world he wanted a beefsteak. We didn’t give him it. At times my heart is pierced to think we kept it from him.”
The piazza’s sounds receded, becoming remembered sounds. From far above the doctor replied, “It is a truly sad necessity.”
“Nor to dispute your diagnosis,” said Keats, “but you are aware, are you not, that my hemorrhages in England were of arterial blood, not from the stomach. They came up in a froth—”
“Bless me!” cried Severn, shuddering, “must you say ‘froth?’”
“It is a fact.”
“I understand,” said the doctor. “You are not quarreling with me, Mr. Keats, but with the gods.”
Keats crossed his arms and made a wry face.
“I cannot encourage you to travel. The risk that we would gladly run ourselves, we shrink from imposing on another. If it does not sound too parsonical from a man in middle life, I would counsel patience, to think of the years you have left, and to recall that as recently as Christmas, it was doubtful you should get to live any of them.”
Under his folded arms Keats felt his own slightness. “Believe me to be grateful for all you have done, Doctor Clark.”
“Believe me to be sorry I can do no more.” The doctor bowed. “Until tomorrow. I always look forward to the effects of another day upon Alcibiades”—he gestured to Severn’s canvas—“and I have your volume, Mr. Keats, on order from Taylor and Hessey.”
“My volume?” The frontispiece came faintly to mind. “They will have a happy surprise that anyone wants it.”
The doctor made a strange face and reached as if to touch Keats’s shoulder, but withdrew. “Mr. Severn,” he said, “if I might trouble you apart for a moment.”
They stepped out. Keats heard the door unlatch and swing open, and murmurs from the entryway, in the embarrassed tones of people with nowhere private to talk. They lived very close here. A muslin drape screened the landlady and her daughter from sight, but their footsteps were as clear as one’s own. One heard their food on the gridiron, their water jars and chamberpots being emptied. They were always boiling egg noodles and filling the place with steam. The mother never stopped exclaiming in her Roman dialect; the daughter was silent. During his fever Keats had forgotten she was there. Now that he sat in the front room, he would see her step past the drape in bright, coarse calico, hair pulled up from her long neck and a basket in her hand. Her shy glance as she walked to the door struck him dumb. He felt himself viewed: slight, ill, poor, from a foreign land. A quarter hour later she came back with bread or a wrap from the butcher and was hurried by her mother behind the drape.
Footsteps went down the stairs and Severn stepped in with a dejected look.
“What was that?” asked Keats.
“Nothing,” said Severn. “The bill. As courteous as a duke, of course.”
“The purse is a fibrous organ like any other.”
Severn blinked and forced a smile, but his eyes darted about the room. He muttered, not quite to himself, “The lodging—full-crown dinners—seven for the pianoforte.”
“Are we very poor now, Severn?”
“Poor!” Severn raised both hands and brushed back his curls. “On my honor, Keats, I spared you every trouble so long as I could. I cooked for economy’s sake; I washed up; I made you coffee,” he cried, waving at the hearth, “and you threw it away, and I made it again, and you threw it out the window again, and I made it a third time—and then you would have me read to you. And I was supposed to begin a painting! With my son yet in London, nearly two years old and not baptized—”
“It was good of you.”
Severn colored and looked down. “It is a fortnight since I drew the last on your publishers’ letter of credit. Doctor Clark was not inquiring after professional fees. He has been providing for us out of his own pocket.”
A pot clanged in the outer room and the landlady shouted. Past these walls were other walls in morning light, and others again, then farther roads, country hills and mountains, all the lands of Europe that Keats knew only from guidebooks and poetry, each stood up as a barrier between him and the life he had loved.
“I had made peace with this country being my grave,” he said. “It can’t be my home.”
“You are advised to stay,” said Severn.
“I am desired to stay. And how? With the good doctor dispensing scudi from the one hand and asking them back with the other—only around the corner, so as to spare my condition? It is not tolerable.”
“He has been kind,” Severn said haltingly. “There was that certain fish.”
“Last month. He went all over Rome to find it, and had in his wife to cook, though you couldn’t eat—”
“Then mightn’t I as well have choked?”
Severn winced. The blood began to ebb from Keats’s face and very slowly, as if guided by an older hand, he sat up in his blankets. The stream of the world had found its way back to him. The moment he set foot out of bed, it would take him up again.
“Forgive me, Joe,” he said. “It is the melancholy. It came first of my illnesses, and it will be the last to take leave.”
“So says Doctor Clark. The nervous fibers.”
“I do not speak of fibers,” said Keats. “It is the trouble I have put you to. I’ve so depended on you, and on everyone, I don’t know how I am to make good.”
“It is nothing,” said Severn.
“I shall settle my debts to the penny.”
He had said it to give confidence. But Severn turned aside with a twist to his mouth, and Keats realized he was embarrassed to have such a promise made him by a sickly man in a nightshirt, sitting up in the cot that ought to have been his deathbed.