1821 - Keats dies in Rome; Shelley writes Adonais; Byron publishes Don Juan III–V; death of Napoleon; Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater

On the 23rd February 1821 John Keats succumbed to tuberculosis in the bedroom of the apartment he had been renting in Piazza di Spagna. The tragic nature of his untimely death, at only 25, was further intensified by the fact that he died in ignorance of the acclaim that his work would one day receive. Keats’s poetry continues to touch innumerable numbers of people who, generations after his death, come from all parts of the world and all walks of life to visit the house where he died, now a place of pilgrimage and contemplation.

P.B. Shelley was so greatly affected by Keats’s death that he was moved to write Adonais, a pastoral elegy which was published in the summer of 1821. Keats is depicted as Adonais, the Greek god of beauty and fertility whose deathbed is attended by various figures, including Byron. In the preface to the work Shelley thanked Joseph Severn for caring for Keats during his illness; the mention of Severn’s name led to increased interest in the artist’s work.

Also in 1821 Byron published cantos III to V of Don Juan. Bryon eventually completed 16 cantos for publication, leaving the 17th unfinished at his death in 1824. Byron claimed that he wrote the poem with no overall plan, and that while writing one canto he had no idea about the content of the following canto. Despite this modern critics tend to consider it his finest work

One further publication of importance which came into the public domain in the same year was Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. First published anonymously, the book is an autobiographical account of De Quincey’s laudanum addiction and the effect that it had on his life. The work created great scandal,
as it was clear from the numerous analogies to literature from the previous two centuries that the author was both well read and intelligent. This made the book’s positive portrayal of opium even more shocking, and it was feared that the work would entice people into trying the drug for themselves. This was an allegation that De Quincey took very seriously and he added medical information about the harmful effects of the drug to later editions of the book.

In the political sphere 1821 was dominated by the death of Napoleon Bonaparte. He died at the age of 52 whilst still in exile on the island of Saint Helena. His last words were said to be ‘France, l'armée, tête d'armée, Joséphine’ ('France, army, head of the army, Josephine’). His remains were transported back to France, in a ship which had been painted black for the occasion, and were laid to rest in the crypt of Les Invalides, Paris.

John Keats, Joseph Severn, 1821