The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 1 (April 1, 1937)
Noble Friend of Famous Poet — Further Facts about John Keats from Charles Brown's Letters. — Relics Restored From New Zealand
Noble Friend of Famous Poet
Further Facts about John Keats from Charles Brown's Letters.
Relics Restored From New Zealand
In New Zealand soil—on the brow of picturesque Marsland Hill, New Plymouth, overlooking the “Garden of New Zealand,” lies buried the noble friend of a poet whose fame grows with the years. Charles Armitage Brown was a friend in need to John Keats, and to Brown all lovers of literature owe an immeasurable debt, for it was due solely to Brown that some of the best of Keats' glorious poetry was rescued from the crumpled “waste paper” stage. New facts have been brought to light concerning the great friendship of these two men. Descendants of Brown are living in New Plymouth and from them have been gathered some fresh facts here recorded.
as drawn by his intimate friend, Charles Armitage Brown, who emigrated from England to New Zealand and died at New Plymouth in 1842. Mrs. Gordon Osborne, of Auckland, the grand-daughter of Brown, forwarded the original drawing to England several years ago (1922), that being the first knowledge England had of its existence.
Was the name of John Keats written in water? His critics would think otherwise, and Keats himself would be gratified could they but know to what heights his fame has risen in the minds of the living. A new book is to be published in England in the near future by Mr. Buxton Foreman dealing with memories of Keats and this is the second Mr. Foreman has written on the subject. Included in the volume will be further information relating to the association of Keats and his best friend, Charles Armitage Brown, whose grave is upon the side of Marsland Hill in New Plymouth. Brown was the means of rescuing from oblivion for immortality some of the best work that the poet produced. The source of some of this additional knowledge was from letters written by Brown to Keats and others from this corner of the world which, during recent years, has yielded quite a rich array of relics and facts about the two men.
Brown it was who could have revealed the most and the best concerning Keats and his life and work in the few, sad latter years of Keats' sojourn in England. Brown did commence to write a memoir of his friend, but was troubled by the loss of Keats and also by the turn of events in his own affairs. The culminating point was Brown's decision to use the remmants of his fortune to establish his only son, Charles Brown, as a civil engineer in the New Plymouth of 1840, which then, was scarcely in the blue print stage. Brown handed his memoir to Richard Monckton Milne, afterwards Lord Houghton, who wrote the Life and Letters of John Keats.
We know that to Keats, Brown was best friend; that Keats lived with Brown when Keats otherwise would have been exiled in utter misery; that but for Brown a number of pieces of glorious poetry never would have been added to the store of universal literature; that it fell to Brown, after Keats died at Rome, to raise a monument on the grave inscribed as Keats had requested “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” What is there known about Brown and through Brown about Keats? Descendants of Brown are living in New Plymouth and besides having given every assistance to biographers of Keats they yielded up much of interest to the Keats Museum at Hampstead in the old house in which Keats and Brown lived during 1818, 1819 and early 1820.
Mrs. Jessie Brown (nee Brown) and Miss Lucy Brown of New Plymouth are children of Major Charles Keats Brown, who was a son of Charles Armitage Brown and whose name is written in the affairs of Taranaki Province in its early days when Major Brown was Superintendent of the Province. To converse with Mrs. Jessie Brown and hear her story of her grandfather, and to meet Miss Lucy Brown who strikingly resembles the bust of Keats' friend was a pleasant experience, for both have kept in touch with descendants of Charles Armitage Brown's English friends, including those of Leigh Hunt, and biographers of Keats. Through the efforts of Brown's grandchildren, Mrs. Jessie Brown, and Miss Brown, New Plymouth, Mrs. Gordon Osborne and Mr. W. A. Brown, Auckland, a portrait of Keats, a bust of Brown and other interesting relics have been placed in the Keats Museum.
It was the nobility of Keats that has made him immortal and more revered as time flies, although it was so long ago as 23rd February, 1821, and he but 25 years of age at the time of his death. It was nobility on the part of Brown that marked the friendship. Again, it was nobility that led to Brown, late in his life, changing his venue and coming to New Zealand. He had backed a promissory note for a friend, had to meet it unexpectedly and depleted his small means to such an extent that he chose the new country to provide his son opportunity.
One well may imagine that Keats wrote letters to Fanny Brawne and lines of some of his later work upon a little rosewood table standing in a corner of the drawing room of Mrs. Jessie Brown.
“My grandfather was something of an epicure,” said Mrs. Brown proffering for my inspection a book filled in Brown's minute hand with recipes. Possibly Keats, Fanny Brawne and Hampstead associates tasted wine such as I tasted—wine made from Brown's formulae!
It seemed that Brown had not died, when a merry, twinkle-eyed lady, Mrs. Lucy Brown, informed me that she was a grand-daughter of Keats' friend and page 36page 37
“Charles Armitage Brown backed a bill for a friend and was obliged to meet it,” said Mrs. Brown, recalling what she knew. “He was born at Lambeth about 1786 and while still in his ‘teens went to St. Petersburg to manage a fur business. He returned to London after several years of vain speculation. When Henry Brown, brother of Charles Armitage Brown, died, unmarried, he left his money to his brother and that enabled him to live at ease and pursue his literary tastes. I imagine that he may have bought an annuity for himself, because I do not think my father ever had any money except what he earned.
“After Keats' death, he lived for many years in Italy where he was associated with Landor, Shelley, Byron, Leigh Hunt, Trelawney and Trollope.
“My father was educated by Armitage Brown later in Italy and lived nearly all the time there before he came to New Zealand in the Amelia Thompson, landing at New Plymouth when he was seventeen—a young man with curly hair, a top hat and quite a mature air. My grandfather met Lord Houghton, or Richard Monckton Milne, at the villa of Landor, in Florence, about 1834, when Lord Houghton learned my grandfather had prepared a memoir of Keats ready for publication. My grandfather attempted to publish this memoir, but had not been successful when, just before 1840, quite by accident I believe, he attended a meeting in London of the New Zealand Company, pertaining to colonisation. He took shares in the project amalgamated with the New Plymouth Company. During the next few weeks Armitage Brown was obliged to meet his friend's debt and was placed in the position of a man impoverished financially late in life. He decided to go to New Zealand and spend his last days and the remnants of his fortune there, hoping to establish his only child in the settlement as a civil engineer.
“That course was adopted. My father came on first, alone, and my grandfather followed in the Oriental. Father and son took up residence on the brow of the hill overlooking the Te Henui River, at the Mouth, near where my sister lives. There is now a short street near the old home site named after my father. The memoir of Keats' letters and data had been handed to Lord Houghton, who eventually (1840) published the life and letters of Keats.
Marsland Hill, New Plymouth, showing its appearance during the period of the Maori Wars. Charles A. Brown's grave is situated on the slopes just above the top on the left and St. Mary's Church midway on the hill. This picture was taken in the late ‘sixties by the son of Charles Armitage Brown—Major Brown, then Superintendent of Taranaki Province.
When Marsland Hill was made a military barracks in the troublous ‘sixties earth was thrown down the side, and the grave was forgotten during the ten years of Maori contention. A century after Keats’ death, at the direction of Brown's relatives, in Taranaki and Auckland, successful search was made for the site in March, 1921.
Mrs. Gordon Osborne and Mr. William A. Brown of Auckland are grandchildren of Armitage Brown, through Major Brown's second marriage. They, together with Mrs. Jessie and Miss Lucy Brown, acted in concert in gathering relics bearing association with Keats. Among the items returned to their former place in Brown's Hampstead house—purchased for the nation through American generosity ten years ago—were a photograph of the bust of Brown that had been in the New Plymouth Museum, and some Hogarth prints that had hung on the walls of the old house.
A few relics are still in possession of Mrs. Jessie Brown. An exquisitely painted scene on a piece of ivory has been made into a trinket box. The colours have kept their freshness remarkably well. The work was done by Brown, and consists of three figures of the 18th century—a country maid carrying a basket, and two youths—all chubby and red-cheeked. Mrs. Brown recalled that her grandfather had pursued his painting after Keats' death.
There are many who think that some memorial and a literary record should be made of the man who prospered the poet and insisted that stray verses were recorded.