This letter was written by Lord Byron from the Italian city of Ravenna to his publisher John Murray in London.
In the letter, Byron refers to the death of John Keats. He had previously been dismissive of Keats – on 4 November 1820 he had written to Murray about the Edinburgh Review (August 1820), referring to ‘Jack Keats or Ketch or whatever his names are’, and describing his work as ‘onanism – something like the pleasure an Italian fiddler extracted out of being suspended daily by a Street Walker in Drury Lane …’. A few weeks before that he had in another letter mentioned ‘Johnny Keats’ piss a bed poetry’. Even in this letter he talks about Keats taking ‘the wrong line as a poet – [he] was spoilt by Cockneyfying and Suburbing’.
The contrasting opinions expressed in this passage are interesting. Byron asks if Keats is dead because of John Wilson Croker's 1818 review from the Quarterly Review (‘a savage review is Hemlock to a sucking author’), then states ‘I am sorry for it’, inserting a ‘very’ as an afterthought. Yet he goes on to be critical of the direction Keats’s poetry took, and then describes how he (Byron) overcame the disappointment of a bad review, in a ‘manly’ way – ‘Instead of bursting a blood-vessel - I drank three bottles of claret - and began an answer’. He states that he would not wish to have been responsible for the ‘homicidal’ review of Keats’s work and ends by returning to the dismissive tone by implying that Keats’s poetry belonged to a ‘School of Scribbling’.
Italy was at this time a group of separate states; after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 various groups emerged with the intention of uniting Italy, but Ravenna was located in the conservative Papal States. Byron in Ravenna had joined and armed one of the groups agitating for Italian unification.