In October of 1820, typhus raged in Naples. With his artist buddy, Joseph Severn, the British poet John Keats rocked within the metropolis’s harbor for 10 days, not almost the quaranta giorni — 40 days — that give us our phrase quarantine.
Before this journey, Keats at all times felt intense melancholy. In “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles for the First Time,” he wrote “… mortality / Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep.” (And within the easy pentameter of “Ode to a Nightingale”: “I have been half in love with easeful death.”) Not a vacation, this voyage out of England was a determined journey to the sunny local weather of Italy. His cough had grown steadily worse. Since the morning he’d seen a splotch of blood on his pillow, he knew he had little likelihood of surviving the consumption that had invaded his lungs. His last-ditch: Go to Rome. Meanwhile, exile at sea.
I’ve seen Naples from his vantage of a ship anchored offshore — one of the crucial elegant places on the earth, that sweep of coast stacked with apricot, carmine, azure and rose villas; the blue, blue U of the harbor; the emphatic Vesuvius anchoring the view. See Naples and die, certainly. But elegant as it’s, beneath our present “shelter in place” order, I went a bit stir loopy in beneath per week; 10 days of enforced idleness may seem to be a yr.
I think about his future biographers are grateful, as a result of Keats took the clean days to put in writing a quick memoir of his not-at-all-poetic upbringing, with virtually everybody he cherished dying all through his childhood, instability, poverty and fixed fights with bullies who teased him for his “lack of inches.” After this robust and tragic early youth, he apprenticed at 14 to a physician for medical coaching, a hideous expertise, adopted by different ugly coaching years at Guy Hospital. Along the best way, he fell in love with poetry and spent all his spare time learning. He clawed his approach right into a literary life and solely needed his identify to be “among the English poets.” That it’s.
His transient interval of quarantine fascinates me. Keats, virtually 25, solely had 4 extra months to reside and he already felt himself “insubstantial, as though My whole existence is already posthumous.” He invented puns; he learn Byron. He was aggravated by a lady passenger, a fellow consumptive. Then he set down the occasions of his life as a way to make sense of it. The doc is a painful learn. He had, after all, no technique to know that, to far-distant readers like me, his life story can be triumphant, too.
Only one quarantine letter survived, to Mrs. Brawn, the mom of Fanny, the younger lady he cherished and would by no means see once more. “O what an account I could give you of the Bay of Naples if I could once more feel myself a Citizen of this world,” he wrote, and “Give my love to Fanny and tell her, if I were well there is enough in this Port of Naples to fill a quire of Paper — but it looks like a dream.”
A quire of paper. Four giant sheets of parchment folded to create 24 pages. Imagine that he had coated them with descriptions of the so-near-so-far metropolis on the shimmering water. Italy. A moon wobbling up, casting silver glints on the domes, the far-off bells resonating out to sea, heat humid air to breathe deeply. I see him leaning on the rail. All the traces like “half in love with easeful death” forgotten. In quarantine, he confronted a full cease. He discovered a raging need to reside. He left behind the younger man filled with verve and romanticism, who courted melancholy in his poems. Now, right here’s this elegant bay. No vitality for a quire of paper to be scrawled throughout.
In a letter written shortly after he disembarked from the Maria Crowther, his panic strikes out like a chicken caught in a room. He can not think about he gained’t see Fanny once more. “I am afraid to write to her — to receive a letter from her — to see her handwriting would break my heart — even to hear of her anyhow, to see her name written would be more than I can bear.”
Across the 200 years, the anguish nonetheless vibrates. If he’d recovered, I ponder if his poetry would have modified.
Our sixth day grounded, I spent with Keats. “Much have I traveled in the realms of gold,” he wrote. Me too. In school I believed that “gold” meant desires, however I came upon the gold referred to the gilt on the perimeters of books. My Keats volumes aren’t gold-bound; they’re yellowed and embarrassingly underlined. My cat crawls on the couch and I check out numerous immortal traces on him however he stares out the window, not caring that we’re within the grips of a virus that’s swooping world wide as a biblical swarm, lighting capriciously the place it would, just like the bacillus that landed, latched and bloomed within the poet’s lungs. We don’t know if we’re inside for 10 days or the complete quarantina. Or longer. Full cease. Will Vesuvius blow? We don’t know a lot.
Which brings me again to Keats. He aspired to what he known as Negative Capability, when one is “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts and reasons.” At the tip of this present day, that’s my takeaway. Facts and causes can change. Capable, a robust phrase. Being, an lively presence. Uncertainty, a liquid state the place you float, swim, and take within the view.
Frances Mayes’s newest books are “Women in Sunlight,” “See You in the Piazza” and “Always Italy” with Ondine Cohan, which is due out March 31 from National Geographic.
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