|The First Art Newspaper on the Net
||Established in 1996
|| Monday, December 6, 2021
|A poet's anguish vibrates through time|
A view of Naples from the bay, April 27, 2019. In 1820, the British poet spent 10 days quarantined in the Bay of Naples as typhus raged, an enforced stillness mirrored by our own. Susan Wright/The New York Times.
by Frances Mayes
NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In October 1820, typhus raged in Naples, Italy. With his artist friend Joseph Severn, British poet John Keats rocked in the citys harbor for 10 days, not nearly the quaranta giorni 40 days that give us our word quarantine.
Before this journey, Keats always felt intense melancholy. In On Seeing the Elgin Marbles for the First Time, he wrote
mortality / Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep. (And in the smooth pentameter of Ode to a Nightingale: I have been half in love with easeful death.) Not a holiday, this voyage out of England was a desperate trip to the sunny climate of Italy. His cough had grown steadily worse. Since the morning that he had seen a splotch of blood on his pillow, he knew he had little chance of surviving the consumption that had invaded his lungs. His last ditch: Go to Rome. Meanwhile, exile at sea.
I have seen Naples from his vantage of a ship anchored offshore one of the most sublime locations in the world, 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, indeed. But sublime as it is, under our current shelter in place order, I went a bit stir crazy in under a week; 10 days of enforced idleness could seem like a year.
I imagine his future biographers are grateful because Keats took the blank days to write a brief memoir of his not-at-all-poetic upbringing, with almost everyone he loved dying throughout his childhood, instability, poverty, and constant fights with bullies who teased him for his lack of inches. After this tough and tragic early youth, he apprenticed at 14 to a doctor for medical training, a hideous experience, followed by other gruesome training years at Guy Hospital. Along the way, he fell in love with poetry and spent all his spare time studying. He clawed his way into a literary life and only wanted his name to be among the English poets. That it is.
His brief period of quarantine fascinates me. Keats, almost 25, had only four months to live and felt himself insubstantial, as though my whole existence is already posthumous. He invented puns; he read Byron. He was annoyed by a female passenger, a fellow consumptive. Then he set down the events of his life in order to make sense of it. The document is a painful read. He had, of course, no way to know that, to far-distant readers like me, his life story would be triumphant, too.
Only one quarantine letter survived, to Mrs. Brawn, the mother of Fanny, the young woman he loved and would never see again. 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 large sheets of parchment folded to create 24 pages. Imagine that he had covered them with descriptions of the so-near-so-far city on the shimmering water. Italy. A moon wobbling up, casting silver glints on the domes, the far-off bells resonating out to sea, warm humid air to breathe deeply. I see him leaning on the rail. All the lines like half in love with easeful death forgotten. In quarantine, he faced a full stop. He found a raging desire to live. He left behind the young man full of verve and romanticism, who courted melancholy in his poems. Now, heres this sublime bay. No energy for a quire of paper to be scrawled across.
In a letter written shortly after he disembarked from the Maria Crowther, his panic strikes out like a bird caught in a room. He cannot imagine he wont see Fanny again. 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 still vibrates. If hed recovered, I wonder if his poetry would have changed.
Our sixth day grounded I spent with Keats. Much have I traveled in the realms of gold, he wrote. Me too. In college I thought gold meant dreams, but I found out that the gold referred to the gilt on the sides of books. My Keats volumes arent goldbound; theyre yellowed and embarrassingly underlined. My cat crawls on the sofa, and I try out various immortal lines on him, but he stares out the window, not caring that were in the grips of a virus that is swooping around the world as a biblical swarm, lighting capriciously where it will, like the bacillus that landed, latched and bloomed in the poets lungs. We dont know if were inside for 10 days or the full quarantina. Or longer. Full stop. Will Vesuvius blow? We dont know much.
Which brings me back to Keats. He aspired to what he called negative capability, when one is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts and reasons. At the end of this day, thats my takeaway. Facts and reasons can change. Capable, a strong word. Being, an active presence. Uncertainty, a liquid state where you float, swim and take in the view.
© 2020 The New York Times Company
March 30, 2020
These auction items are out of this world. No, really.
Country folk icon John Prine in 'critical' condition with coronavirus
Stephenson's to host April 3 boutique auction of fine gold & silver coins, ingots, sets
Exhibition shows how light always serves artists to create interaction with their viewers
Overlooked no more: Kate Worley, a pioneer writer of erotic comics
Vortic - an XR platform for the art world announces launch
Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki dies at 86
Steidl publishes 'Martin Schoeller: 1999-2019'
Casey Kaplan presents a new film documenting the exhibition 'Liam Gillick: Redaction'
How philanthropists are helping during the crisis
Fort Gansevoort announces a series of weekly online exhibitions
Most comprehensive exhibition of Qiu Shihua's works in China to date opens at Galerie Urs Meile
Sous Les Etoiles Gallery opens an online exhibition of works by Richard Caldicott
Mike Longo, jazz pianist, composer and educator, dies at 83
London's last remaining dandy Viktor Wynd on his wondrous museum of curiosities
Atlantic Center for the Arts annual Horsin' Around Auction goes virtual
Museum of Nebraska Art changes format of 'Spirit: A Celebration of Art in the Heartland' auction
NHM Los Angeles announces highlights in its digital portal for nature and culture
Ray Mantilla, percussionist who transcended genres, dies at 85
Michael Sorkin, 71, dies; Saw architecture as a vehicle for change
Sun Museum releases two new books and opens cartoon exhibition by Yeung Chun Tong
Lenbachhaus Munich announces the digital exhibition opening of Sheela Gowda: It.. Matters
Casula Powerhouse extends deadline for 66th Blake Prize entries
Pi Artworks Istanbul presents an exhibition of new works by Ipek Duben
Country music star Joe Diffie dies of coronavirus
A poet's anguish vibrates through time
What is the best Riad in Marrakech?
Museums, Exhibits, Artists, Milestones, Digital Art, Architecture, Photography,
Photographers, Special Photos, Special Reports, Featured Stories, Auctions, Art Fairs,
Anecdotes, Art Quiz, Education, Mythology, 3D Images, Last Week, .
|Royalville Communications, Inc|
Tell a Friend
Dear User, please complete the form below in order to recommend the Artdaily newsletter to someone you know.
Please complete all fields marked *.