When the World Stops, Traveling in John Keats’s ‘Realms of Gold’
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When the World Stops, Touring in John Keats’s ‘Realms of Gold’

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In October of 1820, typhus raged in Naples. Along 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.

Earlier than this journey, Keats all the time felt intense melancholy. In “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles for the First Time,” he wrote “… mortality / Weighs closely on me like unwilling sleep.” (And within the easy pentameter of “Ode to a Nightingale”: “I’ve been half in love with easeful dying.”) 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. For the reason that 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. In the meantime, exile at sea.

I’ve seen Naples from his vantage of a ship anchored offshore — some of the elegant places on this planet, 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. However elegant as it’s, underneath our present “shelter in place” order, I went a bit stir loopy in underneath per week; 10 days of enforced idleness might seem to be a 12 months.

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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 health care provider for medical coaching, a hideous expertise, adopted by different grotesque coaching years at Man Hospital. Alongside 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 wished his title to be “among the many 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 if My entire existence is already posthumous.” He invented puns; he learn Byron. He was aggravated by a girl passenger, a fellow consumptive. Then he set down the occasions of his life with a purpose to make sense of it. The doc is a painful learn. He had, in fact, no technique to know that, to far-distant readers like me, his life story could be triumphant, too.

Just one quarantine letter survived, to Mrs. Brawn, the mom of Fanny, the younger girl he cherished and would by no means see once more. “O what an account I might offer you of the Bay of Naples if I might as soon as extra really feel myself a Citizen of this world,” he wrote, and “Give my like to Fanny and inform her, if I have been nicely there’s sufficient on this Port of Naples to fill a quire of Paper — but it surely seems to be like a dream.”

A quire of paper. 4 giant sheets of parchment folded to create 24 pages. Think about that he had lined 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 of the traces like “half in love with easeful dying” forgotten. In quarantine, he confronted a full cease. He discovered a raging want 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 power 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 fowl caught in a room. He can not think about he gained’t see Fanny once more. “I’m afraid to put in writing to her — to obtain a letter from her — to see her handwriting would break my coronary heart — even to listen to of her anyhow, to see her title written could be greater than I can bear.”

Throughout the 200 years, the anguish nonetheless vibrates. If he’d recovered, I’m wondering if his poetry would have modified.

Our sixth day grounded, I spent with Keats. “A lot have I traveled within the realms of gold,” he wrote. Me too. In school I assumed 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 varied immortal traces on him however he stares out the window, not caring that we’re within the grips of a virus that’s swooping all over the world as a biblical swarm, lighting capriciously the place it is going to, 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 total 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 referred to as Adverse Functionality, when one is “able to being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, with none irritable reaching after information and causes.” On the finish of this present day, that’s my takeaway. Information and causes can change. Succesful, a robust phrase. Being, an energetic presence. Uncertainty, a liquid state the place you float, swim, and take within the view.


Frances Mayes’s newest books are “Ladies in Daylight,” “See You within the Piazza” and “All the time Italy” with Ondine Cohan, which is due out March 31 from Nationwide Geographic.


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