Saturday, 14 March 2020

Keats in Quarantine

Quarantine is much in the news just now, for obvious reasons. The latest country to impose quarantine on arriving visitors is New Zealand (which might have family implications for me), and it joins an ever lengthening list.
  In the days of sail, quarantine was an ordeal routinely endured by travellers arriving at foreign ports. Little Dorrit begins with a vivid description of Arthur Clennam and his fellow travellers detained on board ship, in sweltering conditions, awaiting clearance to land at Marseilles. In real life, poor John Keats, travelling to Italy in 1820 in the vain hope of restoring his health, had to endure ten days of quarantine in the bay of Naples. The outward voyage from London had taken 34 days, the first ten of them spent in the Channel, battling violent storms, waiting for a change of wind and, from time to time, putting to shore.
  Off Yarmouth, Keats wrote to Charles Brown, unburdening his feelings in one of his most painfully moving letters ('The thought of leaving Miss Brawne is beyond everything horrible – I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing...'). But he was outwardly often in good spirits, and from time to time on the voyage, as Joseph Severn (his travelling companion) reported, 'like his former self'.
  In the bay of Naples, the passengers – who were all five accommodated in one cabin – and crew were joined by an officer and six seamen who had been sent from a nearby man-of-war to ask for their ship's name and status, but had thoughtlessly come on board and so found themselves detained for ten days. Their presence helped to alleviate the tedium – as did gifts of fruit and flowers from the brother of one of the passengers, a young woman still further gone in consumption than Keats. The poet, Severn recalled, 'was never tired of admiring (not to speak of eating) the beautiful clusters of grapes and other fruits, and was scarce less enthusiastic over the autumn flowers, though I remember his saying once that he would gladly give them all for a wayside dogrose bush covered with pink blooms.'  With the man-of-war's men of the company – and the Neapolitan boatmen in the bay adding their own vocal contributions – there was a surprising amount of merriment on board, with singing, laughter and jokes. According to Severn, Keats 'declared afterwards that he had made more puns in the course of those ten days than in any whole year of his life beside'. But, under all this, the agony endured – the agony of being apart from Fanny and knowing he would never see her again. Writing to Mrs Brawne on the fourth day of quarantine, he tried to describe something of his state of mind and body: 
  'The sea air has been beneficial to me about to as great extent as squally weather and bad accommodations and provisions has done harm. So I am about as I was. 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 – every man who can row his boat and walk and talk seems a different being from myself. I do not feel in the world. It is impossible to describe exactly in what state of health I am – at this moment I am suffering from indigestion very much, which makes such stuff of this Letter. I would always wish you to think me a little worse than I really am; not being of a sanguine disposition I am likely to succeed. If I do not recover your regret will be softened – if I do your pleasure will be doubled. I dare not fix my Mind upon Fanny, I have not dared to think of her. The only comfort I have had that way has been in thinking for hours together of having the knife she gave me put in a silver case – the hair in a Locket – and the Pocket Book in a gold net. Show her this. I dare say no more...' 
  This is the letter that ends with the heartbreaking footnote, 'Good bye Fanny! God bless you'


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