Tuesday, October 24, 2017

`To Have an Intellect in Splints!'

Seven days before his twenty-fifth and final birthday, on Oct. 24, 1820, John Keats was quarantined on a ship in the Bay of Naples. The reason for the delay was not the tuberculosis that would kill him in four months but a suspected outbreak of cholera in Britain. He writes to Mrs. Samuel Brawne, Fanny’s mother, whom he will never see again:

“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.”

The letter is heartbreaking. Keats remains a gentleman, resisting self-pity and self-dramatization, the easiest, least noble responses to illness and mortality. The desperately ill dwell in another country, away from us, the healthy. His letter, in part, reads like a war correspondent’s dispatch. He tries not to think of Fanny and their impossible love:

“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.”

Passages like this are the reason I read Keats’ letters more often than even his finest poems. They possess what William Maxwell once called the “breath of life.” The letters are human documents, sometimes almost too painful to read:

“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—I feel a spirit in my Brain would lay it forth pleasantly—O what a misery it is to have an intellect in splints!”

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