Beauty of the Plague

For ten days in 1820 the English poet John Keats was forced to remain at sea in the bay of Naples. It couldn’t have been a nicer place to be quarantined from the typhus – the epidemic of the time – that was ravaging Italy. “One of the most sublime locations in the world,” writes Frances Mayes in the New York Times in an appreciation of the poet whose work was a culmination of the romantic era that  found beauty in almost everything.

Bay of Naples, Italy

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” that is all

Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.

Such was the message of a picturesque Grecian urn in one of Keats’ most famous poems. As a boy he found beauty in fighting, later transferred to verse. For one who was so in love with life, he didn’t have much of it, dying at 25 from another common disease of the time, tuberculosis. Coughing steadily while viewing Naples, he knew he didn’t have long to live –  in fact, four months. But there’s beauty in death as well as in life, he wrote in “Ode to a Nightingale:”

Darklng I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath.

But above all is the beauty of the here and now in England and Italy:
Happy is England! I could be content
To see no other verdure than its own;
To feel no other breezes that are blown
Through its tall woods with high romances blent;
Yet do I sometimes feel a languishment
For skies Italian, and an inward groan
To sit upon an Alp as on a throne,
And half forget what world or worldling meant.
Happy is England, sweet her artless daughters;
Enough their simple loveliness for me,
Enough their whitest arms in silence clinging;
Yet do I often warmly burn to see
Beauties of deeper glance, and hear their singing.
And float with them about the summer waters.

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