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

In October of 1820, typhus raged in Naples. With his artist friend, Joseph Severn, the British poet John Keats rocked in the city’s 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 he’d seen a splotch of blood on his pillow, he knew he had little chance of surviving the consumption that…

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