"Bright Star" - John Keats's quarantine poem

Where I live in Oregon we’re going on 10 weeks of “shelter-in-place,” an order from the governor that feels very much like quarantine. Movie theatres, dine-in restaurants, hair salons, shopping malls, parks, playgrounds – all are currently closed in an effort to stop the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus.

Like many of my friends, family, and neighbors, I‘ve been experiencing a range of emotions as the weeks drag on. At times I’ve felt anxious, depressed, confined, and even angry. That's to be expected, or so we're told. But what I didn’t expect was to feel a surge of creativity. 

Since lockdown I’ve worked on revising a novel, started another blog, planted flowers, tried new recipes, spackled and painted dings in our walls (that I’ve been meaning to get to for years), de-cluttered closets and crocheted a blanket, a wall hanging and an amigurumi cat.

Who knew that staying home could be so productive? Just about everybody, I guess. It should be no surprise that if you can’t get away from projects staring you in the face you’re eventually going to break down and work on them. It’s hard to procrastinate for long when there’s nowhere to go. 

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Throughout centuries artists and others have chosen quarantine to escape disease outbreaks, and in many cases, they’ve produced some of their best work while confined. 
For example, it's believed that Shakespeare wrote King Lear in lockdown during a bubonic plague outbreak in the early 1600s. And about six decades later in 1665-1666, Isaac Newton experimented in the field of optics, explored his ideas on the laws of motion and gravity, and developed calculus during the year he “sheltered-in-place” at his family estate because Cambridge University had canceled classes due to another plague outbreak.  

John Keats
However, there’s a well-known Regency figure who also got creative while in quarantine. It’s John Keats, a Romantic poet. He worked feverishly during the last years of the Regency, achieving a measure of fame during his lifetime that became even greater after his untimely death. 

Today he's one of England's most beloved poets. And when he was quarantined off the coast of Italy in 1820, he used his time in confinement to work on a beautiful love poem.

Keats was an unlikely literary prodigy. He was born in 1795 in Moorgate, London, the son of the head hostler of the livery stable attached to the Swan and Hoop Inn.  Keats's father married his employer’s daughter, and he later prospered by managing the inn. 

The oldest of four surviving children, John received a good education from a private school run by a clergyman. At that school, he was fortunate to find a mentor who encouraged him to read and introduced him to the arts, especially poetry.

But the boy's life started to change when he was 8 and his father died from a fall off a horse. Six years later his mother died from tuberculosis, which would prove to be a family curse. So at age 14, young John was put in the care of a guardian, who took him out of school and apprenticed him to a surgeon, putting him on the path to a medical career.

It was a pragmatic plan formed by a conscientious, business-minded guardian. For the next few years, Keats studied medicine and worked at a London hospital. By 1816 Keats had advanced far enough in his studies to qualify as an apothecary. But then, against his guardian’s advice, Keats abandoned medicine to write poetry.

Keats found literary friends and mentors in London, most notably Leigh Hunt, who was the editor of a radical journal. The young poet also joined a literary circle that included Hunt, the critic and essayist William Hazlitt, and the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and Charles Lamb, among others.

But despite the encouragement he received, Keats's life wasn't easy. Starting with the deaths of his parents, he endured many setbacks. 

He was supposed to get an inheritance, but the money was tied up in court throughout his life, leaving him financially strapped. A short man, barely five feet tall, Keats was bullied in school for his height. And his humble origins, along with his association with the controversial Hunt, caused class-conscious Tories to dismiss him once he got published as a “Cockney poet.” But Keats persisted, and his talent eventually got him ranked among the great poets in English literature. 

During his short career (he wrote from 1814 to 1820, and was only published after 1816)  Keats published 54 poems, including "Endymion", "Ode on a Grecian Urn", "Lamia," "The Eve of St. Agnes," and many more. Though many of his poems aren't as well known today as they were to the Victorians,  his work still resonates. 

For example, the first line of his poem "To Autumn" gives us the classic, oft-repeated description of autumn as a "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness."

By the time he died, the prolific poet's literary output surpassed that of Chaucer, Milton, or Shakespeare when they were his age. 

Here are the first few lines of my favorite Keats poem, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", detailing a wandering knight's strange encounter:

I met a lady in the meads
Full beautiful, a faery’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

The story of this meeting goes on, but if you want to know what happens, you’ll just have to read the rest of the poem!

But back to Keats's life: in 1818 the family curse, tuberculosis, resurfaced. That year Keats and his brother George nursed their brother Tom, who sickened and died of the disease in December. (George would also die from tuberculosis years later.) Tom’s death fueled Keats’s premonition that he would die young as well, and it made him desperate to get as much work done as possible. 
And it didn’t help that earlier that year Keats had undertaken a strenuous walking tour of Ireland, Scotland, and the Lake District in England, an adventure that left him worn out and with an ulcerated throat due to the wet, cold weather he’d endured.

However, 1818 wasn’t all bad for the poet. In the fall he met a vivacious 18-year-old woman, Fanny Brawne. He fell desperately in love with her, a love she reciprocated, and they became engaged.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci,
painted by John William Waterhouse
But Keats was in no position to take a wife. He didn’t have much money, he needed to dedicate himself to his work to earn a living, and his health was starting to decline. To quote the introduction to Keats in my trusty Norton Anthology of English Literature, these factors “made marriage impossible and love a torment" for the young poet.

And then, in the early months of 1820 Keats saw the unmistakable signs of tuberculosis invading his lungs. 

And now we come to his stint in quarantine.

After enduring a miserable winter, Keats agreed to move to Italy in the autumn of 1820, hoping that a milder climate would improve his health. But when his ship got to Naples it was put in quarantine. There had been a cholera outbreak in England, and the Italian authorities wanted to make sure the travelers hadn’t brought the contagious disease with them. 

That's beginning to sound familiar, isn't it?

So, Keats and his fellow travelers were stuck on their ship for 10 days. It was November before Keats and his friend (the painter Joseph Severn) made it to Rome. The poet's condition worsened, and Keats died on February 23, 1821. He was just 25 years old. 

There's evidence that while quarantined on board the brig Maria Crowther Keats may have worked on revising a poem he'd started sometime earlier. Known as "The Last Sonnet" or "Bright Star," this poem is regarded as a final message and love-letter to Fanny. 

Here it is:

Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art —
    Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night,
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
    Like Nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
    Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask
    Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —
No — yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
    Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel forever its soft fall and swell,
    Awake forever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death. 

Contagious diseases aside, Keats’s 10 days of quarantine in the beautiful Bay of Naples isn’t really parallel to the months of semi-quarantine that we are experiencing during this COVID-19 pandemic.  After all, I can put on a mask and go to the pharmacy and the grocery store, get take-out food and take long walks – things you can’t do when you're quarantined on a ship.

And while most of us might not be composing timeless poetry while we hide from a virus, any creative endeavor we undertake gives us something in common with Keats, Newton, and Shakespeare – or so I’d like to think!

  • Abrams, M.H., General Editor, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Third Edition, Vol. 2, (section on John Keats, pages 633-717) W.W. Norton & Company Inc., New York, 1974.
  • “A Letter from Quarantine by John Keats", Lapham's Quarterly, Monday, April 13, 2020.
  • Debczak, Michelle, "Five People Who Were Amazingly Productive in Quarantine," Mental Floss, March 19, 2020
  • Dickson, Andrew, "Shakespeare in lockdown: did he write King Lear in plague quarantine?", The Guardian, March 22, 2020 

Images courtesy of Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons

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