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. —Keats on Quarantine
Shaking in your bed, of tuberculosis, Spanish flu, or broken hearts, Keats, you will discover how much the human body can bear. And even more the heart.
You will feel yourself very much in the world but not of it. Not in the world of men, the “normal” or the “new normal” or the clockwork rhythms of 9 to 5. You will find yourself deep in the center of the earth, where covenants and continental plates are made.
You will find yourself grappling with the messy torrents of its liquid life—with magma, bloody coughs, shorn capillaries leaking blood into the oceans, islands cooled of lava, tumors in the sea of lymph.
Where is hope? you will wonder, by the Spanish steps, in empty Rome. It is rainy and everyone is in their homes, leaving only laundry on the balconies. You will wonder, when you know that you will never see Fanny’s face again, Where is hope if not in the face of the beloved?
You will say to yourself, in this impossible year of our lord 1821 or 2020, that all is lost, as it was for Job before our lord had years or even breath.
There is no comfor, John, in Rome. There is no comfort in a letter or no letter, in thinking of Fanny or not thinking of her.
But one thing we are sure, John, is that God is there. It’s the sorriest comfort ever relayed from heavens high or low.
But it’s all we’ve got: God is in the disasters we are shipwrecked on, in our bodies aching with the weight of our own immunity, in the vulnerability that haunts our voices, lungs, and reason. God is in each drop of your tears, John, each dashed hope with each line of poetry dashed on page. God, crucified in Brompton Oratory before you even left British shores, is in your fevered present and your future.
You, both passionate and gentle—will live forever, a vocation not of human hands, but made of human hearts and loves, and forged—here! now!—in the burning fire of your torched lungs, each of heart crumbling as you hold it in your hands, each love slipping through your fingers. There is new life on the other side of this, John, a life we know is marked with the cost of the wounds. Your wounds are costly. You have paid so much for love, John, our beloved.
What can the human heart and body bear? Oh, John. The weight of resurrection.