Keats’s Quarantine Bubble

Judith Pascoe
Florida State University

RE: Keats’s 1 November 1820 letter to Charles Brown

On 1 November 1820, Keats wrote an agonized letter to his friend Charles Brown. Keats began by saying, “Yesterday we were let out of Quarantine, during which my health suffered more from bad air and a stifled cabin than it had done the whole voyage.” Revived by fresh air, he aimed to write “a short calm letter,” but his resolve quickly abandoned him: “Oh, Brown, I have coals of fire in my breast.”

The day before, Keats had disembarked from the Maria Crowther, the cargo ship on which he sailed from England to Italy. Because there was a typhus epidemic in London, Keats and his fellow passengers had to remain onboard after the ship’s arrival in the Bay of Naples; the journey time was ten days short of the six-week quarantine mandated by Neapolitan health authorities.[1] Keats’s emotional isolation, however, did not end with the lifting of the official constraint.

The unpleasantness of being stuck for ten days on a single-masted, two-ton brig was especially intense because the extra days were tacked onto a wretched voyage.[2] “The passage out of the Thames into the Channel was predictably rough,” Andrew Motion writes, with “cross-currents churn[ing] the water into angry waves” (540). As the ship sailed past Brighton, gale-storm winds kicked up, and waves washed across the ship, soaking the bunks and causing the planks of the cabin walls to separate (Joseph Severn to William Haslam, 21 September 1820). Even before the weather turned rough, the travelers were queasy. Keats’s companion Joseph Severn vomited over the side of the boat; a consumptive fellow passenger, Miss Cotterell, fainted.

One of Severn’s watercolor paintings from the early part of the journey. This image depicts the Pinnacles at Handfast Point, near Studland Bay off the Dorset Coast. The Maria Crowther passed this spot a few days after the worst of the bad weather at the start of the voyage. Image courtesy ZSR Library at Wake Forest University.

Accommodation on the Maria Crowther consisted of one small six-bed cabin. Keats bunked with strangers in a kind of maritime hostel. Motion notes that “a cloth was suspended down the centre of the little room for decency’s sake,” a detail which evokes screwball comedy—Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert dividing a motor court cabin in It Happened One Night (538). Keats’s situation was less winsome. “The rolling of the ship was death to us,” Severn wrote, recalling cabin mates “tumbled from one side to the other of [their] beds,” and “things rattling about in every direction” (21 September 1820). Every time a storm rolled in, the passengers were “pinn’d up in [their] beds like ghosts by daylight.” The privacy curtain must have billowed like a sail.

The news that the Maria Crowther passengers would be confined to the ship for ten days after landing was, in Aileen Ward’s words, a “maddening disappointment” (380). When a lieutenant from a British naval squadron made inquiries of the newly-arrived ship, he and his six men bumbled aboard, and were forced to stay put until the quarantine was over. Ward writes, “Their quarters, close enough before, became unspeakably crowded when after the first day it began to rain, driving them all into the cabin. Soon the air was almost too foul to breathe” (381).

A watercolor by Joseph Severn of the Maria Crowther, the ship that took Severn and Keats to Italy in September and October 1820

Joseph Severn’s watercolor of the Maria Crowther. Image via the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust

Given the torments of the journey, it’s no wonder that Keats commentators have felt inspired to spin rococo fantasies of his arrival in Italy. Grant F. Scott describes the “bejeweled description” of the approach to the Bay of Naples set forth by Severn’s biographer William Sharp, “eager to conjure the bright Italian landscape that he himself had recently visited” (20). Frances Mayes, imagining Keats in quarantine, writes: “I have seen Naples from [Keats’s] vantage of a ship anchored offshore—one of the most sublime locations in the world, that sweep of coast stacked with apricot, carmine, azure and rose villas; the blue, blue U of the harbor; the emphatic Vesuvius anchoring the view.”[3]

Keats himself, however, described being shut “in a tier of ships,” (To Mrs. Samuel Brawne, 1820), a log-jam that Severn inflated to “2000 ships in a wretched Mole not sufficient for half the number” (To William Haslam, 1 November 2020). (“Mole” in this usage denotes an area of water contained within a massive structure [OED]).

“View of the Bay of Naples,” graphite and watercolor by Guiseppe Canella (1788-1847). Presumably a less crowded scene than the one Keats viewed during quarantine. Image courtesy the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Keats was impervious to the scenery. “I cannot say a word about Naples,” he wrote to Brown. “I do not feel at all concerned in the thousand novelties around me.” His unhappiness centered around his beloved Fanny Brawne. “There is nothing in the world of sufficient interest to divert me from her a moment.”

Fanny, Fanny, Fanny, Keats wails, except that he doesn’t refer to her by name even once. “To see her name written would be more than I can bear,” he wrote, suggesting that Brown communicate her status by secret code. “If she is well and happy, put a mark thus +.” Keats breaks into capital letters to describe his WRETCHEDNESS. He layers his regrets: “I should have had her when I was in health, and I should have remained well.” Her parting gifts make him wince. “The silk lining she put in my travelling cap scalds my head.”

The story of Keats’s quarantine has resonated in recent months as cruise ships became the first harbingers of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as borders closed to foreign travelers. During the first week of February, ten passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, floating near Yokohama, were determined to be infected with the coronavirus.

I now pop out from behind the privacy curtain and reveal myself, around that same time, traveling from Yokohama to Tokyo, where I delivered a lecture in the manner of the academic Before Times. Every aspect of that gathering—the handshake with the organizer, the promiscuous fumbling with projector dongles, the elbow-to-elbow audience members—seems, in retrospect, fraught with danger. It was the moment just before academic gatherings were first postponed and then canceled as the endpoint of the pandemic receded into the distance. We began to sanitize as anxiously as Lady Macbeth. What, will our hands never be clean? 

Soon Japanese governors were begging people not to visit their prefectures. In beauty spots, officials briskly destroyed beauty so as to discourage sightseers. Tulips were beheaded in Sakura; rosebuds were snipped in Saitama; wisteria vines were lopped in Fukuoka. Japanese college students attending university in Tokyo or Osaka were encouraged to remain in those hotspots; if they stayed put, they were rewarded with care packages full of hometown delicacies—locally-grown rice, dried salmon jerky, konnyaku balls. The list of countries whose residents were banned from entering Japan expanded to include eighty-six nations, including the United States, Australia, and Brazil.

Around the same time, the U.S. Embassy circulated increasingly alarmist travel alerts to Americans sojourning abroad. “U.S. citizens should bear in mind that a decrease in flights to the United States may make it more difficult or even impossible to return to the United States for a family emergency in a timely manner,” the Embassy warned in early April, setting off a wave of panic departures. All of a sudden, sea travel between Japan and the United States started to seem like a fallback option.

Keats’s journey took place just a few years after Byron wrote Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. In that Canto, Byron describes thought as a “faculty divine,” which from birth is “cabin’d, cribb’d, confined.” Perhaps he drew his metaphor from his own continental travel. The contrast between Byron’s Grand Tour and Keats’s pinched itinerary, however, could not be greater. Prior to his trip to Italy, Keats took excursions to Margate and the Isle of Wight, but mostly ventured no farther than Hampstead Heath. (Levinson 8). Brendan Corcoran notes the “harsh irony that Keats’s only significant experience of travel should be a wretched journey to a grave in Rome” (331).  

Keats’s two-hundred-year-old letter takes on added poignancy as we read it in our strange and precarious moment, as we are cast back into our parents’ houses, teleported by Zoom, distanced from friends and colleagues. Keats’s anguish—“despair is formed upon me as a habit”—reminds us that the word “quarantine” connotes both temporal and physical remove. Keats was stranded in both time and space, and so are we. As we read this second-to-last surviving Keats letter, we wish him (and ourselves) a happier future.

Contributor Bio

Judith Pascoe is the George Mills Harper Professor of English at Florida State University. Pascoe’s most recent book, On the Bullet Train with Emily Brontë: “Wuthering Heights” in Japan (U of Michigan, 2017), which was completed with the support of a Guggenheim fellowship, explores how and why Brontë’s novel has been embraced by Japanese readers and writers.


[1] Keats arrived in Italy at a signal moment in quarantine history. Alex Chase-Levensen argues that in the period from 1792-1815 “nation-states, city-states, and empires across the northern half of the Mediterranean Basin recommitted to the universal maintenance of quarantine,” resulting in “the most sustained, extensive, and multipolar application of a quarantine system in world history” (28). I am grateful for the research assistance of Laura Smith, and for the insights of Perry Howell, Sara Levine, and Brian Rejack.

[2] For details of the ship and its final fate, see Berry 4-5.

[3] The desire to spin such fantastic retellings of Keats’s arrival in Naples Harbor seems to have led Mayes to mistake D.W. Pyke’s imaginative exercise in John Keats from Fool to Fulfillment as the genuine article. In the original version of Mayes’s piece, she quoted from Pryke’s book as if it were actually Keats’s own writings. Although most of those quotations were removed from a corrected version of the article, Mayes still twice erroneously claims, via Pryke’s fiction, that Keats wrote a mini-biography while in quarantine.

Works Consulted

Berry, Jessica. “The Fate of the Maria Crowther.” The Keats-Shelley Review 26.1 (April 2012), pp. 4-5.

Chase-Levenson, Alex. The Yellow Flag: Quarantine and the British Mediterranean World. Cambridge, 2020.

Corcoran, Brendan. “Keats’s Death: Towards a Posthumous Poetics.” Studies in Romanticism 48.2 (Summer 2009), pp. 321-348.

Levinson, Marjorie. Keats’s Life of Allegory: The Origins of a Style. Blackwell, 1988.

Mayes, Frances, “When the World Stops, Traveling in John Keats’s ‘Realms of Gold.’” New York Times. 26 March 2020.

Motion, Andrew. Keats. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats. Yale University Press, 2012.

Rollins, Hyder Edward. The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821. 2 vols. Cambridge University Press, 1958.

Scott, Grant F. “Writing Keats’s Last Days: Severn, Sharp, and Romantic Biography.” Studies in Romanticism. 42 Spring 2003: 3-26.

Ward, Aileen. John Keats: The Making of a Poet. The Viking Press, 1963.

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