John Keats: how his poems of death and lost youth are resonating during COVID-19



John Keats by Joseph Severn (1819).
National Portrait Gallery

Richard Marggraf-Turley, Aberystwyth University

In John Keats’ poems, death crops up 100 times more than the future, a word that appears just once in the entirety of his work. This might seem appropriate on the 200th anniversary of the death of Keats, who was popularly viewed as the young Romantic poet “half in love with easeful death”.

Death certainly touched Keats and his family. At the age of 14, he lost his mother to tuberculosis. In 1818, he nursed his younger brother Tom as he lay dying of the same disease.

After such experiences, when Ludolph, the hero of Keats’ tragedy, Otho the Great, imagines succumbing to “a bitter death, a suffocating death”, Keats knew what he was writing about. And then, aged just 25, on February 23 1821, Keats himself died of tuberculosis in Rome.

Life sliding by

His preoccupation with death doesn’t tell the whole story, however. In life, Keats was vivacious, funny, bawdy, pugnacious, poetically experimental, politically active, and above all forward-looking.

He was a young man in a hurry, eager to make a mark on the literary world; even if – as a trained doctor – he was all too conscious of the body’s vulnerability to mortal shocks. These two very different energies coalesce in one of his best loved poems, written in January 1818 when the poet was in the bloom of health:

When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be is a poem of personal worry, according to biographer Nicholas Roe. In it, Keats is anxious that he won’t have time to achieve poetic fame or fall in “unreflecting love”, and these fears and self-doubts take him to the brink.

But as brinks go, this one doesn’t seem all that bad. The poem is romantic with a small “r” – wide-eyed, dramatic, sentimental – its vision of finality, of nothingness, gorgeous in its desolation, and all-importantly painless. Who can read those final lines without themselves feeling a pull to swooning death, half in love with it, as Keats professed to be?

That’s what I used to think, at any rate. Lately, in the pandemic, I’ve begun to read this poem rather differently. Lensed through long months of lockdown, the sonnet’s existential anxieties seem less abstract, grand and performative, and more, well, human.

It’s a poem that will resonate with the youth who are cooped up indoors, physically isolated, unable to meet and mingle, agonisingly aware of weeks slipping by, opportunities missed, disappointments mounting. This poem has made me almost painfully empathetic towards their plight.

Painting of a young John Keats reading a book.
John Keats by Joseph Severn, painted posthumously (1821-1823).
National Portrait Gallery, London

The sonnet’s fears of a future laid to waste are shared by whole generations whose collective mental health is under siege. In his last surviving letter, written two years after the sonnet while dying in Rome, Keats records a “feeling of my real life having past”, a conviction that he was “leading a posthumous existence”. How many of us are experiencing similar thoughts at the moment?

Illness and isolation

Of all the Romantics, Keats perhaps knew most about mental suffering. He grew up in Moorgate, just across from Bethlem Hospital, which was known to London and the world as Bedlam. Before he turned to poetry, Keats trained at Guy’s hospital, London, where he not only witnessed first-hand the horrors of surgery in a pre-anaesthetic age but also tended to patients on what was called the lunatic ward.

It was all too much for him. Traumatised by the misery and pain he felt he could do little to alleviate, in 1816 he threw medicine in for the pen. His experiences at Guy’s, though, and the empathy he developed there, found their way into his writing. For instance, in Hyperion, his medical knowledge helps him to inhabit the catatonic state of “gray-hair’d Saturn”, who sits in solitude, “deep in the shady sadness of a vale”, despairing after being deposed by the Olympian gods. The vignette is a moving image of isolation and enervation that speaks to us today:


https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44473/hyperion

As for lockdown, Keats was no stranger to its pressures and deprivations. During periods of illness in Hampstead in 1819 – precursor symptoms of tuberculosis – he was reluctant to venture out, isolating himself. In October 1820, he set sail for Italy in the hope warmer climes would save his lungs. On arrival, his ship was put into strict quarantine for ten days. In letters to his friends, Keats described being “in a sort of desperation”, adding, “we cannot be created for this sort of suffering”.

Keats was a poet of his age, his own social, cultural and medical milieu. And yet, on the bicentenary of his death, he’s also – more than ever, perhaps – a poet of ours. A poet of lockdown, frustration, disappointment, fears … and even hope.

Because even in those last, scarcely imaginable weeks in Rome, 200 years ago, holed up in a little apartment at the foot of the Spanish Steps, he never quite gave up on the future, never relinquished his dreams of love and fame.The Conversation

Richard Marggraf-Turley, Professor of English Literature, Aberystwyth University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How a lost manuscript revealed the first poets of Italian literature



Six Tuscan Poets by Giorgio Vasari, 1544. Dante Alighieri,
Giovanni Boccaccio, Petrarch, Cino da Pistoia, Guittone d’Arezzo and Guido Cavalcanti are depicted in the oil painting.
Wikimedia/MIA

Maria Clotilde Camboni, University of Oxford

Imagine a world where we knew the name of Homer, but the poetry of The Odyssey was lost to us. That was the world of the early Italian Renaissance during the second half of the 15th century.

Many people knew the names of some early poets of Italian literature – those who were active during the 13th century. But they could not read their poems because they had not been printed and were not circulating in manuscripts.

Then, in around 1477 the de facto sovereign of Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici – “the Magnificent” – commissioned the creation of an anthology of rare early Italian poetry to be sent to Federico d’Aragona, son of the king of Naples.

The luxurious manuscript became one of Federico’s most prized possessions. It was exhibited to and coveted by patricians and intellectuals for half a century – until its disappearance in the early 16th century.

An ornate colour photograph of a manuscript from 1476.
A page from another manuscript of vernacular poetry commissioned by Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1476.
Gallica/Bibliothèque nationale de France

But it did not disappear completely. The interest aroused by this manuscript generated a paper trail of letters, partial copies and other materials which I, along with other researchers, have managed to piece together. These documents allow us to reconstruct not only the trajectory of the manuscript through different courts in Europe, but – crucially – what works it may have contained.

Who were the vernacular poets?

Vernacular literature – that is, literature written in the language normally spoken by the people – only had a marginal role during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. The “real” culture was Latin. This meant that interest in the early poets who wrote in the Italian vernacular was limited – until the flourishing of the Italian language in the age of Lorenzo de’ Medici.

One of these 13th-century poets, Cino da Pistoia, was loved and celebrated by Dante Alighieri in his treatise on the art of poetry, “De vulgari eloquentia”. Dante said of his contemporary Cino:

There are a few, I feel, who have understood the excellence of the vernacular: these include Guido, Lapo … and Cino, from Pistoia, whom I place unworthily here at the end, moved by a consideration that is far from unworthy.

A black and white portrait of Cino.
A drawing of Cino da Pistoia from the 1808 book, Memorie della vita de Messer Cino da Pistoja by Sebastiano Ciampi.
Britannica.com

Guido Cavalcanti was another love poet. He and Dante were best friends and Dante regarded Cavalcanti as an authority on poetry. Cavalcanti is mentioned in Dante’s early poetry collection, the Vita nova.

The whole work is addressed to Cavalcanti and Dante even implies that he is writing in Italian because of him. But despite Dante’s popularity, even the Vita nova was hard to get hold of before 1576 when it was printed for the first time.

Guittone d’Arezzo was another highly regarded poet. He started as a love poet before becoming the most important author (before Dante) writing on moral and political themes.

The Raccolta Aragonese

The collection of Tuscan poetry sent to Federico d’Aragona by Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1477 contained Dante’s Vita nova, as well as rare poems recovered from ancient manuscripts by Cino, Guittone, Cavalcanti and many others. The collection was opened by a letter signed by Lorenzo himself.

The manuscript was later named after its owner and became the Raccolta Aragonese (“the Aragon collection”). It became one of Federico’s most prized possessions and the object of widespread interest and curiosity.

Federico took it with him when he travelled to Rome at the end of 1492 to swear allegiance to the Borgia Pope Alexander VI. During this trip, he showed it to the scholar Paolo Cortesi, who immediately wrote to Piero de’ Medici – the son of the recently deceased Lorenzo the Magnificent. In this letter, Cortesi recounts that he had been shown a manuscript with poems by early vernacular poets, chiefly Cino and Guittone. The excitement is palpable: Cortesi is able to read poems by these authors whose names he had only ever heard mentioned before.

A coin bearing the image of Federico d'Aragona
King Federico of Naples (1451-1504) portrayed on a Francesco di Giorgio medal.
Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Such was the interest in these lost poets that partial copies of the Raccolta started to circulate. The first one was probably made by someone in Federico’s inner circle before he became King of Naples in 1496. News about his collection of rare early Italian poems was spreading.

The widow queen and the duchess

Federico was the last sovereign of his dynasty. He lost his throne when Louis XII of France invaded Italy. When he left Naples in the summer of 1501, Federico took the books of the royal library with him. He later had to sell part of them to sustain himself and his followers during his exile in France. But the Raccolta Aragonese was not sold and after his death in 1504 it was passed on to his widow, Isabella del Balzo.

An oil painting of Isabella d'Este
Portrait of Isabella d’Este by Titian (circa 1534-1536).
Wikimedia/KunsthistorischesMuseum

The widow queen then lent the collection to Isabella d’Este, the Duchess of Mantua, in northern Italy, in 1512. She kept it for two months and, even though in her letters she promised not to leave it in other people’s hands, it is likely that she commissioned a complete copy which led to further partial copies being made.

Even though the transmission of these copies was in manuscript form – and so not widespread – several Renaissance intellectuals managed to read these “lost” works and were influenced by them in their attempts to reconstruct the history of Italian literature.

The real game-changer came in 1527 when a printed collection of vernacular poetry finally took the works of masters like Cino, Guittone and Cavalcanti to a much wider audience. This is when they stopped being obscure and arcane authors and finally took their place in the canon of Italian literature.The Conversation

Maria Clotilde Camboni, , University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Sylvia Plath’s new short story was never ‘lost’ – so why is the media saying it was ‘just discovered’?



File 20190124 196244 wsoh70.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Archivists put an immense amount of work into organizing, digitizing and maintaining repositories.
AP Photo/Matt Dunham

Bethany Anderson, University of Virginia

The recent publication of Sylvia Plath’s short story “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” has been met with much fanfare, with the media eager to highlight that the story had been “lost,” only to have recently been “found.”

The Boston Globe described the work as “recently discovered” in its headline. A Vox article evoked a scene of abandonment and deterioration – the story had “languished in her archives for decades.”

And a recent New Yorker article, “A Lost Story by Sylvia Plath Contains the Seeds of the Writer She Would Become,” noted that “not even the author’s estate had known the story existed until the critic and academic Judith Galzer-Raymo stumbled over it while doing research in Plath’s archives.”

But was Plath’s story really “lost”? For years, “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” has been preserved – and has been accessible to the public – at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, thanks to the work of archivists and other cultural stewards.

As an archivist, I bristle at this sort of misleading coverage, which is only the latest example of the media ignoring the work of archivists in order to highlight something found in archives as “newly discovered.”

What’s behind this media impulse and why do these mischaracterizations persist?

Archival tropes

I’ve become all too accustomed to seeing headlines about “long-lost” manuscripts that have been found.

For example, in 2012 two articles in The Atlantic debated whether a medical report relating to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination amounted to a “discovery.”

As another example, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported a “long-lost letter” by René Descartes that had “lain buried in the archives [at Haverford College] for more than a century.” The public also recently learned of letters from interned Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War that had been “long-forgotten in the bowels of Library and Archives Canada.” In all these examples, the documents were already preserved and accessible in archival repositories.

And on the rare occasions that archives are featured in the press or in popular culture, they’re usually characterized as old, secluded and dusty places.

For example, in 2013 The New York Times published an article titled “Leaving Cloister of Dusty Offices, Young Archivists Meet Like Minds.”

If the headline alone didn’t convey this sentiment, the text drove it home: The archivists, it read, had “long spent their careers cloistered, like the objects they protected.”

Any archivist reading this story knows that nothing could be further from the truth. In a letter to the editor, Helen W. Samuels, a former archivist at MIT, responded, “While I was delighted that your article focused attention on the talented archivists now employed by so many institutions, I was saddened that it perpetuated the outdated image of archivists as preservers of dusty, precious artifacts maintained in a cloistered environment.”

Innovators versus maintainers

For the record, “dusty” doesn’t characterize any of the repositories I’ve worked in or visited. For example, the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia is clean with an open layout, and its spaces are filled with natural light. Similarly, the University of Michigan’s William L. Clements Library spaces do not fit the “dusty” stereotype.

Perhaps the media finds these tropes appealing because they evoke the romance and mystery of unearthing, discovering and rescuing rare books, documents or artifacts, as if they’re hidden treasures. After all, who doesn’t want to feel like Indiana Jones? And by representing archives as dusty, cloistered places, the materials appear to be on the verge of disappearing into obscurity – that is, unless a researcher comes to the rescue.

Another reason these tropes persist could have to do with the way our society privileges innovators over maintainers. Maintainers, according to scholars Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel, are “those individuals whose work keeps ordinary existence going rather than introducing novel things.”

Archivists are maintainers: They perform the “ordinary” work of acquiring, appraising and arranging archival materials. They respond to the inquiries of students and researchers, and work to preserve materials for posterity.

As members of the archival community have pointed out, this sort of work is generally ignored and misunderstood. Instead, when it comes to stories about archival research, stories will focus on the “innovators” – the scholars who write about the rare manuscript or old letter and, in doing so, rescue these materials from obscurity.

In almost every case, these stories gloss over the fact that these items exist in publicly accessible collections and are described in finding aids and databases.

Giving credit where credit’s due

This is not to take anything away from the work of researchers. Archival research is a process that often involves an intense commitment of time and energy. A researcher can see value or significance in a letter or manuscript that might have otherwise gone unnoticed outside of the archives.

Much of the media coverage of ‘Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom’ describe it as a work that was ‘lost’ and then ‘found.’
Harper Collins

Nonetheless, while a researcher might be the first researcher to read a document, they may not be the first person to have encountered it – not when archivists, curators, librarians and other staff work with materials on a daily basis.

Interestingly, the researcher featured in The New Yorker article about the Plath short story doesn’t appear to have been the first scholar to have “discovered” that “lost” Sylvia Plath story. As Rebecca Baumann, Head of Public Services at the Lilly Library, noted, “Many people have written about [“Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom”] … There’s published scholarship that discusses [it].“

But that doesn’t always make for the best story.The Conversation

Bethany Anderson, University Archivist, University of Virginia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Stolen or Lost Kindle – What to Do?


The link below is to a very useful article on what to do should the unthinkable happen – your Kindle is lost or even stolen.

For more visit:
http://goodereader.com/blog/electronic-readers/what-to-do-if-your-amazon-kindle-is-stolen-or-lost

Article: More on Amazon


The link below is to another article that more-or-less defends Amazon from incorrect criticism following the ebooks lawsuit that Apple lost recently.

For more visit:
http://www.teleread.com/ebooks/amazons-monopoly-is-not-predatory/

Article: Latest on the Timbuktu Library


Recent news reports indicated that fleeing Islamists set the Timbuktu Library in Mali on fire as they fled the approaching French troops. However, the article linked to below indicates that not all has been lost.

For more visit:
http://www.finebooksmagazine.com/fine_books_blog/2013/01/timbuktus-ancient-manuscripts-may-have-been-saved.phtml

Article: The Lost Ebook Backlist


The link below is to an interesting article on the book treasures that are on the digital backlist – somewhere.

For more visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/oct/14/ebooks-backlist-titles-bloomsbury-reader