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Posts Tagged ‘tuberculosis’

The Nostalgia of Constipation, and Other News

May 23, 2016 | by

From a vintage Dulcolax ad.

  • On the streets of English, adverbs are the knockoff Rolex salesmen lurking in the shadows, always ready to sell you something shiny and fake. Christian Lorentzen urges you to stay away: “The adverbs easiest to hate are the so-called sentence adverbs—also known as conjunctive adverbs. Writers who lean on the crutches of moreover, accordingly, consequently, and likewise are declaring a lack of confidence in the sequence of their own logic or a lack of faith in their readers’ ability to follow it. Deploying indeed is tantamount to saying, ‘I’ve just had a thought and, indeed, I’ve just had another.’ Next time you come across the word meanwhile, ask yourself when else all this could have been happening. What is the adverbial phrase of course but a smug duo dropped in to congratulate writer and reader for already agreeing with each other. Nevertheless, nonetheless, and the atrocious however are symptoms of an anxiety over a proliferation of the word but. But you can never have too many helpings of but, and sound thinking will make hay of contradictions.”
  • Today in bowel movements: they’re never as good as they used to be. As Maggie Koerth-Baker writes, “Since at least the Renaissance, Western cultures have fretted about their own bowels while looking back to an imagined past where mankind pooped in peace and harmony. According to James Whorton, professor emeritus of medical history and ethics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, modern life has long been considered the ultimate cause of constipation. Take, for instance, a bit of doggerel poetry from mid-1600s England: ‘And for to make us emulate, / The good old Father doth relate / The vigour of our Ancestors, / Whose shiting far exceeded ours’ … More than just nostalgia, though, the belief that modern lifestyles caused constipation was viewed as a medical emergency, on the scale of what we think of the obesity epidemic today.”

Writ in Water

February 23, 2016 | by

The enduring mystery of Keats’s last words.

Keats’s grave at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.

Yet do I sometimes feel a languishment
For skies Italian ...

—John Keats, “Happy is England! I Could Be Content,” 1817

Among the dozens of fountains in Rome, the Trevi may be the most famous, but the Barcaccia in the Piazza di Spagna arguably has a lock on the most poignant. Commissioned in 1629, it sits at the foot of the Scalinata, or Spanish Steps, swarmed by hordes of tourists in high season. Boat shaped to commemorate the spot where, in the historic flood of 1598, the Tiber River reached its highest level and improbably deposited a river barque in the square, the Barcaccia now seems a light-hearted way station, an oasis on a hot Latin day.

But nearly two centuries ago, the fountain played a far different role for one particular admirer, a transplant from England who roomed in an apartment above the steps and listened incessantly to the murmurings of its waters. To this visitor, the Barcaccia was a temporary lifeline during a few dark winter months at the turn of 1821, as he coughed and spluttered his way to a tragically early death. That doomed young man, as devotees of English Romantic poetry know, was John Keats, and the apartment where the poet, barely twenty-five, breathed his last from tuberculosis, on February 23, 1821, is now the Keats-Shelley House, a meticulously kept museum and scholarly library founded in 1909. It’s there, in the room where Keats died, that you will find the key to a misapprehension—one could almost say a lie—about his life and death that has been promulgated, literally written in stone, since 1823. Read More »

The Vale of Soul-Making

July 25, 2014 | by

How Keats coped with fever.


Tuberculosis seemed to pursue Keats his whole life.

In 1821, three months after he learned of Keats’s death, Percy Shelley wrote Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, in which he described the poet as a delicate, fragile young flower of a man:

Oh gentle child, beautiful as thou wert,
Why didst thou leave the trodden paths of men
Too soon, and with weak hands though mighty heart
Dare the unpastured dragon in his den?

That dragon was a cruel critic who had mocked Keats’s literary ambitions—John Gibson Lockhart, who, writing under the pseudonym Z, had scolded Keats as if he were a child, insisting in a review of Endymion that “it is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop, Mr John, back to the ‘plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.’ ” Lockhart had classed Keats among the Cockney School of politics, versification, and morality, known—at least by readers of Blackwood’s Magazine—for its “exquisitely bad taste” and “vulgar modes of thinking.” In Shelley’s formulation, it was this bad review that sent Keats to an early grave, and gazing back through history, one begins to accept this two-part narrative of Keats’s legacy. The fallen poet had lived a life of abstractions—he was not only an aesthete, but the aesthete—and he had been, as Byron quipped, “snuffed out by an article,” too beautiful and frail for this harsh world.

But Keats was immersed in the realities of life; his poetry and letters reveal an allegiance to radical politics as well as a concern with economic and scientific issues. Far from childlike and apolitical, he’s now thought of as having been “dangerous … a poet who embodied and gave voice to the anxieties and insecurities of his times … a poet whom the establishment would be obliged to silence,” as the scholar Nicholas Roe puts it. We often overlook, for instance, that Keats spent six years studying medicine, successfully earning a license to practice in London from the Society of Apothecaries—hence Lockhart’s insult about the “plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.” To think that he was “snuffed out by an article” trivializes the intense pain he experienced as his lungs were slowly consumed by tuberculosis, robbing him of his work, his love, and his life at the age of twenty-five.

The myth of the frail genius is attractive, even to contemporary readers, because of its quintessential Romanticism. But the truth is that Keats’s writings—especially when they seem fanciful or escapist—are grounded in real-world concerns. And nowhere is this more evident than in the letters and poems of his that deal with feverish suffering. Read More »


Brazen Towers

July 1, 2014 | by


Francis Thompson at nineteen. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“The Summer looks out from her brazen tower,
Through the flashing bars of July.”
—Francis Thompson, “A Corymbus for Autumn”

By the time he died of tuberculosis in 1907, the forty-seven-year-old Francis Thompson had found respect and moderate success as a poet. A favorite of G. K. Chesterton, and later both J. R. R. Tolkien and Madeleine L’Engle, Thompson gave us the phrases “with all deliberate speed” and “love is a many-splendored thing,” which would become the title of a 1952 novel, a ludicrous film, a hit song, and, later, a soap opera. The latter is especially apt; Thompson had a dramatic and difficult life.

The son of a Lancashire physician, Thompson studied medicine himself, but in 1885 moved to London to try to make it as a writer. Instead, he developed a serious opium addiction and started sleeping rough on the streets of Charing Cross, occasionally selling matches and newspapers to make a little money. He would claim later that, on the brink of suicide, he was saved from ending it by a vision of the poet Thomas Chatterton. More materially, he was, he said, helped by an anonymous prostitute, who gave him money and lodging before conveniently disappearing, Thompson would say, because, in classic hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold fashion, he feared that associating with her would hurt his burgeoning career. (Needless to say, he would go on to write about her romantically in many poems.)

Here’s what we know for sure: after reading a manuscript Thompson had sent them, the editors Wilfrid and Alice Meynell took him in, ran his work, and would later help him publish a book. (It probably didn’t hurt that Thompson had been raised Anglo-Catholic; the Meynells were active in Oxford Movement circles.) The Meynells even paid for Thompson to do a stint in Our Lady of England Priory, a sort of Victorian rehab.

Of course, by then years of neglect and addiction had taken their toll. Thompson was never physically robust, and died after years of illness. In a final act he might have appreciated, his onetime home, which bore a Blue Plaque, came to an appropriately depressing end: in March of this year, an engineer accidentally hit the house with a cherry picker, and it proceeded to promptly collapse. (Watch the video here.)

Source of All Joy: On Alina Szapocznikow

January 17, 2013 | by

Alina Szapocznikow. Petit Dessert I (Small Dessert I). 1970–71. Colored polyester resin and glass, 3 3/16 x 4 5/16 x 5 1/8″ (8 x 11 x 13 cm). Kravis Collection. © The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow/Piotr Stanisławski/ADAGP, Paris. Photo by Thomas Mueller, courtesy Broadway 1602, New York; and Galerie Gisela Capitain GmbH, Cologne

The Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow made a career of disassembling the body, of exposing its weaknesses, its many vulnerabilities, whether through the uses and abuses it’s been put to in the abattoir of twentieth-century history or at the mercy of the more mundane, if no less fatal, everyday mortality. If that sounds like a bit of a downer, worry not: Szapocznikow managed to keep a sly tongue firmly in cheek, and her work, for all its startling beauty, its nearly unbearable intimacy, its sublime evocation of pain and disease and suffering, is witty, even funny.

Her sculptures—on display, through January 28, at the Museum of Modern Art, where they are presented as part of a retrospective entitled “Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955–1972”—indulge in the darkest shade of black humor, extracting their punch lines from abysmal pockets of human experience. Take, for example, her Lampe-bouche (Illuminated Lips) (1966), a series of resin casts of a female mouth set atop metal stands and wired to work as lamps.Read More »