Let’s start with the obvious: The coronavirus has changed all of our lives in so many profound and unbidden ways. Don’t all of us have a new-found appreciation of life’s fragility and tenuousness? And, yet, amidst this pervasive challenge many of us have managed to find precious, if all too rare, moments of beauty. Let’s listen to John Minahan’s wise and timely insights.

John Minahan teaches English and psychology at the Lincoln School in Providence. 

I’m an English teacher. I help young adults find the right places for commas. But I also want to help them find, well, something more. With our classes forced online, I’ve been telling them this story.

A mystery illness, spread by simple human contact. Quarantine slowed it down, but there was no cure. Some people believed sunlight and warm weather might help. So, in the autumn of 1820, a young poet named John Keats, held fast in the grip of tuberculosis, sailed away from damp, cold England, bound for Italy.

Keats had hope but no illusions. Before deciding to write full time, he’d trained in medicine, so he understood what was happening to him. And he’d seen this same disease take his brother—one of many losses he’d faced. In his small but brilliant body of work, Keats transfigured those losses, exploring how life’s fragility reminds us of life’s beauty. A nightingale’s song, a perfect September day, a lover’s touch: we don’t really treasure them until we remember that our time with them is limited. Now, he feared, his own time was even more limited.

At least he wasn’t alone. Joseph Severn dreamed of becoming a great artist, so traveling with Keats to Italy meant a chance to study the paintings and sculptures there. Severn was an unlikely companion. His talent seemed slight, and his wan character seemed beneath the task of looking after Keats should his condition worsen. Which it did. In a cramped apartment in Rome, Severn began a months-long vigil. He brought Keats his meals. He settled disputes with the landlords. He argued with doctors to do more for his friend. He read Keats’s beloved Shakespeare to him during sleepless nights. Toward the end, he held Keats up when breathing became all but impossible. Keats died there in Rome, 25 years old, Severn by his side.

Now, in the face of another mystery illness, I believe we can find in Keats’s poetry some valuable lessons about life’s fragility and life’s beauty. But we should also learn from Joseph Severn’s example. We remember him not for becoming a great painter but for showing unfailing compassion and uncommon grace when confronted by unimaginable suffering. Decades later, when Severn himself died after a life of service as a diplomat, he was buried next to Keats, his gravestone a twin to the poet’s own, inscribed with the words “devoted friend.”