In the past, "tuberculosis" was a taboo word. The poet reviews the disease's many names and its history. John Keats said, "Bring me a candle, Brown. / That is arterial blood, I cannot be deceived / in that color. It is my death warrant."

For centuries so many died of tuberculosis; physicians were so impotent to help. Now, a patient accepts the fact that his chest x-ray has cleared as unremarkable, "as his right / and is right."


This poem is a meditation on the history of tuberculosis, and on how human beliefs and expectations change with time. In the last lines, the poet reports that he opens "the tight desk drawer / to smell again Schiller's rotten apples." This is an allusion to an incident that Goethe wrote about--a visit he paid to the physician-poet, Schiller, who suffered from tuberculosis.

While waiting for Schiller to return home, Goethe noticed a terrible smell coming from his desk. One of its drawers was full of rotten apples. Schiller's wife explained that he always kept the drawer full of rotten apples because he couldn't work without the smell.

Primary Source

Sky in Narrow Streets


Quarterly Review of Literature

Place Published

Princeton, N.J.