In the summer time, the room Keats died in is quite a pleasant one. It’s small—there’s not room for much more than a single bed and a desk—but it’s in the corner of the building and there are two windows, one looking down on the Spanish Steps and one over the piazza. The windows let in lots of light and a good deal of sky. Keats died in February, though, when there would have been little light and a leaden sky. There’s a fireplace in the room, quite near the bed, but I suspect that when you’re in the last stages of tuberculosis, the fever is so bad that you shake with chills no matter what. Over the bed hangs Severn’s beautiful last sketch of Keats. Severn says he had to draw to keep awake through the long nights; he was afraid to fall asleep and somehow fail his friend. The room has a coffered ceiling, with trompe l’oeil medallions painted on it to imitate the large plaster ones you see gilded in the ceilings of so many Roman churches. It may be a good thing to have a pretty ceiling to look at when you’re dying.
The Keats-Shelley house is in all ways a curious place. It consists of four rooms, lined with books in handsome bookcases and odd memorabilia, and it is always full of silent people, mostly Brits and Americans, wandering around with tears in their eyes. There’s a little sign on the bed politely requesting that no one lie down upon it as both bed and covering are antique and fragile. This implies, of course, that some visitors tried to lie down on the bed, hoping to get as close as possible to the dead poet. Part of me finds this creepy, but another part of me understands it completely. Was there every anyone so easy to fall in love with as Keats? I’ve seen it happen to strong men. I remember John Frisbee, years ago, appearing in my office all disheveled after reading Keats’ letters and announcing that he was in love not just with the poetry but with the poet.
The Keats house is all about the poet rather than the poetry; by the time he got to Rome, Keats wasn’t writing much at all. The great year that produced the Odes was over and all his energies were devoted simply to breathing. He couldn’t even bring himself to read letters from Fanny Brawne. They were buried, unopened, in his coffin. This is the kind of detail that the Keats-Shelley house revels in. There’s a framed collection of locks of hair (Keats’, Shelley’s) that used to belong to Leigh Hunt (somehow I find it no surprise that Hunt was an obsessive collector of other people’s hair), who notes, in small pointy handwriting, the particular quality of each poet’s lock, Keats’ hair “very good”, Shelley’s “exceedingly curly.” Every year I try to teach my students not to be taken in by biographical fallacy, not to imagine that the life explains the work, and yet here I am on a spectacularly beautiful summer day in Rome, gazing at a lock of Keats’ hair and feeling obscurely pleased that it’s really just the same colour as mine. The life does not explain the work, nor the work the life, but both are real and both fascinate, the poet’s sketch of the Sosibios vase in the Louvre (Grecian Urn?) and Severn’s heartbreaking drawing of the poet himself, close to death.
The bedroom and sitting room occupied by Keats and Severn (Severn slept in the sitting room) contain most of the Keats memorabilia. Then there’s a large booklined room with bits and pieces associated with various Romantics, and with various early Keats worshipers, and a smaller room dedicated to Byron and Shelley. Here you can read rather sinister things, like Shelley’s description of the boat he has just purchased, the boat that will kill him, or his request for a little prussic acid, just in case he ever felt like committing suicide. There are also quite a few portraits of Byron’s various Italian mistresses. Neither Byron nor Shelley ever set foot in this building, however; I think this room was actually where the landlady lived.
Having spent much of a morning brooding around happily in the Keats-Shelley house, I decided that I had to visit their graves. The following day was Lucy’s seventeenth birthday, but fortunately she was delighted by the idea (the nut really doesn’t fall far from the tree!) so we hopped on the metro back down to Piramide, where the Cimitario Acatolico lies right behind the pyramid a first century Roman named Cestius built as a monument to himself. It turns out to be quite possibly the loveliest cemetary in the world, on a slope with cypress trees and flowers and green grass everywhere. The noise of the city fades the instant you enter, blocked by high walls and that huge pyramid; you could be a hundred miles from Rome. Lots of cats prowl the gravestones, looking sleek and happy: the cemetary is also a cat sanctuary. The cats are neutered, vaccinated and fed, but other than that left to their own devices, as companions of the dead.
Severn wrote that when he went to visit Keats’ grave in the spring after his death it was already covered with violets and tiny daisies, and that the beauty of the spot was some consolation in his grief. I can well believe it. Keats wanted nothing on the tombstone but “Here lies one whose name was writ in water” but he didn’t exactly get his way, because Severn took care of the arrangements and the text: “This Grave contains all that was mortal, of a Young English Poet, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone: Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” Severn himself is buried right next to Keats; he stayed in Rome for quite a few years as a painter, then returned to England, and was eventually sent back to Rome as British consul, in which capacity her served for a long time. Apparently everyone adored him, though his reputation as Keats’ friend always outshone his reputation as either painter or diplomat. Severn’s grave identifies him as the friend of John Keats, thus eliminating any possibility of anonymity, and sometime at the end of the century some well-wishers added a memorial placque with a nifty little acrostic, much decried by people like Oscar Wilde (who thought it was tacky):
“K-eats! if thy cherished name be “writ in water”
E-ach drop has fallen from some mourner’s cheek;
A-sacred tribute; such as heroes seek,
T-hough oft in vain – for dazzling deeds of slaughter
S-leep on! Not honoured less for Epitaph so meek!”
Further up the hill, that odd couple Shelley and Trelawney are buried side by side. Trelawney deserves a post all of his own, and perhaps I’ll get to that some day.