Friday, 9 August 2019

Keats Part Two

Back in May I spent a week in the Italian capital. I wanted to sit in the sun and enjoy a glass of chilled wine, but it rained. A lot. The climate is so worryingly unpredictable these days. Actually the real reason for my trip was one of pilgrimage; not with the obvious destination of St. Peter's, which I did visit, even climbing to the top of the huge dome, no I was on Keats part two. Having laid a wreath at his memorial in Westminster Abbey back in the autumn, I thought it was about time I visited his actual grave. The bonus was the rest of Rome thrown in for free.

Keats is buried in the Protestant Cemetery, but before visiting that, there was another place I just had to go At the bottom of the Spanish Steps, on the right as you look up at them,  there is a tall town house - now the Keats-Shelley House museum - , one apartment in which Keats lived during his last desperate sojourn in Rome. He had been sent to Italy for the sake of his health. He was dying from tuberculosis. No amount of clean, fresh, dry air was going to cure that, but there we are. A disease that consumed so many, it is/was the nastiest of ways to go; coughing up blood and not been able to breathe. I know some of that. We think it is largely cured in the West, and so it is, but not so in other parts of the world. I had to have a chest Xray for my South African work visa, for example.

So it was here in a now buzzing location that lovely Johnny Keats at just twenty five years old breathed his last on 23 February 1821. His bedroom is kitted out with period furniture, and has its original painted ceiling; the one he stared up at. On the day I visited the museum, there were so few people there I had this special place to myself for almost half an hour. We had nice chat about poetry and finding the perfect image, while the crowds swarmed the Steps outside. I wandered the rest of the museum pleased to see treasures like an all too familiar painting of Shelley, and Oscar Wilde's manuscript of his sonnet on visiting Keats' grave. It's a quiet treasure trove for the literary-minded. Linger over the death mask and first editions of Keats' and Shelley's work.

Too far away to go the same day on foot, I waited until the next morning to find the cemetery. Just behind the Pyramid of Cestius at Porta San Paolo is the green oasis, more garden than cemetery really. Keats' grave is easy to find, there being a helpful sign and charming guardiennes of welcome. Famously un-named - here lies one whose name is writ on water - , it is only clear that it is his because his friend, the artist, Joseph Severn is buried beside him and his grave notes the friendship and Keats' name. Later an appalling poem was put on a plaque on a nearby wall.

I sat for a while on a convenient bench and we had another early morning discussion about poetry and London. Or rather I talked and Johnny listened again.

I left him to find Shelley. Drowned in the Gulf of Spezia the following summer and cremated on the nearest beach, as witnessed by Bryon, Shelley's ashes are buried here. The spot is marked by a large horizontal stone near the far wall of the cemetery. Not exactly easy to find and not as beautiful a memorial as he deserves. He clearly needs more friends.


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