Go thou to Rome,—at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness …
-Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats’
John Keats, one of the best-known poets of the Romantic era, died in Rome in 1821. Not long after, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote these beautiful and heartbreaking lines, which encourage the reader to visit Keats’ grave in Rome. Since then, Keats’ final resting place has fascinated generations of visitors. A few weeks ago, I decided to visit it and try to grasp its significance for myself.
Keats left England for Italy in 1820. In a little house on the Spanish Steps, he spent his final months with his friend Joseph Severn, fighting the illness that would eventually claim him. Today the house is a museum, devoted to the writing of Keats and his contemporaries.
We had gone to the Vatican Museums that morning. Anyone who has ever been there will understand what we mean when we say that it was not a relaxing experience. Squeezing through opulent rooms crowded with people, listening to the click and whirr of cameras and the shouting of guards not to take pictures…. By the time we left we’d gotten much more intimate than we would have liked with several of our fellow visitors (purely accidental, of course, but unavoidable when a hundred people are all trying to peer at the tiny ceiling/wall/niche of a ten-metre-square room) and remained fairly convinced that at least a few health and safety regulations had been violated over the course of our visit.
After this, the Keats-Shelley House was a bit of a revelation. Run by Rome’s large expat community, the house is a museum dedicated to Keats and other writers of his generation, all of whom pioneered a new style of literary and artistic expression. Keats, Shelley, his wife Mary, and Byron are the most prominent of these writers. The museum contains first editions of their work, as well as letters they wrote and even a wax carnival mask owned by Byron (which I’m guessing he used for undisclosed shenanigans in Venice).
I visited the museum a few years ago, and fell in love with the place immediately. It’s still probably my favourite place in Rome. You climb a rickety staircase and emerge in a small, cool, quiet apartment. The walls are lined with books and portraits. In the summer it’s a nice, cold refuge from the heat and dust of the city. In the winter it’s the perfect escape from the busy streets and crowded tourist destinations of Rome.
There is an air of respectful, but comfortable silence, which is strongest when you step into the final room in the small apartment; the one where Keats spent his last months. Nothing in the long, narrow space is original, sadly; after his death, the Italian authorities emptied the room and burnt his possessions in the square, convinced this would stop Keats’ illness from spreading. Keats’ friend, Severn, wrote a long letter expressing his anger with the authorities for this; it’s still on display in the room.
Keats was only twenty-five years old when he died. Knowing this makes it all the more moving when you visit his grave in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, which we did the next day. Several literary figures are buried here. Shelley’s ashes were placed in the cemetery after he drowned off the coast of Italy. He is buried side-by-side with his friend Edward John Trelawny, who bought the plot when Shelley died. Trelawny, luckily, did not meet an early end like his friend; he was eighty-eight when his ashes were placed alongside Shelley’s. The inscription on his grave is an extract from one of Shelley’s poems. It reads,
These are two friends whose lives were undivided;
So let their memory be, now they have glided
Under the grave; let not their bones be parted,
For their two hearts in life were single-hearted.
Like Shelley, Keats is buried next to his faithful friend, Joseph Severn. His grave is in the older section of the cemetery, beside an ancient Roman pyramid. In spring, we were told, violets bloom on the grave, a fact which made Keats happy when he asked Severn to describe the spot a few months before his death. Even in winter, though, it’s a peaceful spot. Perhaps our visit to the Keats-Shelley House the day before enhanced the feeling of sadness in the air, but it’s difficult to read the inscription on Keats’ grave (“Here lies one whose name was writ in water”) without picking up on it. Shelley’s poem, which was recited on the video shown to us at the museum, captures it beautifully:
Go thou to Rome,—at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness;
And where its wrecks like shattered mountains rise,
And flowering weeds, and fragrant copses dress
The bones of Desolation’s nakedness,
Pass, till the Spirit of the spot shall lead
Thy footsteps to a slope of green access
Where, like an infant’s smile, over the dead
A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread.
-Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Adonais’
It’s a place which has held a certain fascination since; when Oscar Wilde visited the grave at the age of twenty-two it’s said he announced: “This is the holiest place in Rome”. He was so moved by the experience that he later wrote an article about it, as well as a short sonnet. It’s a little funny, now, considering Wilde’s grave in Paris’ Père Lachaise cemetery has become a place of literary pilgrimage itself.
Wilde wasn’t the only one who saw Keats’ final resting-place as imbued with a sacred atmosphere; Keats’ grave has fascinated generations, never more so than in the Victorian era, when countless poems were written about the spot. I still find Shelley’s and Wilde’s the most moving, however. Perhaps because Shelley knew Keats personally, or the fact that when they wrote their poems, both of these writers could have no idea that they would themselves meet an early and untimely end. Visiting the graveyard with these lines echoing in your head makes for a melancholy, but beautiful, experience.
Rid of the world’s injustice, and his pain,
He rests at last beneath God’s veil of blue:
Taken from life when life and love were new
The youngest of the martyrs here is lain,
Fair as Sebastian, and as early slain.
No cypress shades his grave, no funeral yew,
But gentle violets weeping with the dew
Weave on his bones an ever-blossoming chain.
O proudest heart that broke for misery!
O sweetest lips since those of Mitylene!
O poet-painter of our English Land!
Thy name was writ in water——it shall stand:
And tears like mine will keep thy memory green,
As Isabella did her Basil-tree.
-Oscar Wilde, ‘The Grave of Keats’