That year I was asked many times what I intended to do on my birthday. I mark the passing of another year each chilly February, so generally the day is spent snuggled up in the warm eating and drinking. However on this occasion I was determined to do something different. How I enjoyed responding with ‘Oh, I am visiting a cemetery’. Just for a change, as you do.
This was not an eccentricity on my part though. I was fulfilling a long-held ambition to travel to Rome to visit the Keats-Shelley House on the Piazza Di Spagna where Keats spent his final months and where on the 23 February 1821 he died of tuberculosis, aged just 25. He was buried in the ‘Non-Catholic’ cemetary behind the Pyramid in Testaccio on the outskirts of the city and I was determined to spend my birthday morning on that very spot.
I am not the only person to have made such a pilgrimage. The House occupies a wonderful position at the foot of the Spanish Steps. The Keats-Shelley Memorial Association acquired it in 1906, to preserve it as a memorial to Keats and to other English Romantic poets who spent time in Italy; Shelley, Byron and Leigh Hunt. The video here details Keats’ last days and the history of the house.
For me though, this video doesn’t really bring out the intensity of the feeling you get as you walk up the stairs into the apartment Keats shared with Joseph Severn. It is not exactly as he knew it of course. As the video explains, on returning from the funeral Severn found that all their possessions were being burnt; the Roman authorities believing this was the best way to avoid contagion. However, the small room that was Keats bedroom is set out in much the same way as it was for him. It is small, narrow, with a high ceiling and one window looking out over the fountain in the Piazza. It is not cheerless, but its tomb-like dimensions must have been claustrophobic in the extreme to one who was in any event struggling for breath. The ceiling is as he might have seen it – a chequerboard of carved daisies seemingly already growing over him..
I stood looking out of the small window at the only view Keats had of the outside world in those last weeks. A nun was pulling a shopping trolley just at the foot of the steps, and groups of young tourists were sitting eating ice creams from the nearby cafe. Seeing life going on outside that window was somehow as moving as the wonderful collection of treasures collected in the cabinets in the museum housed in the main salon.
The cemetery is another matter entirely. It is one of the quieter tourist destinations in Rome, although saying that it seems to be near one of the busier main roads.We had difficulty finding the entrance, but once you walk through the ancient gates there is an incredible peace about the place – in February at least. Many lovers of romantic poetry visit not just the grave of Keats, but also that of Shelley. Many famous visitors made the pilgrimage. Oscar Wilde wrote a poem ‘The Grave of Keats’ , which is one of the few of his works that I loathe, sentimentalizing Keats’ death as it does (although he was not alone in that approach in the 19th Century).
We walked to where Keats’ headstone stands next to that of Severn, who was buried there many years later, having spent much of his life living on the legacy of his friendship with the poet. Keats had asked for the simple epitaph ‘here lies one whose name was writ in water’; but devastated by his loss his friends could not resist adding their own flourishes, encouraging the picture of the young poet killed by the harsh words of critics that persisted for decades. It is not a description Keats himself would have recognised.
I was struck by the number of stray cats, black and tortoiseshell, lying sleepily on the graves, and in the nooks and crannies of the surrounding high walls. Some with eyes missing, others barely able to stand they could have been pitiful, but they seemed to belong there and they weren’t going to move for the sake of my attempts at photography. One sat quietly as if guarding Keats’ grave – scabby and half blind it wasn’t an animal I was going to risk petting.
We stood quietly for some time, and when we came to leave I tore a page from the book of poetry I carry with me always and left it under a stone. To say ‘thank you’, I think.
We had a wonderful weekend, visiting all the sites/sights of Rome, a city I fell in love with for any number of reasons (including the ice cream…) but for me it will always be No. 26 Piazza Di Spagna and the little site by the pyramid that dominate my memories.
If you would like more information about what to see in Rome to truly follow in Keats’ footsteps, I recommend the websites of the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association and the House in Rome. They are run by people who know so much about Keats, Shelley and the literary and artistic life in Rome in the 19th century that you cannot fail to be gripped by the desire to catch the first Easyjet flight out there. If you have room in your hand luggage I might just sneak in with you…