A window to the soul of John Keats
As the Romantic poet is celebrated in a major film, our writer searches for his spirit in the city in which he diedStefanie Marsh
It is 12.30pm on the Piazza di Spagna and a trail of English literature students are stumbling up the stairs of No 26. They had arranged to meet here at noon, but either the sheer excitement of Rome or its nightmarish public transport system has sabotaged any attempt at punctuality: befuddled and lightly sweating, they are led into an ante-chamber, a small wood-panelled library wheretake their seats, slump-shouldered, gormless as a herd of cattle.
Where are we? In one of Rome’s “better kept secrets” as the travel guides like to refer to the third-floor apartment where John Keats spent the final months of his life. Officially this is a sort of a museum, but it feels more like a sanctuary, a place of literary pilgrimage where Keats-lovers have been known to shed tears when they are confronted by the tiny wooden sleigh-bed where the great Romantic poet finally succumbed, at the age of 25, to tuberculosis.
A few personal notes in the visitors’ book convey the meaning of Keats to his many admirers: “I’ve wanted to come here for 40 years. All my life,” reads one. Another chronicles the death of a woman’s husband, himself a poet. The woman has found, she says, great comfort in reading Keats’s work and visiting his home in Rome.
It’s not clear, though, that the students know what they’re doing here, and when the head curator of the Keats-Shelley house interrupts their teenage reverie with an impatient harrumph, a little tremor of apprehension passes through the room.Katherine Payling, who has worked here for 12 years, is one of those passionate academics with that rare ability to convey phenomenal knowledge in just a few well-chosen sentences. Even in her casual attire, she is imperious.
A window is open and for a while the noise of the Piazza di Spagna threatens to demolish what’s left of the students’ concentration. Of course, it’s a more modern sort of a noise than Keats would have heard — more mobile phones, fewer horses hooves — and the view from the window has also changed since the early 19th century when the Piazza was dominated by artisans and flowersellers. Nowadays this is where you come to shop at Dior or the shirtmaker “Byron”. Competing for attention with the church of Trinità dei Monti some clever advertisers have hung a gigantic advertisement for yellow neon gloves. But the fundamentals are still in place as Keats would have seen them: the scalinita, of course, and the Pincian Hill behind it. The splashing of the Fontana della Baraccia remains just about audible above the din of hundreds of tourists that are sprawled over the Spanish Steps.
Payling closes the window. “I’ll make a start or else we won’t get anything done,” she says. “OK — what have you read?”
After an excruciating silence, a trembling pimply boy volunteers: “Ode to a Grecian Urn?” Payling says: “Good,” and, encouraged, a girl in a yellow cardigan blurts, “To a Skylark!” Payling shoots back: “No. That’s Shelley,” and the students lower their heads in embarrassment.
It’s always shaming to be confronted by your own ignorance. I spent the flight here trying to get to grips with Andrew Motion’s brick of a Keats biography. Halfway through the introduction it struck me that I couldn’t name a single Keats poem.
“This is like a pub quiz,” says Payling with some exasperation. Eventually, it is established that most of her audience have read Bright Star, or at least heard of Bright Star, as Jane Campion’s forthcoming Keats biopic bears the same name. “So it’s fresh in your mind,” she says, generously. And then she gets on to the good stuff. It’s Keats’s life that often draws people to his poetry. And it’s only when Payling asks: “Do you know how Keats died?” that the roomful of students finally begins to come alive.
“Tuberculosis!” beams one girl.
“That’s right,” Payling says. “How about Shelley?”
“He drowned,” chorus more voices.
“Right. He drowned a week before his 30th birthday. Byron, as you know, died of fever three years later. Which means Keats, Shelley and Byron all died within three years of each other. By 1824 all the second-generation Romantic poets were dead.” The room ponders the possible significance of this. Then Payling lobs the students another grenade: “Can you tell me who the first generation were?” Another ghastly silence.
“Words . . . Worth?” One girl finally ventures, pronouncing the former poet laureate’s name as if he were a discount supermarket chain. “Yes,” Payling says. “Anyone else? Who wrote Kubla Khan?” She is forced to answer her own question: “Coleridge. And there is one other early Romantic, who was an illustrator as well.”
A girl with a heavy cold and heavier eyeliner whispers: “Blake?” Satisfied, Payling says: “Which means the first generation of Romantic poets outlived the second.”
It is the tragedy of the second generation that fascinates the young. And most appallingly, no, catastrophically, tragic of all, was the life of Keats, a man pursued by bad luck from the start. Payling told me earlier that she still feels great sadness about the poet’s life: “He is so easy to like; you can’t say that of all writers. It’s easy to admire his aspiration, but his hopes were all dashed.”
As Payling now tells the room: “There is a clear distinction between Shelley, Byron and Keats that would have affected how reviewers received Keats’s work. Shelley and Byron were the sons of aristocrats while Keats was the son of an innkeeper. He was to become, no, not a doctor. An apothecarist.” She goes on to explain that the snobbery within Britain’s literary establishment at the time meant that many critics felt that Keats could not be taken seriously as a poet and reviewed the first two volumes of his work with deliberate spite.
Keats’s origins counted as his first stroke of bad luck. When he decided to abandon a career in medicine to concentrate on writing poetry, it meant that any love affair was unlikely to end in marriage. So it was the poet’s bad fortune to fall deeply in love with 18-year-old Fanny Brawne, who lived next door when Keats moved to Hampstead in his twenties: the posthumous publication of his love letters to her was to scandalise Victorian society.
Had he been a more roguish character, the impossibility of this relationship might have not caused him such pain, especially at the end of his life when it became clear that he would never see Fanny again.
Keats’s life was not merely bookended by tragedy but invaded by it at every turn: when he was 8 his father was killed in a riding accident. His mother’s second marriage collapsed, but not before her husband took possession of most of her wealth. She returned to her children but died when Keats was 10. His brother Tom succumbed to tuberculosis and the poet diagnosed the same fatal disease in himself not long after: one night, having coughed up some blood he is recorded as saying: “I know the colour of this blood: it is arterial blood . . . that drop of blood is my death-warrant. I must die.”
His doctor prescribed starvation and bloodletting, which only exaggerated his symptoms. On July 5, 1820, he was ordered to travel to Italy. The country fascinated him; he had mastered the language well enough to read Dante, but the circumstances of his journey robbed it of any pleasure.
That September, he sailed from Gravesend with his friend, the artist Joseph Severn. The journey was a minor catastrophe — storms broke out followed by a dead calm that slowed the ship’s progress. When it finally docked in Naples, the ship was held in quarantine for ten days because of a suspected outbreak of cholera in Britain. Keats reached Rome on November 14 by which time all hope of a warmer climate had evaporated. He rallied briefly, wrote his last known letter on November 30 and relapsed on December 10. Agonised by his separation from Fanny, thwarted by the literary establishment and close to death, he never left the apartment in Piazza di Spagna again. He had wanted to take his own life but Severn confiscated a bottle of laudanum, a decision the artist later partially regretted. On February 23, disillusioned and in great emotional and physical turmoil Keats died. It was 11pm, his final words were, famously: “Severn, I, lift me up, I am dying — I shall die easy; don’t be frightened, be firm, and thank God it has come.”
Once you have visited Keats’s apartment in Rome it is impossible not to be drawn farther south, on a 15-minute metro ride, to the Protestant Cemetery. Like the apartment, it is presided over by a dedicatedex-pat, Amanda Thursfield, who is justly proud of this unexpectedly peaceful spot, flanked though it is by a boisterous Italian roundabout. Germans come here to see where Goethe’s only son, August, is buried; Americans to admire The Angel of Grief, an exquisite tomb carved by the sculptor William Story, or Daisy Miller, the heroine of Henry James’s novella. Italians rarely visit, says Thursfield, though members of the country’s Left will drop in to see the tomb of Antonio Gramsci, Italy’s Marxist luminary. “We live more alongside our dead in Britain.”
In the old part of the graveyard, barely a field when Keats was buried here, there are now umbrella pines, myrtle shrubs, roses, and carpets of wild violets. Keats wanted an anonymous headstone. During his lifetime, the reviewers had never ceased their sniping and even Wordsworth had dismissed his poetry as “a pretty piece of paganism”. Famously, the epitaph that Keats chose for himself was: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
“It is a pentameter,” Thursfield says. “There is a sense there of impermanence, that his name wouldn’t survive. He wanted to be a great poet, that’s what he felt was the whole purpose of his life.” There is something terrible about the image of the young Keats, talented and brave, cooped up in a room in the centre of what was then Europe’s most culturally vibrant city, helpless against his disease.
Severn and his friend Charles Brown later added a lyre with broken strings to his headstone, and words explaining how the poet chose his epitaph “on his Death Bed in the Bitterness of his heart at the Malicious Power of his enemies”.
Beside the grave you’ll often find epistles, teenage attempts at romantic poetry scrawled on notepaper, and lovingly dedicated letters. The grass in front of the grave is worn down to the soil. “People spend a lot of time here,” says Thursfield. “They’re mainly sensitive types. Academics, young people, who’ve been touched by his poetry.”
Though Shelley, one of Keats’s most fervent champions, is also buried here, “people seem more drawn to Keats’s”. When Oscar Wilde visited he was so moved that he prostrated himself on the grass beside it. Severn often came to see his friend. “Poor Keats has now his wish — his humble wish,” he wrote, ”he is at peace in the quiet grave. I walked there a few days ago and found the daisies had grown all over it. It is one of the most lovely retired spots in Rome. You cannot have such a place in England . I visit it with a delicious melancholy which relieves my sadness.”
It is sad still. A whimsical-looking girl is hovering about with a note in her hand. The English-lit class will visit tomorrow, a little less preoccupied by their mobile phones now that they have heard this young poet’s extraordinary life story.
La belle damned
Keats’s friends did not like Fanny Brawne and critics and biographers have not been kind to her since. This is partly because of the way half-truths about the poet developed after his death. His friends quarrelled over who had the right to compose his biography. Fanny, who did not want to have any part in this ugly dogfight, wrote that “the kindest act would be to let him rest for ever in the obscurity to which unhappy circumstances have condemned him”. It was a big mistake on her part, even if made with the best of intentions, as her critics used it as evidence of her unfeeling heart. She showed, they said, “so little belief in his poetic reputation”; she was “no mate for the poet either in heart or mind”.
Most importantly, Keats’s friends believed that Fanny did not love him as much as he did her and that his crazy obsession had served only to hasten his death from TB. Some thought that the blood vessel in his lungs had burst under the stress of sexual frustration, living so close to Fanny but unable to consummate his love. Leigh Hunt told the story of going for a walk with Keats on Hampstead Heath, and sitting on the bench in Well Walk while the poet told him, “with unaccustomed tears in his eyes” that “his heart was breaking”.
Caricatured and hated, Fanny was the unprepossessing femme fatale of the Keats story. Unable to fight back because of the potential scandal that the revelation of her relationship with Keats might cause, she kept silent, secretly holding on to the poet’s letters, which were published after her death. Her letters to Keats were lost for ever. The emotional upheaval of reading her letters sent to him in Rome was too great for the dying poet, and he preferred simply to clutch them to his chest unopened, requesting that they be buried with him in his coffin.
The author directs Studies in English at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge