KEATS IN ROME

Twenty five is terribly young to die, but having done so much, so soon. You forget how important your formative influences are, and I was always rather obsessed with John Keats. He died of TB, after critical attacks on his poem Endymion, in the little house just right of the Spanish Steps, now the Keats-Shelley museum. Babington’s Tea Rooms, the windows groaning with New York style cupcakes, is opposite, though it is closed until January 2nd. Keats of course, apart from his ‘Negative Capability’, that imaginative entering into things and subjects, like those ‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim’, bursting across the lines of Ode to a Nightingale, believed in the ‘vale of soul-making’. An attempt at human spirit, without a formal God, like Coleridge’s attempt to create his own unique symbols, beyond established myth, with poems like The Ancient Mariner and Kublai Khan. But it was Shelley, whose heart would not burn, on the shores of his own drowning, when Byron stood by the fire, unknowing perhaps that the heart is the hardest organ to burn, who wrote Keat’s eulogy in the triumphant Adonais:

He has outsoared the shadow of our night,
Envy, and calumny, and hate, and pain,
And that unrest which men miscall delight
Can touch him not, and torture not again.
From the contagion of the world’s slow stain
He is secure and now can never morn,
A heart grown cold, a head grown grey in vain.
And when the spirit’s self has ceased to burn
With sparkless ashes load an unlamented urn.

But for Roman travellers another verse springs up too, with all the devastating melancholy of the English Romantics, leading the way perhaps to Keat’s grave in the Protestant cemetary, where they disrespected his request for his tombstone to carry only the words ‘here lies one whose name was writ in water’:

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.

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