A Tale of Two Continents: Finding Keats
Ah, Argus, we meet again. It’s been a while. I promise I haven’t forgotten about you. I’ve just been distracted with temples and necropolis and Julio-Claudians. Lucky for you, I’m not going to talk about those things in this article. Instead, I will tell you a thrilling tale of true love, danger, and death.
It all started a couple of weeks ago, over spring break. I am not sure if I can express to you how very wonderful it was to be in the city and not have to work all the time. Rome is really a miraculous place, full of gelato and small dogs. Plus, I finally got to go to the one monument I most cared about seeing: the grave of John Keats.
I first encountered this poet when I was but a wee high school freshman. We were required to do research papers, and as my teacher called us to his desk one by one to tell us what we would be writing about, he simply told me, “You’ll do Keats. It makes sense.” I don’t remember much about the paper, but then, does one ever remember much about falling in love? I do remember that when the paper was returned, my teacher commented: “You know the saddest part? He didn’t even think he was any good. What’s written on his grave is, ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’ That means he thought he wouldn’t last.” And it is sad. Beautifully sad. I fell for him the way that upper-middle-class white girls fall for boys with tattoos that say, “Fuck the police”—that is to say, desperately.
When Keats fell ill with tuberculosis, he was sent to Rome in the hopes that the climate or something would heal him—alas, it didn’t work. He was buried in the non-Catholic cemetery, which lies just behind the Pyramid of Cestius.
When I went there, it was a fine morning: birds and sunshine and a springtime breeze. It was fortuitous, because the Protestant Cemetery is one of the most beautiful places in Rome, and the most interesting. For starters, it also doubles as a cat sanctuary. Awesome.
In addition, it has tombstones with some of the best names I have ever seen (Sir Willoughby Wade, Cornelia Peacock Connelley, Pier Pander, Hedwig Herschman, Ursula Spinelli, Devereux Plantagenet Cockburn, to name just a few).
Plus, Percy Shelley is buried there.
Plus, John Keats is buried there!
After we arrived, I carefully calculated the path I would take to Keats’ grave so that I would get to have some alone time there. Good Lord. It was so beautiful. I remained there for quite some time, but did eventually depart after a middle-aged woman started looking irritated that I was hugging the tombstone. Little did I know that I would actually get to encounter my true love, again, that very day when I visited the Spanish Steps. Keats lived in a house right by there when he was in Rome—it has now been opened as a beautiful, beautiful museum. I got to be in the room where he died—or as I like to think of it, the room where he lived. Actually though, this museum is straight-up baller. It has just the kind of strange things you would expect the 19th-century friends of a Romantic poet to keep, like death masks...or locks of his hair.
I think it is also important to note that the card beside this display: “Mr. Keats’s hair was remarkable for its beauty, its flowing grace and fineness. It was a kind of ideal, poetical hair; and the locks we possess...are beautiful specimens...[We see them and] remember the poet was a young man, and manly in spirit as he was beautiful.”