When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;…
John Keats, 1818
Testaccio is the twentieth rione of Rome, once a traditional working class neighbourhood. The Monte Testaccio, built on a massive mound of discarded ancient Roman amphorae or jars, hovers over the horizon. In Testaccio, the famous Roman dishes like the Trippa alla Romana and the oxtail stew were first cooked and the city’s beloved team AS Roma got their first football ground.
Somewhere here, next to the Pyramid of Cestius built in 30 BC, is the Cimitero Acattolico, or the Non-Catholic cemetery. At a quiet corner of this cemetery is a gravestone, strewn with violets and daisies, that reads:
‘This grave contains all that was Mortal of a Young English Poet Who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies Desired these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone: Here lies One Whose Name was Writ in Water. 24 February 1821.’
The Young English Poet is John Keats, who died of consumption (tuberculosis), aged 25.
It was during the first couple of years of studying English literature that I had fallen in love with Keats. The young genius, who wrote with such sensual appeal and vivid imagery, tethered to a passion for love and death. The man born to a stable keeper, of whom T.S. Eliot wrote of being, ‘occupied only with the highest use of poetry.’ His odes, sonnets and epics, written in a few short years, received high acclaim only after his death.
I often imagined myself as his Hampstead neighbour Fanny Brawne, to whom he wrote from his deathbed in Rome, ‘I cannot exist without you. I could be martyr’d for my Religion… Love is my Religion… I could die for that… I could die for you.’
Sitting on the bench opposite his gravestone several years later, I try to remember what happened to Fanny Brawne. A line flashes in my mind, from one of her letters to Keats’ sister Frances, ‘All I do is to persuade myself, I shall never see him again.’ And even today, I can feel her pain.
There are two women standing nearby. I overhear their tourist guide telling them how Keats was a dramatic man and didn’t want his name on the grave. She tells them how he dictated all the words. The women nod thoughtfully, I shake my head in disbelief.
It was indeed Keats’ wish that the line, ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ be his epitaph. However, devastated by his death, the first few lines referring to the malicious powers of his enemies were later added by his friends Charles Brown and Joseph Severn. Even the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, had indicated that Keats’ death had been hastened by the biting criticism of his poem, Endymion. Shelley later wrote in Adonais, an elegy on Keats’ death:
‘Trampled and mock’d with many a loathed rite
Of lust and blood; he went, unterrified,
Into the gulf of death…’
Though Keats once wrote to Fanny, ‘I have left no immortal work behind me… nothing to make my friends proud of my memory… but I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d,’ there is not much more to show that he was so bitter about death and his critics.
Michelle Stacey in the Paris Review has argued that Keats himself was probably relieved by his death. She writes, ‘Keats pictured it [his grave] strewn with daisies and violets (which it still is) and looking up to the apartment’s ceiling – still, as it was then, patterned with white and yellow flowers on a sky-blue background –reflected that he could already feel them growing over him.’
Severn, who nursed him through his last few days, wrote about his dying minutes, ‘Severn… S… lift me up for I am dying… I shall die easy … don’t be frightened… thank God it has come.’ In fact, Severn later suggested a new inscription to replace, ‘the present one, so unjust & disrespectful to his memory & painfull to my feelings,’ while blaming Brown for the existing one. Brown himself called it “…a sort of profanation…”
But it was never changed. Anyone who visits the grave goes away with the impression that Keats died bitter and cursing his critics. It was, perhaps, neither. He died wishing for a ‘quiet grave,’ strewn with flowers, celebrating love.
Keats had travelled to Italy, with perhaps a faint hope that the bright sun will cure his deadly ailment. But he was well-acquainted with its vicious symptoms. He had watched his own mother and younger brother Tom lose their battles to the same disease. Keats knew very well that he was dying. What he didn’t know was that through his enduring poetry, he would live. Even centuries later.
Next to Keats, lies Severn. Even in his grave, Severn remains ‘devoted friend and death-bed companion of John Keats, whom he lived to see numbered among The Immortal Poets of England.’ Severn’s epitaph almost seems to be an apology to Keats. And just behind, hidden by the tall grass, is Severn’s infant son.
A few metres away, up on a hill, lies Shelley. Shelley was killed when a storm engulfed the boat Don Juan, in which he had gone to welcome the well-known critic and essayist Leigh Hunt to Italy. Ten days later his body was washed ashore. On him was a copy of Keats’ 1820 volume of poems.
In this amazingly tranquil cemetery, it is easy to forget the bustling city outside. Stacey writes about Oscar Wilde, ‘who on a visit in 1877 prostrated himself upon Keats’ grave and proclaimed it ‘the holiest place in Rome.’
One can sit here for hours. Time is not on my side and I have other commitments, so I cannot. Instead, I read out what Wilde wrote in his sonnet, ‘The Grave of Keats’
‘Thy name was writ in water — it shall stand
And tears like mine will keep thy memory green.’
[Photographs by Ananya Dasgupta]