Dancing with Death in Rome: Crypts + John Keats

24 February 1821. 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.

In September 2016 I was fortunate to spend a few days in The Eternal City. I was staying in a hotel built over the Capuchin Crypt, next to the church of Santa Maria. The crypt is a brutal, creepy reminder of the brevity of our lives; I felt as if the vacant eye sockets of the skulls were watching me. What you are now, we used to be. What we are now, you will be. Sometimes words aren’t enough – Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre seems like an appropriate way to describe the experience.

Crypts full of skeletons aside, I did what every tourist does in Rome and completed the standard checklist: The Trevi Fountain, fresh pizza at la Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, The Spanish Steps, the Vatican – it’s a long list, and all good fun. I admit I hate feeling like a tourist, but it cities like Rome, it can’t be helped. Among my little excursions, one of my favourites was my visit to the Keats Shelley House.

Famous for being John Keats’s dwelling in Rome and the place of his death, it is now a museum dedicated to his legacy and the English Romantic poets, including Shelley, Wordsworth, Browning, and everybody’s favourite playboy, Lord Byron. Their library contains almost eight-thousand volumes of Romantic literature, countless letters, and relics such as an original copy of Frankenstein, the cover signed by Mary Shelley herself in dedication to her son.

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Drawn in death by Severn 1821

He is gone–he died with the most perfect ease–he seemed to go to sleep. On the 23rd, about 4, the approaches of death came on. “Severn-I–lift me up–I am dying–I shall die easy–don’t be frightened–be firm, and thank God it has come!” I lifted him up in my arms. The phlegm seemed boiling in his throat, and increased until 11, when he gradually sunk into death–so quiet-that I still thought he slept.

– Joseph Severn in a letter to Charles Brown, 1821

Seeing the exact place where Keats left this world almost 200 years ago, when he was only twenty-five, was surreal and unsettling, as if I were in the presence of the ghosts of what took place. He once said, “I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death”. Well, he was right. The museum was a lovely experience and I would recommend it to any lover of English literature.

In honour of his memory and his short life, I’ll leave you with one this, one of his most well-known sonnets:

BRIGHT Star, would I were steadfast as thou art—

Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,

And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priest-like task

Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask

Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—

No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,

Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,

To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

  Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

  And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

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