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Meet Me at the Cemetery Gates. Keats and. . . (Part I)

April 5, 2011

Keats and Shelley lie in Rome’s Non-Catholic Cemetery. Not together–less than a year and a half separated their early deaths, but it meant that John Keats made it into the old cemetery and Percy Bysshe Shelley landed in its expansion. Though friends, they were not especially close and did not live together in Rome. Keats labored in the slightly older and more established (and richer and freer and more glamorous) poet’s shadow during life; it’s irksomely fitting that the home in which he died of tuberculosis is now known as the Keats-Shelley House.

Keats is not with his fiancee either, and Percy Bysshe is not with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (nor with the wife he abandoned for her, and who later committed suicide).

Keats and Severn

Keats lies beside Joseph Severn, the painter who took care of him the last four months of his life in the rooms they shared in a rented house beside the Spanish Steps. Dying Keats had asked his friend to describe the cemetery. Wrote Severn later, “Violets were his favorite flowers and he joyed to hear how they overspread the graves. He assured me that he already seemed to feel the flowers growing over him.”

Keats’ gravestone doesn’t even show his name:

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 engraved on his

Tomb Stone

“Here lies One

Whose Name was writ in Water.”

Feb 24th 1821

It’s faithful Severn’s grave that identifies Keats by name (though, like Shelley, Severn originally had been interred in the modern part of the cemetery and only later joined his friend). In death the painter is immortalized as the “devoted friend and death-bed companion of John Keats, whom he lived to see numbered among the immortal poets of England.”  In life too Severn’s artistic reputation largely rested on the portraits he made of Keats.

Shelley

Soon after he buried Keats, Severn had to negotiate another poet’s gravesite. Shelley’s boat sank in a storm off Livorno and his body washed up on shore; friends cremated him on the beach near Viareggio and brought the ashes to Rome for burial. “Cor Cordium,” reads his epitaph, “Heart of Hearts.”

Trelawney

Legend has it that Edward John Trelawny braved the flames to pull Shelley’s heart from the funeral pyre and later presented it to Mary Shelley; Trelawny had already confessed his love to the widow and to her stepsister.  When he reached Rome a few weeks after Shelley’s burial, Trelawny wasn’t very happy with the grave Severn had arranged. He had it moved, by the back wall, near the old section and its pyramid. Decades later, after a long life of adventures amorous and otherwise–the swashbuckling Trelawny was something like Byron without the poetry–and of writing about his exploits and about Byron and Shelley, he took his place beside Shelley. His headstone borrowed a line from the poet: “Their two hearts in life were single-hearted.”

I’d like to read these grave-pairings as a testament to friendship, as an escape from the bounds of family and couplehood, as at least a tribute to artistic kinship or a love of poetry (Beat poet Gregory Corso would arrange to be buried near Shelley too).

But the lives of Keats and Shelley and their circle were complicated. More on this shortly.

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