Travel & Culture, Travel Diaries

“Oh weep for Adonais!” – My Keatsian Pilgrimage in Rome

“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.”
—Percy Bysshe Shelley, Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (link)

wikimedia_john keats

Portrait of John Keats by William Hilton the Younger [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

On the 15th of November 1820, the English poet John Keats entered Rome together with his friend, the artist Joseph Severn. They had already been on the Italian soil for a few weeks as their ship had been kept in quarantine for 10 days in Naples.

Keats’s journey to Italy was no trip of pleasure, inspiration or for a particular cause, such as other Romantic poets were compelled to take (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lord Byron). On the doctor’s advice and with the help of his friends, Keats travelled in search of a warmer climate that would ease his ailment – what would later turn out to be tuberculosis.

The two Englishmen settled down in number 26 in Piazza di Spagna, a villa adjacent to the Scalinata (Spanish Steps). Exhorted by Dr James Clark, the young poet would go out for a walk but was soon confined indoors as his condition worsened. The warmer climate eluded him as he had arrived too late in Italy, when it was already winter.

He passed away on the 23rd of February 1821, aged 25, three months after his arrival in Rome. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in the same city.

To honour John Keats on his death anniversary, I wanted to write about my ‘pilgrimage’ in Rome – done on the 2nd of January 2015 – where I have visited the Keats-Shelley House in Piazza di Spagna and the Protestant Cemetery.

The Keats-Shelley House

scrabbled_rambles_johnkeats_portraitIt was our last full day in Rome. Matt and I left our centrally-located B&B (in the Colosseum area) early in the morning on foot and reached Piazza di Spagna from the top of the Spanish Steps. The steps and the piazza were crowded with tourists as well as shoppers who were checking out the post-Christmas sales at the high-fashion shops scattered in the side streets. Yet when we entered the Keats-Shelley House, the world outside was soon forgotten.

After going up the stairs and paying our tickets of 5 Euros each, we were encouraged by the receptionist to watch a documentary about Keats, Shelley and Byron. The screening room was small and visitors entered and exited at different points but it was enjoyable and useful nonetheless.

scrabbled_rambles_keats shelley museum rome shelvesWe then browsed the few rooms of the house, starting from the main one, which houses part of the library as well as busts and paintings of Keats, Shelley and Byron. The connection between these three is not incidental and not just because they’re part of the later generation of Romantic poets. Shelley, who was an admirer of Keats, had moved to Italy with his wife Mary (author of Frankenstein). He died in a shipwreck in July 1822, at the age of 29, just over a year after honouring Keats with his pastoral elegy, which I have quoted in part at the beginning of the post. Byron was an avid traveller, having lived in Italy for a while and having frequented the Shelleys. He died from illness in Greece in April 1824, aged 36, while fighting for the Greek independence cause. So all three poets are tied by their unfortunate death at a young age.

scrabbled_rambles_keats_shelley_museum_rome_shelvesWithin the same room there was also a display of Oscar Wilde’s letters while in a smaller adjacent room, there was an exhibition about the poet Robert Browning. In the next room, amongst more bookshelves, were drawings and information about Keats’s life, including some information about his fiancée Fanny Brawne. All these rooms were majestic in their decor. But the last room was the one I was eager to see: the bedroom in which Keats resided and passed away.

I was struck by the small dimensions of the room. The furniture was obviously a replica, as the original had to be burned after Keats’s death, according to law. Next to the bed was a display of the death mask of Keats and also Severn’s drawing of him on his deathbed. What attracted me the most, though, was the desk by one window and the view from the other window, over the steps and half of the piazza. I stood there for a minute, trying to imagine what Keats could have seen from there. Certainly a much less crowded scenery.

The Protestant Cemetery

Before leaving the museum, I signed the guestbook and left a small donation. It was the least I could do to thank for the incredible experience at this literary museum. After a quick lunch near the Piazza, we walked back to the Colosseum area and after some pondering, I decided that the day should not end so early. I had to see John Keats’s grave.

So we walked towards and along the River Tiber until we reached the cemetery in Via Caio Cestio by 3 o’ clock in the afternoon. Almost 4km from Piazza di Spagna but definitely worth the long walk. (I suggest that any visitor in Rome should wander around on foot, to discover lots of hidden gems).

Upon entrance, I was overwhelmed by the number of tombstones and the elaborate sculptures on some graves. I veered to the left towards the old part of the cemetery. There we found the grave of John Keats, next to Joseph Severn’s and that of Severn’s young son in the middle. The epitaph for Keats 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 tombstone: Here lies one whose name was writ in water.

scrabbled_rambles_protestant cemetery rome keats grave

scrabbled_rambles_protestant cemetery rome pyramidClearly, his name was not writ in water as the young poet’s success exploded after his death. We sat on a bench across the grave for a few minutes of contemplation. Only a handful of purple flowers lay in front of the stone, amongst abundant leaves; I wished that the grave could be better tended. From that spot we could also appreciate the huge Pyramid of Cestius, populated by many cats. On the wall to the left there is a relief dedicated to Keats with these words:

K-eats! if thy cherished name be “writ in water”
E-ach drop has fallen from some mourner’s cheek;
A-sacred tribute; such as heroes seek,
T-hough oft in vain – for dazzling deeds of slaughter
S-leep on! Not honoured less for Epitaph so meek!

scrabbled_rambles_protestant cemetery shelleyAfter further meandering, we found the grave of Shelley’s infant son William. For the grave of his father, I had to search for a longer time, in the other section of the cemetery. I finally found it right on the back, with the inscribed words “Cor cordium” (Latin for “heart of hearts”).

On the way, I also found the most amazing of sculptures: the grave of Elsbeth Wegener Passarge, who died in her sleep on her first night after her wedding. In fact in the sculpture, she is dressed as a bride and lies on a bed, always with a small fresh bouquet of flowers. Other graves of notable persons which I have missed are those of August von Goethe (son of the famous German writer), Antonio Gramsci (Italian Marxist intellectual) and a memorial plaque of Axel Munthe (Swedish physician and writer who also resided in 26, Piazza di Spagna for a while).

scrabbled_rambles_protestant cemetery rome bride

That was definitely the end of my Keatsian pilgrimage and practically the end of our stay in Rome. I will always cherish this experience: my first time abroad, my first time in a literary museum and my first time in a foreign cemetery. Let this be just a start to my cultural discoveries around Europe.


Check out: the complete photo album on Flickr

Bright Star (2009)


© BBC Films, Pathé, Screen Australia

Too lazy to read more about John Keats? Check out this beautiful Jane Campion film, starring Ben Whishaw as Keats and Abbie Cornish as his lover Fanny Brawne.

Like all historical romantic films, it might appear too romanticised, but I assure you that the colourful scenes, the soundtrack and the overall style manage to convey the mood and the poetry of Romanticism.

There is also a companion book, Bright Star: The Complete Poems and Selected Letters, with his best poems and his letters to Fanny.

Have you visited these places? Any other thoughts? Leave a comment on this post or drop me a mail!
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  • Reply maggiehayes22 16th April 2016 at 8:27 am

    Wow that must have been amazing to visit the Keats-Shelley House. I would do anything to look out that same window. Truly an amazing trip you took!!

    • Reply Tiziana 16th April 2016 at 6:46 pm

      Hi Maggie, thanks for your comment. It was a breathtaking experience, you can almost feel a poetic soul inhabiting those rooms in the House. I hope you will get the chance to visit it someday!

  • Reply amandakeely 17th April 2016 at 5:10 am

    Wow you saw the grave site of Elsbeth Wegener Passarge…it’s such a beautiful memorial for her. You had such an amazing trip…beautiful and emotional.

    • Reply Tiziana 17th April 2016 at 3:18 pm

      Her grave surprised me for its beauty, I had never heard of her before so after my visit I had to research her story.

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