Rome Keats' House

03/06/2024 11:54

John Keats was a contemporary of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, with whom he embodied the second wave of British romantic poets in the wake of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.

In 1816 he published his first poems in the newspaper The Examiner: An imitation of Spencer, O Solitude and On first looking into Chapman's Homer. The first refers to Edmund Spencer, a 16th century London poet, author of The Faerie Queene, and the last refers to George Chapman, who translated the complete works of Homer into English for the first time in the 17th century: The whole works of Homer. On March 3, 1817, his first book was published, simply titled Poems, which was not well treated by critics. In 1918 he published Endymion, his first narrative poem, with a remarkable length of four thousand verses, which begins with the question: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever?”

In April 1819 he settled in the house next door to the one where lived in Hampstead, London, the Brawne family, with whose 18-year-old daughter, Fanny, he fell in love. This was Keats's most productive and mature stage, also inspired by readings of Wordsworth and Hazlitt. Between April and May 1819 he would compose five of his six great odes: Ode to Psyche, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode on Melancholy and Ode to a Nightingale. His friend Brown claimed that he wrote it in the garden of the house, under a plum tree. These appeared in 1820 in the volume entitled Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St Agnes and other Poems published by the same editors of the Endymion: Taylor & Hessey. Other works were published posthumously in 1848 under the title Life, letters and literary remains of John Keats.

In September 1820, increasingly afflicted by tuberculosis, he left for Naples accompanied by the painter Joseph Severn. On November 14 they arrived in Rome. The Scot James Clark, Keats' doctor, rented from Anna Angeletti, the owner, a pair of rooms separated by a curtain from the rest of the apartment, in the property next to the steps of the Piazza di Spagna. There, the poet, spent the last four months of his life. The apartment is located on the second floor of the house on the corner of the staircase that leads to the church of Trinità dei Monti. From Keats's room window you can see the movement of people around Bernini's fountain, the ship shaped marble fountain.

The house was threatened with demolition but English and American diplomats promoted the project to maintain the house as a museum dedicated to the poet. Titled the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, it opened in April 1909. Although Shelley never set foot in the house, the museum was dedicated to Keats, Shelley and Byron. Shelley lived for long periods in Italy where he drowned in 1822 off the coast of Livorno. When he died, he was not much older than Keats, he was 29 years old.

The entrance of the apartment leads to a large living room, today covered by shelves of books, other display cases show a letter from North American President Theodore Roosevelt, who visited the house in 1911, two years after it had been opened as a museum; there is also a copy of Keats's Hyperion with marginal annotations by Walt Whitman and a manuscript by Jorge Luis Borges with notes to Ode to a Nightingale. Hanging on the walls are photographs of the founders of the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association: Robert Underwood, Rennell Rodd and Harry Nelson, as well as busts and portraits of Keats, Shelley and Byron. One of them is an oil painting, work of Severn, portraying Shelley in the Baths of Caracalla, in Rome.

Right next door is the Terrace Room, the room that opens onto a small terrace overlooking the scalinatta and that the landlady, Anna Angeletti, used for cooking. Here are exhibited the portraits of Byron's mistress, Countess Teresa Guiccioli, of Mary Shelley and of Edward Trelawny, friend of the poets.

At the other end of the room a door leads to Joseph Severn's room, an anteroom to the poet's one. Shown here are the watercolours that the painter made of the Keats brothers: George, Tom and John himself. Also shown are letters and two fragments of the Lamia manuscript, from 1819, and some first editions of it and the Endymion. Behind this room is the one occupied by John Keats. After the poet's death, the Vatican decreed that furniture, curtains and even wallpaper be burned for fear of the spread of tuberculosis. Only the fireplace remained. The bed that can be seen today was purchased later, it is an Italian walnut bed with a barca a letto design, common at the time Keats lived in Rome. Today there are some display cases with manuscripts and portraits of Severn, in addition to the poet's death mask, since on the morning of his death moulds of his face, hands and feet were taken. Severn used the mask to make a posthumous portrait of the poet reading in Wentworth Place. This was sent to his London editor, John Taylor. Between 1886 and 1891 a series of white plaster moulds were made, one of which is on display in the National Portrait Gallery in London. And there, in London, the house where he lived for four years at the bottom of Hampstead Heath Park is also currently a weekend museum, open from Friday to Sunday. It is located at the beginning of what was then called John Street and today is Keats Grove.

Keats was still twenty-five years old when tuberculosis overcame him. It was on February 23, 1821. He was buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome where on his epitaph you can read the phrase: “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 tombstone: Here lies one whose name is written in water. 24 February 1821”. The phrase that Keats wanted to appear on his tomb refers to a poem by Gaius Valerius Catullus: “Sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti, in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua” (“Moreover what a woman says to her passionate lover, in the wind and swift water it is worth writing”).

© J.L.Nicolas

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