A visit to the Protestant cemetery, resting-place of John Keats, Joseph Severn and Percy Shelley, is one of the highlights of a trip to Rome. The cemetery is located near the pyramid of Caius Cestius. Bordered by high walls, it is a surprisingly peaceful island in a sea of traffic and busy city life. Sitting on the bench near Keats’s grave, it is difficult to believe there is a city outside.
My favorite part of visiting – aside from laying flowers upon the grave of my favorite poet – is watching the cats who sleep on top of Keats and Severn’s graves. John and Joe, as I call them, curl up in front of the headstones and occasionally on a visitor’s lap. You can see some pictures of them by clicking here. If you visit, there is a flowershop nearby – pick up some daisies and violets for Keats
The inscription on Keats’s grave reads (and I am representing the punctuation, capitalization and spelling exactly as they are):
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.
(Please note that, as the tombstone itself points out, Keats desired only the phrase ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ to be on his tombstone. The phrase is thought to be taken from Beaumont and Fletcher’s Philaster (‘all your better deeds/ Shall be in water writ’). The rest of the inscription was added by Joseph Severn, who nursed him through his last illness, and Keats’s closest friend, Charles Brown. Both were grief-stricken and embittered by critical treatment of Keats’s poetry. And while the poet deserved their sympathy, the additional words could lead one to believe Keats himself was bitter. On the contrary, he had long since moved past the temporary sting of bad reviews.)
The tuberculosis which killed Keats first became noticeable on Thursday, 3 February 1820, after he suffered a severe chill caught from riding on top of a coach during a particularly cold spell. He was always short of money and could not afford the few extra pennies necessary to ride inside. Upon arriving at the rooms he and Brown shared, his friend noticed his changed demeanor for Keats was flushed and feverish. Advising him to go to bed, Brown witnessed his friend cough up blood. Keats asked for a candle; after looking at the drop of blood, he said, ‘I know the colour of that blood; – it is arterial blood; – I cannot be deceived in that colour; – that drop of blood is my death-warrant; – I must die.’
Apprenticed as a surgeon, Keats’s knowledge made him tragically all too aware of his own condition. He had quite possibly become infected while nursing his younger brother Tom in 1818. A cold he caught while traveling that same year also weakened his lungs. But only after the trip discussed above did the condition become obvious and inescapable. He may even have coughed up blood on the ride home that night; it would explain his excited state when he arrived home. His illness is discussed in all general biographies, as well as specific studies such as Keats as Doctor and Patient and A Doctor’s Life of John Keats (both of which have been criticized by Keats’s biographers.)
Severn and Brown’s inscription betrays the spirit of Keats’s request. Looking upon his tombstone, one should blot out their addition. Years later, both men came to regret their words. Sadly, however, they remain.