'The Holiest Place in Rome'
On February 23rd*, 1821, the English poet John Keats died in Rome. He was only twenty-five years old. Keats was buried in the city's cemetery for non-Catholics, the Cimitero Acattolico, also known as the Protestant or English Cemetery.
Keats’ tombstone is engraved with the following lines: '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. Feb 24th 1821'.
Shortly before he died, Keats, believing that his poetry would not live on, requested that his gravestone should simply bear the words: 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water'. However, Charles Brown, a literary friend of Keats, and one of his executors, felt very bitter about the poet's treatment at the hands of the critics and suggested the extra lines.
Above the inscription is an image of a lyre, symbol of Apollo, the Greek and Roman god of poetry. The missing strings symbolise a life cut short.
The headstone was designed by Keats' friend, the artist Joseph Severn (1793-1879), who is buried next to him. Severn, who nursed the poet through the last months of his illness, lived to the grand old age of 85.
On a nearby wall is a plaque bearing a relief of Keats and a short acrostic verse spelling out the poet's name. The plaque was added to guide visitors to an otherwise unnamed grave. The not terribly good verse reads:
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!
The young Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), on a visit to Keats' grave in the spring of 1877, described it as 'the holiest spot in Rome'. However, he was less impressed by the plaque, writing: 'I do not think this very ugly thing ought to be allowed to remain'.
*Keats died an hour or so before midnight on February 23rd, but it was then the practise in Rome for a new day to start shortly after sunset (and evening prayers), hence the date February 24th on his tombstone.
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My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
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