Over the centuries the ancient capital of the world has exerted a powerful attraction on tourists, and especially on writers who have come to seek inspiration among its ruins. Traveling from distant towns that had once been under Roman sway, they came to view the dead city, to mourn the fall of its great empire and to grieve over he decadence of its church.
Rome’s most notable literary visitor came to the city not for literary inspiration but to save his life. John keats arrived in Italy in 1819, on his twenty-fifth birthday, dying from the consumption that had already carried off his mother and a brother. Keats was a doctor, although he had abandoned that career for poetry; and he was able to diagnose his case and predict its course from the first moment he coughed up blood. He had just published the odes that would make him immortal; but they had not been well received, and in the last months of his life his greatest pain came from the fear that he would not live ”among the English poets”.
”Keats’s confessions made Severn believe that the poet’s problems were caused as much by love as physical disease. This opinion was already shared by Keats’s friends and doctor, and indeed Keats himself believed it. In the text of the letter to Brown, Keats had written: ‘My dear Brown, I should have had her when I was in health, and I should have remained well’. Interestingly, Keats also believed his younger brother Tom had died as much from a broken heart as consumption. The power of love in Keats’s universe was thus life-altering, and life-threatening. This belief gave Severn some optimism since heartache was not as alarming as consumption. But he was disturbed by the intensity of Keats’s feelings, and how they affected his health.”
He had been invited to Italy by Shelly and his wife, who were staying at Pisa. They had recently left Rome, where they had been seeing their three year old son fall sick and die. But Keats ignored their invitation; he had never really liked nor enjoyed his company. He resolved to go to Italy, but remained vague about his plans to visit Pisa.
Accompanied by his friend, the painter Joseph Severn,he went almost directly to Rome and took rooms with a view of the Spanish Steps. His first weeks were pleasant enough. In the warm Roman sunshine Keats seemed to be doing better. His rooms were comfortable, and he met an agreeable group of English visitors with whom he socialized. But the irritability and nervousness that accompany the final stages of tuberculosis soon began to prey on Keats spirits. He had always been a sociable person, but he now refused to go out anymore for strolls in the Pincio Gardens. He blamed Napoleon’s sister Pauline, the Princess Borghese, for this; he was annoyed, and doubtless jealous, because she was flirting with one of his companions, a tall and handsome English lieutenant. He himself was short and had always been sensitive about it.
”This was yet another aspect of the final tragedy – his poetic impulse was stirred and he was forced to deny it. Severn later remarked that this was his friend’s greatest pain. Soon enough, Keats could not ‘bear any books’ either, for they were painful reminders of immortality. Severn would occasionally read to him (Keats requested Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying for ‘some faith – some hope – something to rest on now’) but the poet would not read himself, nor write to anyone.
This new calm impressed both Severn and Clarke; the doctor remarked that Keats was ‘too noble an animal to be allowed to sink.’ But there was little to do for him now. There were occasional flashes of his old humor and wit. Their dinners were purchased from a nearby restaurant and always badly cooked. One day, with a mischievous smile at Severn, Keats took the dishes and proceeded to empty them out the sitting-room window. ‘Now you’ll see, we’ll have a decent dinner.’ Barely half an hour passed before a new – and delicious – dinner was delivered. Afterwards, their meals were prompt and edible.”
ern3.jpg" alt="John Keats by Joseph Severn oil on canvas, 1821-1823, dated 1821 22 1/4 in. x 16 1/2 in. (565 mm x 419 mm) Given by S. Smith Travers, 1859" width="241" height="325" />