When in Rome … Keats-Shelley House

2 December 2023

A Roman road runs past the bottom of the garden of our Menton apartment. Not far away, on the Italian side of the border, a plaque marking the continuation of this ancient road says that Pope Innocent IV passed this way in 1251, Catherine of Siena in 1376, Nicolo Machiavelli in 1511 and Napoleon Bonaparte in 1796. But this is recent history. In moonlight, if you tip your head slightly and tune out the noise of trains and the sea, the sandalled footfalls of centurion soldiers can be heard as they make their way along the narrow causeway on their way to Rome. Or so I fancy. 

And it’s fancy – that Romantic, truly Keatsian word – that leads me, when in Rome, to a particular address in the eternal city: the Keats-Shelley House at Piazza di Spagna, right next to the Scalinata, or Spanish Steps. John Keats arrived to stay at this address in November 1820. He was very ill with tuberculosis and had been advised to leave England for the milder Italian winter season. He spent four months being nursed in this house by his friend, the artist Joseph Severn. Keats, aware that he was dying, called this time his ‘posthumous life’. He died on 23 February 1821. He was only twenty-five.

Much of Keats’s story is echoed in what happened to Katherine Mansfield a century later. She, too, left England for Italy on medical advice, the hope being that the Italian climate would halt the progression of her advanced tuberculosis. She, too, was accompanied by a loyal friend who helped take care of her. But for Mansfield, her arrival in San Remo in September 1919 was the start of three and a half years of peripatetic European journeying in Italy, France and Switzerland in search of a cure. In Mansfield’s time a range of new, purportedly scientific medical options were on offer, including iodine injections and x-ray therapy, but effective treatment for TB in the form of antibiotics was still two decades in the future. Mansfield died in Fontainebleau in January 1923. She was thirty-four. 

Since 1909, the house where Keats spent the final four months of his life has been a museum and library dedicated to John Keats and fellow Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. When I went to university for the first time as an adult student, one of the first papers I nervously enrolled in was Romantic literature. The experience was electrifying – a connection that it’s fair to say altered the trajectory of my life. That’s one reason I found it so moving to be in these beautifully curated, well-kept rooms. 

An additional layer of poignancy came from my awareness that, had she not been so ill herself when she was in Italy and the South of France in 1919-1921, Mansfield would surely also have found her way here to pay her respects. I can’t help but think that she would have wanted to see with her own eyes the Spanish Steps and the marble Bernini fountain, to hear with her own ears the constant hum of talk in many languages and the strike of heels on marble steps just outside Keats’s bedroom window.  

Mansfield adored the work of Keats and Shelley. For her they were two of the ‘special set’ of capital P Poets, a set with ‘a light upon them’ that also included Wordsworth, Coleridge and De Quincey. ‘These are the people,’  she wrote to her husband from Bandol, France, in March 1918, ‘with whom I want to live, those are the men I feel are our brothers, and the queer thing is that I feel there is a great golden loop linking them to Shakespeare’s time.’ A fortnight earlier, on 19 February 1918, she had got up just after dawn and opened the shutters. At the sight of the ‘full round sun’ she recited a line from Shakespeare: ‘Lo, here the gentle lark weary of rest’. In a buoyant mood she ‘bounded’ back across the bedroom, an exertion that caused her to cough. That was to be expected; she coughed all the time. But now for the first time she coughed arterial blood. It frightened her deeply. As she rested from ‘this little attack’ that had left her ‘trembling’, she turned to her Poets. Over the next few days she learned Shelley’s poem ‘The Question’ off by heart. But the afternoon after her hemorrhage she spent time with Keats, who she knew to have been consumptive (like Chekhov, whom she also greatly admired). She wrote to her husband that evening:

I feel chirpy tonight. I don’t care what happens, what pain I have, so long as my handkerchiefs don’t look as if I were in the pork-butcher trade … I feel as though the affair were out of my control then and that it’s a nightmare. Last night was like that for me. Then this afternoon, when I sat reading Keats in the sun, I coughed and it wasn’t red and I felt inclined to wave the fact to the whole world … But to be on alien shores with a very shady medicine man and a crimson lake hanky is about as near to Hell as I want to be.’  

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
         What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
         Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
         Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
                Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
                        And leaden-eyed despairs,
         Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
                Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ by John Keats

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