I was in Rome this spring. Rome is a wonder. The present cannot contain it. You stand waiting for a bus and across the street are the ruins of a pagan temple.
Time and again in Rome, you step off a busy street and into a sacred space. Into transcendence—a church can swarm your thoughts, but so can the face of a girl on the bus—and you are so filled with wonder that you laugh. People stare at you. Your notebooks are full of ecstatic musings.
Faith, love, art, food—the theme is life. But of course the operating system that’s running underneath all this life is mortality. It’s not a pagan temple you’re looking at, but the ruins of a pagan temple. That girl on the bus breathes perfume through her skin but someday she’ll be in ruins, too, and worse. This is what makes it all so sweet—the sense that there’s a living moment, you’re in it, it’ll be gone soon, so live it.
As the English poet John Keats once wrote in “Ode on Melancholy”:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine
And, speaking of Keats, he’s buried in Rome. I may have been the only American tourist in the city this spring who rented an apartment because it was near Keats’s grave. It’s true. And it’s not just the reason I rented the apartment; it’s the reason I came to Rome.
John Keats came to Rome because he was sick. It was the fall of 1820. He’d come down with tuberculosis, it wasn’t getting any better, and his friends knew an English winter would be the end of him. They talked the young artist Joseph Severn into accompanying him to Italy. The two sailed to Naples, traveled overland to Rome, and settled into rooms on the Piazza di Spagna. It was a trip of six or seven weeks. They arrived mid-November.
Keats took to Rome. Who would not take to Rome? This particular neighborhood was popular among English ex-pats—particularly artists and writers, who found it colorful and inspiring. On the Spanish Steps, just under Keats’s window, artists’ models showed off their pretty selves for prospective clients. But it was just as Keats had written: Ay, in the very temple of Delight, veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine . . . The girl he loved was far away, the critics had scorned his poems, and for all the joys of love and art, here he was, but 25 years of age and out of time.
There was nothing romantic about his death. He was a medical mess and the practices of the day—the doctor bled him and starved him—did nothing to improve his chances. With Severn holding him much of the day—Severn, who found unexpected strength in himself and an ennobling love—Keats died on February 23, 1821.
Nothing romantic about his death, you say? Of course it was romantic. It was romantic in the way Van Gogh’s death was romantic, or James Dean’s. All the usual clichés apply–the promise cut short, the candle in the wind, all that. But damn the clichés. When I was a young man reading Keats—the poems, the letters—I felt that there was no one like him. He had an uncanny depth of understanding . . . he knew that this is the living moment, that you’re in it, that it’ll be gone soon, that it is all the more sweet for this fact, and that you must strive to be “him whose strenuous tongue can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine.” I learned this from John Keats. And the thought that this man had died neglected and brokenhearted—and essentially at my age—pierced my heart. Just caught me up.
Before Keats died, Severn rode down to the cemetery–just inside the old Aurelian wall on the southern edge of the city–where non-Catholics were buried. White violets and daisies grew there, sheep and goats grazed. It was little more than an open field. Severn described it to Keats, and Keats took comfort. He said he could already feel the flowers growing over his head.
It was called the Protestant Cemetery back then, the Non-Catholic Cemetery today. Keats is buried there. Severn, who lived in Rome the remaining fifty-six years of his life, is buried beside him. Sometimes, I was told during my stay, casual visitors stare at the two markers and ask where to find John Keats. That’s because his name does not appear on his tombstone. The last line of the inscription reads as he requested: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
This is sacred ground. Next time, I’ll tell you more about this extraordinary place.