Is it autumn already? Should I break out my copy of Keats and dream of mists and mellow fruitfullness, gathering swallows twittering the skies? It’s certainly cold enough. Summer fizzled rather than sizzled in England. Thankfully I spent the first two weeks of August in the hills near Rome, miles from anywhere, finishing off with two days in the Eternal City itself. Rome is gorgeous and was so hot our gelato became ivariably lemonade before we could finish it. To take some respite from the heat, even as the sun was sinking, I visited Keats/Shelley House at the base of the Spanish Steps. I have loved Keats for years, all that melancholy longing, the unfulfilled promise of a life cut tragically short.
Keats-Shelley House is an oasis of Englishness in the middle of a city as bustling and mediterranean as it’s possible to be. Plain and inauspicious from the outside, found only by a tiny brass plate and the directions of our guide book, the steep steps from the front door and the bright ticket office lead up to a darkened library of calm. Books line the walls top to toe, the comforting smell of decaying parhcment and leather binding fills your senses, scholars sit reading in chairs surrounded by paintings and artefacts clebrating the second generation of English Romantics. And it’s quiet, so so quiet. Here you can see Shelley’s hair, paintings by Severn, Byron’s letters and jewellery, the fading handwriting of all. Shelley didn’t stay here, but Keats died in the small room overlooking the Spanish Steps. You can go inside, though all that remains from that time is the elaborate rose ceiling, Keats’s death mask and the original stone fireplace; the room was stripped and it’s contents burned to prevent the spread of the tuberculosis that killed the poet (a futile precaution). The museum exudes sadness but also a certain joy, there is a feeling of immortality, of endurance beyond life. Keats had friends who ensured his name did not die, as if writ in water. And later, the house was bought and dedicated as a museum via a collaboration of American and English literati.
If you get the chance to go to Rome, take time out to walk arond this beautiful museum, it relies solely on ticket sales and donations, or do as I did and blow the budget on curiosities and books in the gift shop!