5 Days of Oscar Wilde – 3: The Tomb of Keats

THE TOMB OF KEATS

(Irish Monthly, July 1877.)

As one enters Rome from the Via Ostiensis by the Porta San Paolo, the first object that meets the eye is a marble pyramid which stands close at hand on the left.

There are many Egyptian obelisks in Rome—tall, snakelike spires of red sandstone, mottled with strange writings, which remind us of the pillars of flame which led the children of Israel through the desert away from the land of the Pharaohs; but more wonderful than these to look upon is this gaunt, wedge-shaped pyramid standing here in this Italian city, unshattered amid the ruins and wrecks of time, looking older than the Eternal City itself, like terrible impassiveness turned to stone.  And so in the Middle Ages men supposed this to be the sepulchre of Remus, who was slain by his own brother at the founding of the city, so ancient and mysterious it appears; but we have now, perhaps unfortunately, more accurate information about it, and know that it is the tomb of one Caius Cestius, a Roman gentleman of small note, who died about 30 B.C.

Yet though we cannot care much for the dead man who lies in lonely state beneath it, and who is only known to the world through his sepulchre, still this pyramid will be ever dear to the eyes of all English-speaking people, because at evening its shadows fall on the tomb of one who walks with Spenser, and Shakespeare, and Byron, and Shelley, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the great procession of the sweet singers of England.

For at its foot there is a green, sunny slope, known as the Old Protestant Cemetery, and on this a common-looking grave, which bears the following inscription:

This grave contains all that was mortal of a young English poet, who on his deathbed, in the bitterness of his heart, desired these words to be engraven on his tombstone: HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER.  February 24, 1821.

And the name of the young English poet is John Keats.

Lord Houghton calls this cemetery ‘one of the most beautiful spots on which the eye and heart of man can rest,’ and Shelley speaks of it as making one ‘in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place’; and indeed when I saw the violets and the daisies and the poppies that overgrow the tomb, I remembered how the dead poet had once told his friend that he thought the ‘intensest pleasure he had received in life was in watching the growth of flowers,’ and how another time, after lying a while quite still, he murmured in some strange prescience of early death, ‘I feel the flowers growing over me.’

But this time-worn stone and these wildflowers are but poor memorials {3} of one so great as Keats; most of all, too, in this city of Rome, which pays such honour to her dead; where popes, and emperors, and saints, and cardinals lie hidden in ‘porphyry wombs,’ or couched in baths of jasper and chalcedony and malachite, ablaze with precious stones and metals, and tended with continual service.  For very noble is the site, and worthy of a noble monument; behind looms the grey pyramid, symbol of the world’s age, and filled with memories of the sphinx, and the lotus leaf, and the glories of old Nile; in front is the Monte Testaccio, built, it is said, with the broken fragments of the vessels in which all the nations of the East and the West brought their tribute to Rome; and a little distance off, along the slope of the hill under the Aurelian wall, some tall gaunt cypresses rise, like burnt-out funeral torches, to mark the spot where Shelley’s heart (that ‘heart of hearts’!) lies in the earth; and, above all, the soil on which we tread is very Rome!

As I stood beside the mean grave of this divine boy, I thought of him as of a Priest of Beauty slain before his time; and the vision of Guido’s St. Sebastian came before my eyes as I saw him at Genoa, a lovely brown boy, with crisp, clustering hair and red lips, bound by his evil enemies to a tree, and though pierced by arrows, raising his eyes with divine, impassioned gaze towards the Eternal Beauty of the opening heavens.  And thus my thoughts shaped themselves to rhyme:

HEU MISERANDE PUER

Rid of the world’s injustice and its pain,
He rests at last beneath God’s veil of blue;
Taken from life while life and love were new
The youngest of the martyrs here is lain,
Fair as Sebastian and as foully slain.
No cypress shades his grave, nor funeral yew,
But red-lipped daisies, violets drenched with dew,
And sleepy poppies, catch the evening rain.

O proudest heart that broke for misery!
O saddest poet that the world hath seen!
O sweetest singer of the English land!
Thy name was writ in water on the sand,
But our tears shall keep thy memory green,
And make it flourish like a Basil-tree.

Borne, 1877.


keats-deathbed

A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

John Keats was a poet.

He inspired the film, Arterial.

Known for Endymion (1818), The Eve of St. Agnes (1800), and many more.

 

3 Random Books from My Shelves

  1. Neil Gaiman – Fragile ThingsgaimanI’m not really sure what to say, as I would imagine most people who visit Examining the Odd have read some or all of Gaiman’s work! Since this book is a collection of short stories (and wonders!), I decided to randomly choose one of the pieces too. The chosen piece was The Fairy Reel, one of the “wonders”, since it is a poem rather than a short story. I’ve heard people liken this poem to a Keats ballad.

 

So plaintive and so wild and strange that all who heard it danced along

And sang and whirled and sank and trod and skipped and slipped and reeled and rolled

Until, with eyes as bright as coals, they’d crumble into wheels of gold…

I’d love to know which Gaiman piece is your favourite, from Fragile Things or elsewhere. People often say he’s hit or miss for them, but he’s all hit for me.

2. George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four1379095168358.cached Ah, the number one dystopian novel.

1984 is set in Oceania, which includes the United Kingdom, where the story is set, known as Airstrip One. Winston Smith is a middle-aged, unhealthy character, based loosely on Orwell’s own frail body, an underling of the ruling oligarchy, The Party. The Party has taken early 20th century totalitarianism to new depths, with each person subjected to 24 hour surveillance, where people’s very thoughts are controlled to ensure purity of the oligarchical system in place… But Winston believes there is another way… “He who controls the past, controls the future” is a Party slogan to live by and it gives Winston his job, but Winston cannot see it like that.Online Literature

It made me laugh that this book was randomly chosen right now (I live in the UK).

The conditions of government repression, censorship, and mass surveillance Orwell foresaw have seemed imminent, if not fully realized, in the decades following the novel’s 1948 publication, though the adjective “Orwellian” and many of the novel’s coinages have suffered a good deal through overuse and misapplication. Just as the first radio play of 1984 warned of a “disturbing broadcast,” this 1965 version begins, “The following play is not suitable for those of a nervous disposition.” Open Culture (hear the play in full)

Behind Winston’s back the voice from the telescreen was still babbling away about pig-iron and the overfulfilment of the Ninth Three-Year Plan. The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously.

3. Ann Leckie – Ancillary Justice9780316246620_custom-1b8a3367be3348eb1c36a41bd0e8c2563decdbfa-s99-c85

A space opera that skillfully handles both choruses and arias, Ancillary Justice is an absorbing thousand-year history, a poignant personal journey, and a welcome addition to the genre. – NPR

Justice of Toren is one being who gets caught up in political crossfire and finds herself reduced to a fragment of what she was: a lone human body, limited and alone. The first part of the book alternates between present and past, plunging the reader into the story and slowly providing the background. This is not a book you should try to skim.Jim C. Hines

Here it was, the moment I had worked toward for twenty years. Waited for. Feared would never come.

This book is actually from my to read pile, so I can’t give you my own opinion yet! I’m really looking forward to it though – I love books that span a huge amount of time.