The Burial Place Of Keats And Shelley – Rome, Italy

A beautiful pyramid, a hundred and thirteen feet high, built into the ancient wall of Rome, is the proud “Sepulcher of Caius Cestius.” It is the most imperishable of the antiquities, standing as perfect after eighteen hundred years as if it were built but yesterday. Just beyond it, on the declivity of a hill, over the ridge of which the wall passes, crowning it with two moldering towers, lies the Protestant burying-ground.

It looks toward Rome, which appears in the distance, between Mount Aventine and a small hill called Mont Testaccio, and leaning to the south-east, the sun lies warm and soft upon its banks, and the grass and wild flowers are there the earliest and tallest of the Campagna. I have been here to-day, to see the graves of Keats and Shelley. With a cloudless sky and the most delicious air ever breathed, we sat down upon the marble slab laid over the ashes of poor Shelley, and read his own lament over Keats, who sleeps just below, at the foot of the hill.

The cemetery is rudely formed into three terraces, with walks between, and Shelley’s grave and one other, without a name, occupy a small nook above, made by the projections of a moldering wall-tower, and crowded with ivy and shrubs, and a peculiarly fragrant yellow flower, which perfumes the air around for several feet. The avenue by which you ascend from the gate is lined with high bushes of the marsh-rose in the most luxuriant bloom, and all over the cemetery the grass is thickly mingled with flowers of every die. In his preface to his lament over Keats, Shelley says:

“He was buried in the romantic and lonely cemetery of the Protestants, under the pyramid which is the tomb of Cestius, and the massy walls and towers, now moldering and desolate, which formed the circuit of ancient Rome. It is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.”

If Shelley had chosen his own grave at the time. he would have selected the very spot where he has since been laid—the most sequestered and flowery nook of the place he describes so feelingly.

On the second terrace of the declivity are ten or twelve graves, two of which bear the names of Americans who have died in Rome. A portrait carved in bas-relief, upon one of the slabs, told me, without the inscription, that one whom I had known was buried beneath. The slightly rising mound was covered with small violets, half hid-den by the grass. It takes away from the pain with which one stands over the grave of an acquaintance or a friend, to see the sun lying so warm upon it, and the flowers springing so profusely and cheerfully. Nature seems to have cared for those who have died so far from home, binding the earth gently over them with grass, and decking it with the most delicate flowers. We descended to the lower enclosure at the foot of the slight declivity. The first grave here is that of Keat’s. The inscription runs thus:

“This grave contains all that was mortal of a young English poet, who, on his death-bed in the bitterness of his heart at the malicious power of his enemies, desired these words to be engraved on his tomb : ‘Here lies one whose name was written in water.’ ”

He died at Rome in 1821. Every reader knows his history and the cause of his death. Shelley says, in the preface to his elegy :

“The savage criticism on his poems, which appeared in the `Quarterly Review,’ produced the most violent effect on his susceptible mind; the agitation thus originated ended in a rupture of a blood-vessel in the lungs; a rapid consumption ensued, and the succeeding acknowledgments, from more candid critics, of the true greatness of his powers, were ineffectual to heal the wound thus wantonly inflicted.”

Keats was, no doubt, a poet of very uncommon promise. He had all the wealth of genius within him, but he had not learned, before he was killed by criticism, the received, and, therefore, the best manner of producing it for the eye of the world. Had he lived longer, the strength and richness which break continually through the affected style of “Endymion” and “Lamia” and his other poems, must have formed themselves into some noble monuments of his powers. As it is, there is not a poet living who could surpass the material of his “Endymion”—a poem, with all its faults, far more full of beauties. But this is not the place for criticism. He is buried fitly for a poet, and sleeps beyond criticism now. Peace to his ashes !