Poem: At the Keats-Shelley House, Rome

By: James Aitchison

I rambled on down the Spanish Steps one day
And found the house. The voluptuous guide
Made me wonder: Was she in love with the dead?
Her eyes seemed to kiss the portrait of Keats,
His frail face luminous, loitering near death;
The weariness, the fever, expunged when he died.

Let us explore this shrine where he died!
The salon: suffused with grief to this day,
Framed on its walls, rhymes about love and death;
O, he was our poetic mentor and guide —
An ode to this, an ode to that — yes, John Keats,
Knight-at-arms, can stir us yet, ev’n when dead.

Few tourists come in to honour the dead.
(No razzamatazz where a poet died!)
Despite the fact Shelley’s name’s on the door, only Keats
Was the one who lived here. Not for one day
Did Percy visit, explained my guide —
On a far Tuscan beach, drowning, he met his death.

Yet though I speak of death — death, and more death,
Love lights this house, corner by corner; happy its dead.
On to Keats’s own room! That ceiling, said my guide,
All those violets were painted before he died —
As tho’ he could lie in a grave, ’neath flowers all day —
While his friend Severn played Haydn, comforting Keats.

But don’t think for a minute that our young friend Keats
Could not face the prospect of imminent death.
He relished the view of the piazza by day,
Dreaming that sculptured stone boat could sail off with the dead.
That bed’s not his; Keats’s bed was burned after he died —
People feared consumption, explained the guide.

In the sacred gloom, I escaped my voluptuous guide,
My Belle dame sans merci. ( — well, that was Keats!)
Adieu, then! Time to farewell the place where he died,
Beauty is truth, truth beauty — then death!
I found myself pondering my time with the dead,
While a drowsy numbness pained my sense all day.

Wait! If Keats had penned a sestina one day,
It would have been much sweeter than death —
Well, not to the sensual ear, but endeared to the dead!

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