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The allure of Keats’s grave
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Poems on Keats’s grave proliferated in the nineteenth century like the flowers (and, later, feral cats) that populated his resting place. In her study Poetical Remains: Poets’ Graves, Bodies, and Books in the Nineteenth Century, Samantha Matthews points out that the graves of Keats and Shelley, situated near one another in the Cimiterio Acattolici (or Protestant Cemetery) in Rome, attracted more poems than the graves of all other British poets combined (p. 115). For the Victorians, as James Najarian has shown, Keats represented delicate, effeminate poetics: so delicate that the infamously bad reviews killed him (“snuffed out by an Article” as Byron’s Don Juan puts it in canto XI, stanza 60). His grave signified the exile of a foreign patriot, a melancholic marginalised plot on the edge of Rome reserved for non-Catholics, which in the 1820s only permitted the act of burial outside the hours of daylight.

The burial of British poets in Italy has attracted much attention for their associations with that monumental figure of exiled patriotism, Dante. Julia Bolton Holloway, the custodian of the “Protestant Cemetery” in Florence, for example, has catalogued the graves of writers including Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose foreign burial place attracted much comment in the British and Italian press for its apt location, given her enthusiastic support for Italian Unification. In the case of Keats, though, the foreign burial place was much more poignant, connoting displacement and marginalisation. George Head, in his 1849 guidebook Rome: A Tour of Many Days, declares that those buried here are “doomed to mingle with the soil of a foreign land” (vol. 3, p. 46). The “doom” is even more pronounced for Keats, whose inscription underlines a sense of home neglect of his talent.

Keats's Tomb (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

“Here lies One Whose Name was writ on Water”, were the words that Keats famously requested, prefaced thus by his friends Joseph Severn and Charles Brown, “The 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 engraven on his Tomb Stone”.

What was it about a Romantic precursor’s grave that attracted so much attention among Victorian poets? Many of the poems written about the grave were inspired by an actual visit to Rome (not all, of course, and for example see Christina Rossetti’s “On Keats”). Arthur Henry Hallam visited the graves of Keats and Shelley in 1828, a visit which produced a poem on each of the poets’ resting place (and published in his 1830 Poems). Oscar Wilde wrote a sonnet about the grave after visiting the Cemetery, which he published in his essay “The Tomb of Keats” (Irish Monthly, July 1877). There were numerous other poems by, for example, Alice Meynell, Francis Turner Palgrave, Alexander Anderson, John B. Tabb, and Thomas Buchanan Read. The Cemetery had been a popular place of pilgrimage for visitors to Rome, but with the burial of Keats in 1821 this pastoral plot on the edge of Rome signified something more, inaugurating a new kind of literary pilgrimage. In a memoir of Keats prefaced to his posthumous edition, Richard Monckton Milnes attests that “few strangers of our race omit to visit” the grave (p. xxxvii). Alison Booth argues that the development of the “Homes and Haunts” genre in the nineteenth century, documenting and encouraging pilgrimages to authors’ houses and locales, offers the literary place as having a “hypothetical authenticity” in its connection to the works and the writer (parag. 19). Visits to a poet’s grave abroad participate in a symbolic as well as actual journey to the hypothetically authentic, while also participating in what Tobias Döring terms “necro-tourism”. Döring points out that travel has long privileged the tomb, and that the search for the famous grave site in fact corresponds to the development of tourism itself, for both seek authentic experience for the traveler.

I think this is why all those poems written about Keats’s grave in the Victorian period are so important as a group, signifying not just poetry’s participation in the culture of travel (which became hugely commercialised in the nineteenth century after the end of the Napoleonic wars), but also what that culture of travel said about the conception of poetry itself. Keats’s own name is deliberately missing on his gravestone, and poems about the grave speak not only about the unjustly neglected poet, but also about the cultural capital of poetry, as if the grave is a marker for poetry itself. Samantha Matthews argues that poems about Keats attempt to recuperate the neglected poet, and that they “formed part of an effort to restore poetry to its place in the centre of British cultural life” (p. 2). Similarly, Jeffrey Robinson suggests that “[w]ith his death [. . .] Keats leaves the realm of actual poetry [. . .] for the ground of poetry, its mythic substrate” (p. 62). But the place of poetry in British cultural life, and the ground of poetry, are in these terms uncertain. As Andrew Bennett puts it, the “memorializing of Keats was focused on an uncanny presence, a haunting sense that the poet was somehow not dead, or if dead only improperly, unreasonably, anachronistically so” (p. 42). Keats haunts Victorian poetry because of its own anxieties about being marginalised, and if poets pay pilgrimage to Keats’s grave to recuperate his reputation, then they also recuperate their own fears of alienation.

Works Cited

Andrew Bennett, “Dead Keats: Joseph Severn, John Keats and the Haunting of Victorian Culture”, in Romantic Echoes in the Victorian Era, ed. Andrew Radford and Mark Sandy (Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008), pp. 39-50

Alison Booth, “Author Country: Longfellow, the Brontës, and Anglophone Homes and Haunts”, Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, 48 (November 2007)

Tobias Döring, “Travelling in Transience: The Semiotics of Necro-Tourism”, in Hartmut Berghoff, Barbara Korte, Ralf Schneider and Christopher Harvie (eds.), The Making of Modern Tourism: The Cultural History of the British Experience, 1600-2000 (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 249-66

George Head, Rome: A Tour of Many Days, 3 vols. (London: Longman, Browns, Green and Longmans, 1849)

Richard Monckton Milnes, “Memoir of John Keats”, in The Poetical Works of John Keats (London: Edward Moxon, 1854)

James Najarian, Victorian Keats: Manliness, Sexuality and Desire (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)

Jeffrey C. Robinson, Reception and Poetics in Keats: ‘My Ended Poet’ (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998)

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The allure of Keats’s grave by Alison Chapman, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

2 Responses to The allure of Keats’s grave

  1. kyuen says:

    Thanks for this great post! I have been thinking of the Victorian obsession with dead Romantic poets for a while, so it’s nice to see this highlighted here.

    One of my interests is the Victorian conception and reception of Byron. Byron had many strong supporters in Victorian England despite his less-than-squeaky-clean life. The most high profile supporter was probably Disraeli, who went through a Byronic phase during his youth. Efforts were made to celebrate and elevate Byron – and for the most part, I think these efforts succeeded – though one episode in Victorian history came close to undermining them: the Byron Memorial Fund (of which Disraeli was president). I’m currently working on a paper on this subject so the details shall have to wait, but I can say that there were a few Byron admirers – consisting of well-known poets and members of the aristocracy – who banded together in early 1875 with the aim of erecting a statue of the poet in a conspicuous place in London (this was after an angry Lady Anne Blunt opposed a slab at Hucknall). The Byron project was a failure – not because of the poet’s reputation, but because of bad luck and a series of miscalculations made by the planning committee. Although ultimately erected, the memorial statue never became a hit with the public – unlike, say, other memorials of dead Romantic poets. Indeed, even today it stands isolated in busy traffic and is omitted from tourist books. The only underground passageway to it is sealed off with cement. There are only two ways of getting to it now: an awkward route involving island hopping, or running across a road during a (very) brief lull in traffic and climbing over a rail. I’ve tried both. (Warning: the latter is only for die-hard fanatics.)

    And I confess that I’m a member of the necro-tourist club. I once made a pilgrimage (of the dead Victorian poet kind) to D. G. Rossetti’s grave in Birchington-on-Sea with Tesco flowers in hand. I stopped short of composing a poem to mark the occasion, though. There would have been too many lutes and sirens in it.

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