Forty years ago this autumn, I spent a week working at a small wooden table on a tiny ironwork balcony in Rome. The balcony was directly above the Spanish Steps. The apartment was on the second floor of 26 Piazza di Spagna. It was the apartment where John Keats died at 11 o’clock at night on February 23, 1821, with the famous injunction to his faithful companion, the painter Joseph Severn. “Severn—Severn—lift me up for I am dying—I shall die easy—don’t be frightened—thank God it has come.”
My balcony was built onto the room at the back of No. 26 (to the left as you look up from the steps): the room where Severn, Keats’s nurse through those last four agonizing months of tuberculosis, sometimes managed to snatch a few hours of exhausted sleep. It was not Keats’s own room, the famous bedroom with the marble fireplace and the daisies “growing over him” on the ceiling and the sound of the Bernini fountain plashing in the piazza, which every visitor rightly remembers. It was the back room, the proper place for a biographer.
I was actually working on a life of Shelley. But for those six days it was the life of Keats, or rather his death, that haunted me. Every creak that ran through the old polished wooden floorboards of the apartment behind me broke my concentration and made me think, painfully and uneasily, of the dying man, and the letters from Fanny Brawne he would not open, and the opium painkiller that was taken from him, and the poems he was forbidden to write. Finally, as a sort of protective charm, I turned to Shelley’s “Adonaïs” (1821), the famous Olympian elegy inspired by Keats’s death, lifting it into the less painful stratosphere of myth:
Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep—
He hath awakened from the dream of life—
It was only while reading this poem that the idea, not of Keats’s death but of its exact opposite, Keats’s awakening, his extraordinary survival after death, first struck me. The imaginative impact of Keats’s life—his “orphaned” childhood, his letters, his poetry, his friendships, his illness, his agonizing love affair—has continued unbroken for nearly two hundred years. It has retained a magnetic force, not really matched in its personal immediacy by any other Romantic poet—neither by Shelley nor even by Byron. During that week, below me on the Spanish Steps, there always seemed to be some young figure standing or sitting beyond the buckets of the flower sellers, similarly reading from a book, and looking anxiously up at the second floor of No. 26. I cannot believe it has changed to this day. Why should this be?
The “living hand” of his famous late fragment, possibly the last poem he ever wrote, really does reach out toward us …