This Living Hand

When we think of Rome, the first thing that comes to mind, of course, is the English poet John Keats, who died there in 1821 of tuberculosis at the age of 25. Here is his grave in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, with the epitaph he wrote for himself:

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Odd that the gravestone doesn’t even mention his name. On a wall next to the grave we see this:

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Next to Keats’s grave is that of his friend Joseph Severn, who accompanied him to Rome, since Keats was too sick to travel by himself:

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There are worse things to be remembered for, I suppose, than being the friend of John Keats.

A couple hundred yards away from Keats are interred the ashes of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who died in a boating accident in Italy at the age of 29:

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The quotation is from The Tempest.

Here is a painting of Shelley’s funeral pyre:

Many of the details of the painting are apparently made up. For one thing, Shelley’s body was in bad shape by the time he washed up on shore. (The only way they recognized him was his clothing and the copy of Keats’s poems in his back pocket.)

Keats died in a tiny apartment at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome. This is now the site of the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, which contains letters, books, and other memorabilia of English poets. Via Wikipedia, here’s what happened to the contents of the House during World War 2:

During World War II, the Keats–Shelley House went “underground”, especially after 1943, in order to preserve its invaluable contents from falling into the hands of, and most likely being deliberately destroyed by, Nazi Germany. External markings relating to the museum were removed from the building. Although the library’s 10,000 volumes were not removed, two boxes of artifacts were sent to the Abbey of Monte Cassino in December 1942 for safekeeping. In October 1943, the abbey’s archivist placed the two unlabelled boxes of Keats–Shelley memorabilia with his personal possessions so that they could be removed during the abbey’s evacuation and not fall into the hands of the Germans. The items were reclaimed by the museum’s curator and returned to the Keats–Shelley House, where the boxes were reopened in June 1944 upon the arrival of the Allied forces in Rome.

I didn’t have time to visit the Keats-Shelley House, but here’s what it looked like at 23:00 on a Roman night:

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And this gives me a chance to reprint this final fragment by Keats, written as he confronted the certainty of his coming death.

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it towards you.
I find these eight short lines utterly terrifying.
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Writers in movies: Bright Star

Another in an occasional series.

Like The Invisible Woman and Hemingway and GellhornBright Star is about a real writer — this time, John Keats.  The movie covers the last three years of Keats’s life, focusing on his relationship with Fanny Brawne.  

Unlike Dickens and Hemingway, Keats was not a jerk.  He is, in fact,  just about the most lovable great writer I know of.  This is, of course, problematic in a movie.  Here is what the director, Jane Campion, had to deal with:

  • All Keats’s friends loved him.
  • His relationship with Fanny Brawne was chaste and “appropriate”.   Fanny’s family loved him as much as his friends did.
  • At the end of the movie he’s gonna die, and we all know it.  (He dies because he catches TB taking care of his beloved brother.)

So you have a sort of tragedy — the romance is doomed, and Keats is doomed to think that he will die a failure.  But that’s just sad; it’s not dramatic. Where do you find your conflict?  Campion finds a little between Fanny and Keats’s roommate, but that’s about it.  For the most part, watching this movie is like watching very elegant paint dry.  It’s well acted; the costumes are great; but there’s just not that much going on.  

There’s a little bit in the movie about writing: we see Keats and Charles Brown, his roommate, sitting around during the day trying to find stuff to write about.  And then there’s the famous scene of Keats sitting in Brown’s yard one morning writing “Ode to a Nightingale”:

According to Keats’ friend Brown, Keats finished the Ode in just one morning: “In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feelings on the song of the nightingale.”

But really, there’s not much you can do to dramatize that.  This is the essential problem with writers in movies: a young guy sits in a chair, listens to some birds, and scribbles out an immortal masterpiece.  It just isn’t very cinematic.

Anyway, let’s all enjoy Bright Star:

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
         Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
         Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
         Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
         Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
         Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
         Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.