John Keats died 200 years ago this month, on February 23, 1821, the loss lamented in the elegy Adonais published a few months later by Percy Bysshe Shelley whose own death came the following year. The remains of both famous Romantic poets lie in the same cemetery in Rome.
It took seven weeks for the devastating news of John Keats’s death, aged 25, in Rome to reach Shelley, who was then staying at Pisa. The news came in an anguished letter from Leigh Hunt, the critic, essayist and fellow poet.
Almost immediately, Shelley began work on the elegy Adonais, the most famous and most influential response to the tragedy of Keats: the opening stanza includes the lines ‘… his fate and fame shall be / An echo and a light unto eternity’.
Shelley had the poem printed in Pisa in July, 1821, giving copies to his friends before sending it to his publisher in London. The work remained close to Shelley’s heart, literally, as we shall see, until the very end.
Composed in 55 Spenserian stanzas, Adonais was inspired in parts by the Greek elegies of Bion and Moschus, both of whom Shelley had translated, and Milton’s Lycidas which, similarly, sought to immortalise a friend who had died, in that case Edward King who drowned at sea, as was Shelley’s own destiny in 1822 at the age of 29.
The Spenserian stanza, invented by Edmund Spenser (1552–99) for his long allegorical poem The Faerie Queen, was a major innovation in English poetry. It comprises nine iambic lines, the first eight being pentameters and the last a hexameter or alexandrine, with the rhyme scheme ababbcbcc.
Keats is lamented under the name of Adonais, the Greek god of beauty and fertility, together with other poets who had died young: Thomas Chatterton, Sir Philip Sidney and Lucan, the Roman. Keats’s deathbed is visited by various figures, allegorical and contemporary, including Lord Byron, described as ‘the Pilgrim of Eternity’.
Shelley, the atheist, accepts the physical fact of death but insists on a kind of Neoplatonic rebirth in the everlasting Beauty of the universe. Although the style of the poem, polemic as well as elegy, is elevated, even pompous in places, and eschews intimacy, Shelley identified with what he saw as Keats’s suffering, both health-wise and at the hands of the critics.
Here is the seemingly proleptic final stanza of Adonais in which Shelley likens his spirit to a boat (‘bark’, or barque) fearfully driven far out on a stormy sea to darkness while the earth and sky are torn apart.
The breath whose might I have invok’d in song
Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.
There are other fey intimations in the poem: ‘I would give / All that I am to be as thou now art! / But I am chained to Time, and cannot thence depart’ (stanza 26), for example, and ‘Or go to Rome, which is the sepulchre, ‘Oh, not of him, but of our joy …’ (stanza 48).
Shelley was proud of his achievement, writing of the poem in a letter to John and Maria Gisborne: ‘It is a highly wrought piece of art, perhaps better in point of composition than anything I have written.’
Made to suffer
The image of Keats which Shelley gave in Adonais continued to be the prevalent one: Keats had been made to suffer by the world but he had existed separately from its cruel realities. As Andrew Motion points out in his sterling biography of Keats (Faber & Faber, 1997), Shelley promoted Keats as someone whose achievements could not be separated from agony, who was ‘spiritualised’ by his decline, leading to the glamorising of the ‘consumptive artist’.
Shelley turned Keats into an ‘archetype’ of the artist oppressed by reactionary regimes, one who suffers for his or her art, and caused the perpetuation of the misguided notion that Keats had been killed by bad reviews of his poetry.
Richard Holmes, in his great biography, Shelley: The Pursuit (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1974 / second edition, HarperCollins, 1994), suggests that Shelley was ‘forcing the myth of Keats’s death to express his own almost unbearably bitter feelings’ about how his own writings had been ignored or suppressed.
Mary Shelley, after her husband’s death, wrote with perspicacity that there was much in Adonais ‘which seems now more applicable to Shelley himself than to the young and gifted poet whom he mourned. The poetic view he takes of death, and the lofty scorn he displays towards his calumniators, are as a prophecy on his own destiny … ‘
In these contexts, the final stanza of Adonais seems all the more remarkable for its apparent clairvoyance.
The circumstances of Keats’s death, like Shelley’s, are well known. When Keats fell ill in the summer of 1820, with serious symptoms of tuberculosis, the Shelleys invited him to stay with them in Pisa. Shelley had been in Italy since 1818 partly for his own health reasons — he had a chronic lung complaint and also suffered from tuberculosis — but also to escape rancour in England.
Shelley and Keats first met in December 1816, aged 21 and 24 respectively, but the two would best be described as acquaintances rather than friends; Keats didn’t like Shelley much, finding him overbearing.
On his doctor’s advice, Keats sailed for Italy in September, 1820, accompanied by his friend, the painter Joseph Severn. But Keats made it only as far as Rome, where he and Severn occupied a villa on the Spanish Steps, later to become the Keats-Shelley Museum. Despite care from Severn and Dr James Clark, who had a medical practice in Rome, Keats’s health deteriorated.
Clark diagnosed consumption too late, and put Keats on a starvation diet. He regularly drew blood from Keats and removed Keats’s supply of laudanum, fearing he would take an overdose. It has been suggested that Clark’s treatment actually contributed to the poet’s agonising death. Severn nursed Keats with devotion, remarking how Keats would sometimes cry upon waking to find himself still alive.
‘Writ in water’
Keats was buried in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery, outside the city walls. His last request was to be placed under a tombstone with neither name nor date, only the inscription: ‘Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water’. Severn and Charles Armitage Brown, a writer and friend of Keats, erected the stone which, showing a relief of a lyre with broken strings, includes the epitaph:
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 / engraven on his Tomb Stone: / Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821.
When Shelley’s body was found after he drowned, two books were said to have been in his jacket pockets. One was Keats’s Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems; the other was of works by Sophocles and Aeschylus.
On July 7, 1822, Shelley had returned to Livorno from Pisa where he had discussed the launching of a new journal, The Liberal, with Byron and Hunt. Next day, Shelley, his friend Edward Williams, a retired army officer, and boatboy Charles Vivian, set sail in Shelley’s new boat, the Don Juan, for Lerici, where the Shelleys and Williams and his wife Jane were staying at the time.
But in the Gulf of La Spezia, the Don Juan ran into a severe storm which its occupants were unable to handle due to their inexperience at sea. The ship — ‘Whose sails were never to the tempest given’ — went down under full sail, and all were lost.
Just two weeks before, Shelley had run screaming to Mary after a nightmare, or vision, of Edward and Jane staggering into his room, covered in blood, and shouting that the sea was flooding the house, which was collapsing. Shelley had also had visions of meeting himself, a doppelganger, an omen of bad luck or even death.
His badly decomposed body was washed up ten days after the storm at Viareggio and was identified from the clothing, and the copy of Keats’s book, by Edward Trelawny, the novelist, biographer and adventurer, and friend also of Byron.
On August 16, Shelley’s body was cremated on a beach near Viareggio. The painting, The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Édouard Fournier (1889), pictured above, shows, from left, Trelawny, Hunt and Byron but, in fact, Hunt did not observe the cremation, and Byron left early. Mary Shelley, pictured kneeling at left, was not there either.
Somehow, Shelley’s heart didn’t burn fully, perhaps due to calcification from a tubercular infection, and Trelawny passed it on to Hunt who preserved it in spirits of wine. After some prevarication, Hunt gave it to Mary.
Shelley’s ashes were placed in the Protestant Cemetery at Rome, where Keats lay, and, doubly poignantly, where Shelley’s beloved son William who died, aged four, at Rome in 1819, was also buried. In 1823, the ashes were reburied in a different plot.
‘Heart of hearts’
The grave bears the inscription, in Latin: Cor Cordium (‘heart of hearts’), and a few lines of ‘Ariel’s Song’ from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: ‘Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea change / Into something rich and strange.’
But the story doesn’t end here. In 1849, the Shelleys’ son Percy Florence heard that Bournemouth, on the south coast of England, would be the place to live because its milder and warmer weather would be beneficial to his ailing mother Mary and his wife Jane. So land was bought at the village of Boscombe, today a suburb of Bournemouth, where Boscombe Manor was built, although it wasn’t ready to live in until 1851, just after Mary had died, aged 53.
Although Mary had visited Boscombe Manor apparently only once, she told Percy and Jane, near the end of her life, that she would like to be buried at Bournemouth. So Mary was laid to rest there, at St Peter’s Church.
Twelve months later, Percy and Jane opened Mary’s box desk and discovered that, for all those years, she had kept locks of hair of her two children, Clara and William, who died in infancy, a notebook she’d shared with Percy Bysshe Shelley — and a copy of Adonais with a page folded over a silk parcel holding the remains of Shelley’s heart and some of his ashes. His heart was still in those lines about Keats.
When Percy Florence died in 1889 and was buried in the family vault in St Peter’s churchyard, the heart, reputedly, was placed there, too. Also in the tomb lie the remains of Mary’s parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, which Percy and Jane transferred from the graveyard at St Pancras Old Church, London, as Mary had wished.
Joseph Severn, who died aged 85 in 1879, was buried next to Keats. Trelawny died in 1881 and his grave was set next to Shelley’s.
* See also my 2019 Medium articles: It’s the 200th anniversary of John Keats writing his famous ‘Ode to Autumn’ and Celebrating the bicentenary of the great odes that assured John Keats of eternal fame.