Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Posterity and Silence.

We started the day by taking a Metro down to the Protestant Cemetery and sat for a while by Keats' grave. It's a peaceful place, under the shadow of the ancient Pyramid of Caio Cestio, just far enough from the city centre to deter most tourists. It's still strange to see the steady trickle of pilgrims come looking for a moment of private communion at the graveside. Nobody seems entirely sure what to do on arrival. Most take a couple of pictures and walk off slowly. The link between the poetry and the city is equally strained. Keats was only in Rome for the last three months of his life, and he spent most of that in bed fighting the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him. Perhaps he was the first pop star. The cemetery cats stretch, blink and wonder what the fuss is about.

We headed through Testaccio back to the river and crossed over to Trastevere where we ducked into Santa Cecilia to see the graphic altar sculpture showing the Martyr's semi-decapitated head, stitched unconvincingly back onto her body. She had a difficult death. After her Roman persecutors had failed to drown her in a bath, they hacked away at her head. She sang throughout the three days it took her to die, and subsequently became the patron saint of musicians. It's pretty grotesque.

We crossed back to the North Bank and walked through the narrow Trevi streets up to the Keats house by the Spanish Steps and spent an hour, as darkness fell, amongst the books and letters. There is one from Oscar Wilde, recalling his distress at visiting the young poet's grave and attacking the over-literal memorial hung on the wall alongside. It brought to mind the sonnet he wrote after attending the auction of Keat's love letters. Pop stars and patron saints always need sentries to protect their enigma.

These are the letters which Endymion wrote

To one he loved in secret, and apart.

And now the brawlers of the auction mart

Bargain and bid for each poor blotted note,

Ay! for each separate pulse of passion quote

The merchant's price. I think they love not art

Who break the crystal of a poet's heart

That small and sickly eyes may glare and gloat.

Is it not said that many years ago,

In a far Eastern town, some soldiers ran

With torches through the midnight, and began

To wrangle for mean raiment, and to throw

Dice for the garments of a wretched man,

Not knowing the God's wonder, or His woe?

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