Let me confess straight off that Keats is my favourite Romantic poet. This despite being made to study him at school, which is usually a killer for just about any subject. No, I sat enraptured right through The Eve of St Agnes and practically swooned over the last few lines where the couple escape at last from the Baron’s castle:
They glide, like phantoms, into
the wide hall;
Like phantoms, to the iron
porch, they glide…
And they are gone: ay, ages long
These lovers fled away into the storm.
I was clearly a most sensitive young man, and all this tied in with my passion for Gothic literature and Hammer horror films. I make no apologies for it. As far as I recall, my school chums were a dismal bunch of cretins and good riddance to them all. Only a few of the teachers were in my opinion fit to do their job. These of course included Miss Haynes, who handled English Literature and took us to see Polanski’s version of Macbeth, dripping in blood and sex. I have a DVD of it now and sometimes thrill to relive the scene in which the corrupted king dispatches three knights with a dagger and an axe, inflicting one in the groin that elicited a collective ‘Oooooh!’ from an appreciative audience of adolescents. The new Fassbender version which I watched last week was a disappointment and I couldn’t even hear most of the hushed dialogue, so just as well that I know the play by heart. He was better in Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’, I think.
The Eve of St Agnes. Keats. My dad relates how in his army days his sergeant major told them that an instructor would be arriving the following evening to give them a lecture about Keats. ‘And I bet none of you ignorant buggers even knows what a Keat is, do you?’ he added with a note of sadistic triumph in his voice.
Keats suffered from ill-health for most of his life. He went to Rome for the climate two years before he died, and whilst there his doctor misdiagnosed his condition as extreme flightiness and put him on a course of leeches and a ridiculous diet that only worsened it. It was of course TB, or consumption as it was called at the time, which eventually claimed him in 1821 at the age of 25.
Next to the Spanish Steps, 26 Piazza di Spagna is dedicated to both Keats and Shelley. According to my guide, everything has changed except the ceiling and the floor, and one of the fireplaces. Keats’s bedroom is very moving, and although the decor is new you can easily imagine him giving up the ghost on his bed like Chatterton, who by the way was only 17 when he took arsenic. Keats must have looked up at this very ceiling quite a lot.
When I arrived the resident curator was giving a talk about Keats to a group of Italian schoolchildren who looked profoundly bored and who would clearly much rather have been let loose to drink and smoke in the neighbouring bars and cafes.
After we’d read Ode on a Grecian Urn at school, when the teacher asked us why Keats had described the vase as an ‘unravish’d bride’ a boy sitting next to me suggested it was because ‘it had never had anything in it’. I can’t remember what the reaction to that was.