Monday, January 10, 2011

John Keats Tourism Extravaganza

Part I: London

John Keats was born in a house approximately at this site, 85 Moorgate, slightly northeast of St Paul's Cathedral. His father had, I believe, a kind of stable there which was his business. The plaque is placed quite high up on the building that is there now, as you can see, and it was hard to get a picture of it with my amateur photography skills that would be readable (as was the case with the Pope plaque).

The ground floor of the building of the Keats birthplace site was at the time, and perhaps still is, a slightly more swanky than ordinary pub/restaurant. At the time (this was in '96) it was way too expensive for me to be tempted to go in, even for just a drink. The beer was around 4 or 5 pounds a pint, which was a fortune in those days, and the meals started at around 14 or 15, which came out to $20-22, which would still be almost a special occasion for me now.

This picture of me is pretty unflattering. When you're already 26 and hitting Europe for basically the 1st time with any degree of having a clue of what you are doing, you've got to bring more game and purpose to the excursion than this figure in the photograph is demonstrating.

The one consolation is that the picture of Keats is perhaps even more ridiculous and a disservice to the dignity of its subject.

I thought I should throw in another London picture while we are in the neighborhood, as we are soon departing. I never made it to the main Keats attraction in town, the Georgian house up in Hampstead where he lived for a time as a young man while active as a poet, and which is now a museum dedicated to him.

Part 2: Rome

As much as I love Britain, and could much more easily live there than in Italy, there is nothing like visiting the latter for a holiday, at least in the off-season. Just looking at these rather pedestrian pictures calls up in the memory myriad ideas and images, of light, of air, of ancient times, of medieval times, of fairly recent but no less irrevocably lost times, of things believed in and held dear that were solid and palpable there but lost or forgotten in the course of 'regular' existence.

Keats died in the pink house in the rear that is being helpfully pointed out by this handsome girl, which abuts the famous Spanish Steps. There is now a small museum dedicated to Keats and Shelley, and to a lesser extent other English poets with a connection to Italy, on the second floor.

In case you like to read the inscriptions on the sides of buildings--some people do. How about the Baroque scrolling on those windows?

Inside the museum. There isn't much to it--I do remember that they had a supposed lock of Milton's hair, of all things (it was blond). I liked it though. It looked like it might be a good place to meet people, if you were the kind of person who met strangers in foreign countries and went on to socialize with them. A class of students from Cambridge and their professor dropped in the day we were there and this gentleman gave an impromptu lively and erudite talk on the last days of Keats. The Italian employees of the museum were also quite knowledgeable as well as engaging. I realize now that they were probably bitter underemployed Phds making $900 a month or something. The frustration and despair of the underemployed in Italy is not immediately palpable to the outside observer because everyone still dresses so well and knows how to groom themselves. Even the beggars wear sweaters, corduroys, hats, shoes, etc that clearly were once pretty stylish.

The other room in the museum, this being the actual one where the poet died.

A short ride on the subway--one could walk too, if he wanted, it would probably take about an hour--brings us again to the Protestant Cemetery, which we revisited previously in our tribute to Shelley. Keats is commemorated not only by his grave but by this likeness accompanied by some lines of (English) verse, which I believe may be by Oscar Wilde. I think you can read them if you enlarge the picture, but if you can't I will transcribe them later.

Keats's grave is on the left. Like Shelley, he is buried together with a devoted friend and caretaker of his literary legacy who long outlived him, named Joseph Severn. The pyramid of Gaius Cestius is visible in the background.

Keats's somewhat hard to read grave, on which his name famously does not appear, as he was evidently still brooding about some cruel reviews of his poems and being a failure in general, sentiments I can certainly relate to, preferring to be identified as 'one whose name was writ in water'.

One of Rome's innumerable and famed legions of stray cats, in the Protestant Cemetery, where one of the old sheds is loaded with packages of cat food that is set out for them in a space back by the pyramid. I'm worried that I put this picture up with the Shelley Rome photos as well. If I did, I am going to take it down. Maybe. This cat looked like a younger version of the one we had at the time, who has since died (he was 16), right down to the tuft of white fur on the gullet.

I often think that that there is no purpose or utilitarian value in my ever going back to Europe, especially its great cities, even if economic and environmental circumstances allow for it, and probably there is not, but it still stirs memories of exhiliration even to look at the pictures of these places, and the modest communion with the legacy of the Great Historical and Cultural figures of Europe, however superficially understood and experienced they must necessarily be (comparatively) by someone like me. I think I would still like to try to go back some time, maybe with various of the children? It still obviously has meaning to me.

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