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23 February 2016

John Keats – poet

Writer spends his final days in the eternal city

This portrait of Keats by William Hilton is housed in the National Portrait Gallery in London
The portrait of Keats by William Hilton, which is
housed in the National Portrait Gallery in London
English Romantic poet John Keats died on this day in Rome in 1821.

He had been a published writer for five years and had written some of his greatest work before leaving England.

Ode to a Nightingale, one of his most famous poems, was written in the spring of 1819 while he was sitting under a plum tree in an English garden.

Keats was just starting to be appreciated by the literary critics when tuberculosis took hold of him and he was advised by doctors to move to a warmer climate.

He arrived in Rome with his friend, Joseph Severn, in November 1820 after a long, gruelling journey.

Another friend had found them rooms in a house in Piazza di Spagna in the centre of Rome and they went past the Colosseum as they made their way there.

Keats slept in a room overlooking the Piazza and could hear the sound of the fountain outside, which may have inspired the words he later asked to be put on his tombstone.

To begin with he was well enough to go for walks along the Corso and he enjoyed sitting on the Spanish Steps, but he was advised by his doctor against visiting the city’s main attractions.

The house in Rome where Keats lived,
at the foot of the Spanish Steps. Photo:
Gabriele di Donfrancesco (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Keats insisted that Severn visited the Vatican Galleries and the Colosseum and that he entertained him with descriptions of them when he returned.

At the end of November he wrote in a letter to a friend: “I have an habitual feeling of my real life being past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.”

By December his condition had worsened and the doctor treated him by taking blood from him and keeping him on a virtual starvation diet.

But in early January his health improved and Keats was able to go outside again and enjoy the warmth of the sunlight.

By February his health had deteriorated further and he was confined to bed. On Friday 23 February he asked his friend to lift him up because he knew he was dying. For hours, the devoted Severn held him in his arms until the poet passed away. He was just 25 years of age.

On Monday 26 February Keats was taken to the Protestant Cemetery in Rome where he was buried. The Reverend Mr Wolff conducted the service and, according to the poet’s wishes, daisies were planted over his grave.

Two years later, Severn supervised the placing of a tombstone on the grave bearing the words: ‘This grave contains all that was mortal of a young English poet who on his deathbed, in the bitterness of his heart at the malicious power of his enemies, desired these words to be engraved on his tombstone: HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER.’

Travel tip:

Piazza di Spagna is at the bottom of the Spanish Steps in Rome. The Fontana della Barcaccia that Keats could hear in his room was sculpted by Pietro Bernini and his son Gian Lorenzo Bernini. At the bottom of the Spanish Steps to the right is the house where Keats lived, which is now a museum, the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, commemorating the Romantic poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The Colosseum bathed in evening sunlight
Photo: Andreas Tille (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Travel tip:

The Colosseum, which Keats passed on the way to his lodgings, is one of the most famous sights in Rome. Forbidden by his doctor to visit the main attractions in the city, Keats sent his friend Severn to have a look round and asked him to tell him all about it when he returned. He described it as: “superb in its stupendous size and rugged grandeur of outline.” The first century arena could seat more than 50,000 bloodthirsty spectators who revelled in the spectacle of gladiators fighting to the death. These days the ruins are floodlit at night creating another magnificent spectacle in Rome.

Read more:

Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley drowns at sea


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