Monday, 19 December 2011
Death in the south
Romantic their poetic aspirations and their post-mortem canonisation may have been, but there was nothing mythical about the deaths of Keats and Shelley. I thought I owed my latest, serendipitous visit to their graves in the quiet corner of Rome that is the non-Catholic cemetery by the pyramid of Cestius a bit more background reading. Daisy Hay's Young Romantics proposes not only a more social history of the way in which the lives of the Shelleys were entangled with Byron as well as the lesser figure of Leigh Hunt, but a bigger celebration of those long-suffering half-sisters Mary Shelley and Claire (Jane) Clairmont.
Keats, alas, is a marginal figure in Hay's history - a shame, since he was probably the nicest of the male pack. Hay makes it clear what a catastrophe was his last-minute bolt for Rome in late 1820 with the helper who's buried beside him, the artist Joseph Severn.
The idea was to seek a warmer clime for Keats's advanced tuberculosis, but they should never have left England: the stormy channel crossing in cramped conditions was a nightmare for a sick man, and all Severn could do in those cramped lodgings by the Spanish Steps was try and allay his friend's 'dread of never seeing [England] more' and attempt to ease a horrible death. There's still a waft of bitterness from the inscription on Keats's grave, designed by Severn and Charles Brown
though a fairer plaque is set into the wall nearby.
This is the most open, green corner of the cemetery with views over to the pyramid.
Three-year old William Shelley had been buried nearby, one of several young victims of his parents' roving around Italy. He succumbed to malaria in Rome; not long before his baby sister Clara had fallen sick on an unnecessary, hasty and uncomfortable journey to Venice, and died in her mother's arms. The cause, as with so many unhappy instances in the fates of the Shelleys, sprang from Lord Byron's unfortunate liaison with Claire, which led the Shelley-Clairmont trio to Italy in the first place. This is hardly the place to try and untangle its web, but the offshoot of that relationship was in many ways the most tragic figure of all, the little girl Allegra - separated from her doting mother after the early months, and consigned by Byron against all Claire's pleadings to a convent on unhealthy land, where she died aged five.
In all this, one thing seems clear: for all the vaunted equality of the women - for which Mary's mother Mary Wollstonecraft had fought so hard - the men always closed ranks. But how young, how untested, they all were! Mary was still in her early twenties when, having suffered miscarriages, the loss of two treasured children and several depressions which seem all too explicable, Shelley (depicted by Severn in a posthumous image above writing Prometheus Unbound in the Baths of Caracalla) was drowned in the Bay of Lerici - an inexperienced boatman in a poorly constructed vessel, the Don Juan. Shelley's preferred name had been the Ariel, which may partly account for the inscription on the grave I found so useful for my only-connect Arts Desk piece on Abbado's Shakespeare programme.
But what's in the grave? All that remained from a messy attempted cremation of the disfigured, washed-up corpse on the beach at Viareggio was an organ Hay surmises was the liver rather than the heart, and even that was squabbled over before being handed over to Mary. And there it is, cor cordium. Bit of a mystery why Edward Trelawny, Shelley's bragging friend of less than a year, should be buried alongside him; but he'd bought the plot of land, and there he was interred at the age of 88 in 1881. Mary as keeper of the flame had lived on until 1851, always doing the decent thing by her late husband and preserving a measure of immortality through her Frankenstein. Claire maintained an uneasy independence as governess and died in 1879, almost 60 years after Shelley's drowning.