“Go thou to Rome” said Shelley – so I went

by Alexandra

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It’s strange to think, during the more mundane moments of my life in Rome – sitting on the trenino, or taking orders from the loudspeaker in the supermarket queue (“Cassa…numero…sette“), that if it weren’t for two long-dead Romantic poets, I probably wouldn’t be here at all.

Indirectly, in a myriad of ways, Keats and Shelley influenced my decision to come to Rome. It all started as a teenager, re-reading their poems obsessively, devouring every biographical detail, and even writing a Shelleyan novel (finished and then abandoned). Apart from the fact that I adored their poetry, I was also deeply inspired by their lives – how Keats turned his back on a career and devoted his short life to poetry; how Shelley rejected his country, wealth and social norms to pursue his ideals in Italy. They burned so brightly, creating such an astonishing body of work in the space of just a few years, and then they were gone – Keats from tuberculosis at 25, Shelley drowned at 29. Both were buried in Rome.

They were my heroes. When I had the opportunity to work as a volunteer at Keats House in Hampstead, it was a dream come true – giving guided tours, closing the shutters at the end of the day and imagining how Keats himself would have stood at those windows, watching Fanny Brawne in the garden. For many visitors, coming to Keats House was a kind of pilgrimage – a once-in-a-lifetime experience – and I felt incredibly privileged to be able to do it weekend after weekend.

Then, while at university, I found myself wondering what to do with the summer. On an impulse I wrote an email to Keats-Shelley House in Rome, asking if I could do some work experience in the museum. They said yes, and I began to plan a 3 week trip to Rome . This would be my poetic pilgrimage, a chance to pay my respects to Keats and Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery and to spend time in the building where Keats had spent his last months. On top of that, of course, there would be sightseeing and copious amounts of pizza and pasta. The only thing that prevented it from being a perfect holiday was that I would have to rough it in a shared hostel room and limit myself to a budget of 20 a day. It wouldn’t exactly be a luxury experience, but it would be an adventure.

Re-reading old blog posts from that time (September 2011) makes me nostalgic:

11 September

Things I did today:

-Visited the Protestant Cemetery, found Shelley, Keats, Severn, Trelawny and Wilmouse. A kindred spirit had already put some little blue flowers there. I didn’t bring any flowers, as I couldn’t find anywhere selling them nearby, but I plan to go back on my own after Rachel’s left, so I don’t bore her with my dead poet love.

-Spent ages at the Baths of Caracalla, which are spectacular. Possibly one of the best things I’ve done so far. Shelley used to walk there all the time, and sit there writing poetry.

-Accidentally spilt water all over the 1890s edition of Shelley’s poetry that was in my bag, and started to get upset, but then stopped when I realised that there was something quite poetic about a Shelleyan day ending with his poetry being drowned. It’s only the cover of the book that’s damaged, thankfully – the inside is all right.

Other posts romanticise every aspect of working at Keats-Shelley House, from sitting in the the office in the attic and poring over Severn’s letters to wandering around barefoot in the library, cataloguing books and dusting shelves.

Those three weeks in Rome would define my life. I remember the exact moment I made the decision, sitting on a bench beneath the umbrella pines in Villa Borghese: “I want to live here”.

When I came back to England, I told everyone my new life plan: “Move to Rome and write novels”.

7 years later, I’ve been living in Rome for 5 years, my debut novel is due to be published, and I’m in the middle of writing another one. As Valeriano says, “If you say you’re going to do something, you do it”.

This sudden wallowing in nostalgia isn’t completely out of the blue. It was prompted by a return to Keats-Shelley House yesterday, for a poetry reading by the actor Julian Sands. One of those things you book impulsively without really thinking about it, and then the moment arrives and you suddenly realise how perfect it is, how you’d have been mad not to go.

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Julian Sands is best-known for his performance in A Room with a View, but he also played Shelley in Ken Russell’s Gothic, and is a long-time fan of Keats and Shelley. He reminisced about taking girls on dates to Keats House in Hampstead back when he was a drama student and, like me, he has fond memories of his first trips to Rome and visits to the graves of Keats and Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery.

At Keats-Shelley House he read a selection of poems by both poets – poems that I know by heart, like “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Adonais” – and, I have to admit, it was moving. Aside from the fact that I find Keats and Shelley moving in themselves for so many reasons, it was a profound experience to sit in that room and reflect on changes in my life. At 15 I was studying “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” for GCSE English in a classroom in London, and at 26 I was listening to Julian Sands recite the poem I loved so much in Keats-Shelley House, Rome, the city I’d made my home.

Afterwards there was prosecco on the terrace. I had a brief chat with Julian Sands, as I wanted to thank him and try to articulate exactly what the reading had meant for me. How to say to a stranger, “This is one of those unexpectedly meaningful moments that make you reflect on your life – past, present and future – on who you are, on who you want to be, and your relationship with your idols…so thank you”?

I didn’t say that, exactly, but something like it. Then I finished my prosecco and left, passing through the hordes of tourists in Piazza di Spagna to get the metro, and resume my normal Roman life.

Go thou to Rome—at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness…

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