THIS GRAVE
CONTAINS ALL THAT WAS MORTAL,
OF A
YOUNG ENGLISH POET,
WHO
ON HIS DEATH BED,
IN THE BITTERNESS OF HIS HEART,
AT THE MALICIOUS POWER OF HIS ENEMIES,
DESIRED
THESE WORDS TO BE ENGRAVEN ON HIS TOMB STONE

HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER

 

 

ONCE MORE THE POET
Keats, Severn, and the Grecian Lyre

Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 48 (2003), 227-240, to be reprinted in The Keats-Shelley Review 18 (2004).

No one who visits the Protestant Burial-Ground in Rome is unaffected by what Joseph Severn, deathbed companion to Keats, called "the most delicious melancholy" of the place in the summer following his friend’s demise on 23 February 1821. Of all the memorials in the combined cemeteries, old and new, many find the most pathetic to be the grave of the "Young English Poet" whose tombstone is otherwise anonymous, by the dying wish of Keats himself.

The "Grecian lyre" on the grave-marker is the subject of an unresolved ambiguity in our evidence, and has not yet been fully apprehended as to authorship, intention, and meaning. This study demonstrates that Keats himself designed the image as an informal frontispiece for his poem Endymion. Severn then introduced the lyre to the tombstone without understanding its full significance. The interplay of the two artists’ intentions makes of the carven instrument a sort of Aeolian harp, from which, in Keats' words, "Old ditties sigh above their father’s grave; / Ghosts of melodious prophesyings rave".

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