Meeting Keats on the Spanish Stairs

by Ellen O’Neill
October 21 is a fateful date for John Keats and myself: he landed in Italy in 1820 in a last-ditched effort to find relief in the warmth of the Italian sun to cure his diseased body, and I landed on the earth (as did Coleridge).

Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble,
Ancient footprints are everywhere.
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold dark night on the Spanish stairs…

When I Paint My Masterpiece, Bob Dylan

I first began visiting Rome in 1999 when I enjoyed the friendship of an American Benedictine monk studying at Sant’Anselmo. The graves of Keats and Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery were top priority for my very first days. And then the Keats-Shelley House at the Spanish Steps.  The house was closed when I went, and back in that day, it wasn’t easy to find out when it would be open.
I visited Rome throughout the first decade of the new century, and each time the house was closed. (When I finally did first enter, I met Catherine Payling, the museum’s curator. She told me that instituting regular open hours for the public was one of her big missions.) And so it was in August 2010 that I arrived when the building was open and the pilgrimage was achieved to finally enter the apartment where John Keats died on February 23, 1821, at the shockingly young age of 25.
What is it about those Stairs?
The Scalinata is one of the strangest of tourist phenomena, because we all have steps. These are the longest and widest in Europe, but that in itself wouldn’t attract so many visitors. They connect the Piazza di Spagna to the Trinita dei Monti church, which dominates the view of the stairs. It is one of the French churches of Rome, built in 1585. The stairs were built in 1723 to 25, bequeathed by a French diplomat to link the Bourbon Spanish Embassy to the Holy See. So yes, it was Spain and France vying for Roman cultural power that produced this magnetic spot. Oh good, glad something explains it.
Then came the Brits
It is hauntingly lyrical that two giants of English Romanticism—Keats and Shelley—died and are buried in Italy. Keats was in a very weakened state when his doctor and friends thought a last ditched effort to get him in the Italian sun would help his TB-shattered body.
Keats leaves London in September 1820 with his friend Joseph Severn, and lands in Naples on October 21— today—which happens to be my birth date (and Coleridge’s in 1772). It’s a small factoid of history that has given me a cosmic connection to him even beyond my English major’s love of his work. He arrives in Rome in November, settles into an apartment at 26 Piazza di Spagna, and three months later, on February 23, 1821, he dies at 25.
Capturing the Bright Star
I saw Jane Campion’s biopic Bright Star on the plane to China in April 2010, four months before my successful pilgrimage. Even the tiny size of a seat screen couldn’t diminish the sense of the poetic life she captured on film. From Roger Ebert’s review:
“What Campion does is seek visual beauty to match Keats’ verbal beauty. There is a shot here of Fanny in a meadow of blue flowers that is so enthralling it beggars description.”
What struck me is the shot of Fanny in her white room with the white muslin curtains softly blowing. It’s a visualization of the “bliss” that overfills Fanny after her first walk out with Keats. It also captures the soft, light feeling that reading Keats’s poetry can create.
Against all this ‘life’ is a story of almost unmitigated tragedy. A short summary from the Guardian:
“Keats’s life was not merely bookended by tragedy but invaded by it at every turn: when he was 8 his father was killed in a riding accident. His mother’s second marriage collapsed, but not before her husband took possession of most of her wealth. She returned to her children but died when Keats was 10. His brother Tom succumbed to tuberculosis and the poet diagnosed the same fatal disease in himself not long after: one night, having coughed up some blood he is recorded as saying: ‘I know the colour of this blood: it is arterial blood . . . that drop of blood is my death-warrant. I must die.’
In the House today
And that brings us to the foreigners’ quarter of the Piazza di Spagna. The house is very much as Keats found it. His and Severn’s rooms were on the second floor, divided from their landlady’s by a curtain.
I went straight to his bedroom. None of the furnishings are original, because Vatican law decreed that everything be burned after he died. But the structure hasn’t changed, and the most important piece to me is the window looking out onto the Scalinata (my picture from Keats’s window). Here Keats would spend hours watching the river of people meeting, strolling, selling up and down the steps, and the children splashing in Pietro Bernini’s boat-shaped fountain. It was mesmerizing, even in 2010, to see the beauty of the steps from the window: the gorgeous Italian light, the coloring of the surrounding buildings, the sparkling blue sky.
And the saddest part of the apartment is the ceiling: what Keats would have spent hours staring at when his body was too weak to drag to the window.
Keats was a nova for this world: a bright star that was burned out by disease. His story would make anyone think of mortality, especially on their own birthday.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

My father often quoted the first line of Endymion, usually in a sardonic way. He died in early middle age. Keats and my dad will never pass into nothingness. Wings have memory of wings. (And I’ve always loved that Yeats and Keats are separated by just one letter.)
This post first appeared on Ellen’s blog
Ellen O’Neill blogs cultural, literary, and travel pieces as M.A.Peel. She is the Creative Director at The Paley Center for Media in NYC, a judge for the Webby Awards, and a thwarter of diabolical masterminds. Ellen O'Neill