Beauty in Death: Visiting Keats’ Grave

What do you do when you know your life is going to be cut short? Or worse: what do you do when you’re dying and you believe the thing you cared most about is worthless?

John Keats (1795-1821) was an utterly tragic figure. Scolded for his poetry during his lifetime, he contracted tuberculosis at an early age. He moved to Rome in hopes of recovery, but to no avail: just several months after moving there, he died. Due to the negative criticism he received on his work, he passed away believing that his life had been a complete failure.

Keats’ life and poetry are heart-wrenching. He wrote gorgeous stuff, and we can only imagine how his poetry would have developed had he been allowed to live for a bit longer. But he did die too young, at only 25, making his life one of the great tragedies of the 19th century.

With the overwhelming amount of poetry out there, it’s not very often that you find time to think a lot about a single poet. Keats hasn’t been on my mind substantially for a couple of years now, but I was drawn back to him by reading Thomas Hardy’s ‘Rome at the Pyramid of Cestius Near the Graves of Shelley and Keats’ on the tube the other day.

A Roman Holiday…

The poem immediately took me back two years. We were on a short one-week trip to Rome, spending as little money as possible, staying in a small hotel in the bohemian district of Trastevere and living on cheap pizzas for £5. We avoided spending money as much as possible, exploring the city entirely on foot.

And what a trip it was. I insisted that we’d visit Keats’ grave, not knowing whether it’s too much of a nerdy thing to do and whether my girlfriend might find it weird. We were travelling somewhat in Oscar Wilde’s footsteps, as it were, who said that it was the ‘holiest place in Rome’. She agreed.

It’s an eerie thing, approaching the non-Catholic cemetery where he lies. A wall surrounds the entire area, and there are no indications as to the location of the entrance. So, you find yourself walking around, possibly in the wrong direction, in the hope that you’ll get there.

The Cemetery

But the cemetery is worth it, once you’ve found it. Cypress trees cover the entire cemetery alongside beautifully crafted gravestones of various shapes, some of them hundreds of years old. That’s to say nothing of the huge amounts of blue wild flowers everywhere you look. Even without Keats’ grave, I would suggest that it’s probably the prettiest cemetery out there – even prettier than Highgate (and with the added plus that the entry is free).

The most striking thing you’ll notice is the complete silence. Nobody goes there. Unlike the more popular tourist destinations, such as the Vatican, the Forum or the Colosseum, you’d be hard pressed to find a single tourist wandering around. Only cats will disturb you as you try to decipher the names on the old gravestones. They play a fundamental role in creating the cemetery’s atmosphere – there’s even a fundraising campaign to feed the cats who live there.

As you follow the signs towards Keats’ grave, you will, of course, also pass Shelley’s gravestone. At some point, the forest-like maze of tombs and graves stops, and you enter an open lawn with just the odd tree or gravestone here and there. Finally, you see the great pyramid of Cestius.

But who on earth was Cestius? Some rich Roman with too much time and money on his hands. Hard by you see the true appeal of the place: the grave of one poet who thought too little of himself. If only he had known to what fame he’d rise post-mortem…

Reaching the Grave

And then, you feel at peace. Absolute peace. You’re standing there, in the shade from the wall behind you, and the trees beside you, looking at Keats’ grave, and beside it, his best friend Joseph Severn’s, who was with him throughout his final days, looking after him, comforting him, talking to him.

I think Hardy captures the spirit succinctly in his poem, where he says that Cestius did a great thing


In beckoning pilgrim feet

With marble finger high

To where, by shadowy wall and history-haunted street,

Those matchless singers lie…


Shaded from the sun, enjoying the peace you’ll find nowhere else in Rome, you will be reminded of a depressed soul who thought that nothing he had ever produced would be worth anything to anyone anywhere. Hence, his inscription:

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 engraven on his tomb stone: Here lies one whose name was writ in water. 24 February 1821.

Keats felt so humbled that he didn’t even have his name engraved on his own gravestone. He wished merely to be known as ‘one whose name was writ in water’ – that is, that his name is so fleeting and unimportant that he will be forgotten by everyone.

There’s something incredibly touching at the sight of that. As moving as Joseph Severn’s placement beside him is, it does little to soften the blow from the utter solitude and sadness Keats must have felt in his final years – despite the undeniable beauty of his work, which would only be discovered in the years after his death.

Uplifting Notes

But it’s not all dark. As horrible as his death must have been, the love people show him even so many years later is uplifting. There are people who regularly place flowers at the gravestone, and the wonderful people at the Keats and Shelley House next to the Spanish Steps work hard to preserve the memory. Beside a bench by the grave there’s a heartfelt inscription:


Keats! If thy cherished name be “writ in water”

Each drop has fallen from some mourner’s cheek;

A sacred tribute; such as heroes seek,

Though oft in vain – for dazzling deeds of slaughter

Sleep on! Not honoured less for Epitaph so meek!


As uplifting as these things are, however, Keats’ life reminds us of the struggle for meaning most of us suffer from at one point in our lives, and how quickly a life can end without fulfilment. Keats believed he had failed utterly, but the reception of his work shows us that he was one of the greatest poetic minds who ever lived.

At least he got to be buried in the place of his choice. Aware of his imminent death, he sent Severn to scout out the area and to see whether it’s a nice burial ground. When Severn reported about the blue flowers and the quiet atmosphere, it was Keats’ wish to lie here – as though the soul and the place belong together.

Final Impressions

Keats’ grave is a wonderful place. It captures a whole range of emotions at once, just through his tragic life story, the tranquillity of the place, the peace through the absence of tourists, and the fact that it is also one of the greenest spots in Rome. No question about it: it is the holiest place in Rome.

It would be unfair of me to finish this article without quoting from the master himself. I think his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ represents the nature of the cemetery best since it’s essentially a meditation by a depressed speaker who tries to escape by taking joy in the song of a nightingale. Towards the end of the poem, he returns to his dire situation, feeling overwhelmed by the darkness of his existence:


Forlorn! The very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Adieu! The fancy cannot cheat so well

As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.

Adieu! Adieu! Thy plaintive anthem fades

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now ‘tis buried deep

In the next valley-glades:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?


Have you been to Rome? Did you visit Keats’ grave? Then please share your experience in the comment section! Otherwise, if you enjoyed this post, why not share it on the social media of your choice? Just click on one of the tender buttons below!