Cultivating Flowers at Keats’s Grave

Brian Rejack

The grave of John Keats has been positioned as a site of literary pilgrimage almost as long as it has existed. Many factors contribute to this phenomenon, including the mythic inscription on the grave stone: it features an image of a lyre with several missing strings, and these words: “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. / Feb 24th 1821.”

Keats himself asked for only the last (and now most famous) sentence, but after much debate his friends decided on the elaborate explanation of what led him to wish for that sentence alone. Two years before the erection of the gravestone itself, the discursive foundation for its myth-making effects was laid by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (1821). The preface to Adonais blames Keats’s early death on a “rupture in a blood-vessel in the lungs” suffered due to “agitation” in response to negative reviews of Endymion (1818), which then led to the development of consumption. Of course, that narrative of Keats’s demise was false, but it worked well to establish Keats (and by proxy, Shelley, who had his own problems with the critics) as an unappreciated genius who needed posterity to make up for the injustice levied against him by his own contemporaries.

One way that those of us who comprise posterity can remedy the situation is by visiting Keats’s grave. Shelley’s preface serves as a sort of guidebook as he describes the spot as “the romantic and lonely cemetery of the protestants,” and notes that “It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.” In the poem itself, Shelley ends by urging readers, “Go thou to Rome” (line 43). He even describes how to find precisely where Keats is buried:

… the Spirit of the spot shall lead
Thy footsteps to a slope of green access
Where, like an infant’s smile, over the dead,
A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread.
And gray walls moulder round, on which dull Time
Feeds, like slow fire upon a hoary brand;
And one keen pyramid with wedge sublime,
Pavilioning the dust of him who planned
This refuge for his memory, doth stand
Like flame transformed to marble; and beneath,
A field is spread, on which a newer band
Have pitched in Heaven’s smile their camp of death
Welcoming him we lose with scarce extinguished breath. (438–50)

Ok, it’s not exactly Google Maps precision. As Samantha Matthews points out, “the cemetery haunts Adonais,” and that haunting serves to “evok[e] a generalized memorial landscape (127).” The exhortation to visit Rome implies that we ought to go there in defiance of death, and specifically Keats’s death, so we can find there that “Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, / Stains the white radiance of eternity” (462–3), and that death is our entrance into “That Light whose smile kindles the Universe” (478). It’s not a Christian, or even a religious, notion of the afterlife, nor would we expect as much from the author of The Necessity of Atheism. Instead, a visit to Rome and a song in praise of Adonais/Keats is a ticket to literary immortality: “I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar; / Whist burning through the inmost veil of Heaven, / The soul of Adonais, like a star, / Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are” (492–5).

Many other admirers of Keats have pursued that star by going to Rome, where his “fate and fame,” Shelley predicted, would be “An echo and a light unto eternity” (8–9). In the nineteenth century, scores of poetic tributes to Keats were written, often by writers who penned them on the occasion of visiting the grave. The grave itself exerted a magnetic pull on lovers of Keats, and written accounts of the visits then helped to intensify the magnetism. Keats’s grave thus becomes a material and discursive locus for the continual renegotiation of his own reputation, which is itself part of the broader cultural redefinition of the figure of the poet. It’s during this time period that the notion of “loving literature,” as Deidre Lynch argues, solidifies.[1] And Keats is a poet for whom readers have always had intense affective investment. Throughout the nineteenth century, the forging of Keats’s literary reputation and affective investments in the poet came together at the site of Keats’s grave. By looking at some examples of poems written about or at Keats’s grave, I suggest we can glean insights about the entanglement of personal and public investments that animate the reception of Keats in the nineteenth century. Readers’ and writers’ engagements with Keats often took shape in the form of what Paul Westover and Ann Wierda Rowland call “author love,” a connection to the author that is as much about a sense of personal intimacy as it is about admiration for the author’s works.[2] At the same time, that personal investment was understood and expressed in relation to public discourse around Keats’s shifting legacy. Visitors to the grave thus mutually construct a culture of Keatsian pilgrimage, which involves forging feelings of intimacy with the poet, intimacy with other pilgrims, and a recognition of their roles in continuing to reshape Keats’s afterlife.

To give a sense of the popularity of Keats’s grave in the nineteenth century, one need look no further than one of the first visitors to it: Joseph Severn, the friend who traveled with Keats to Rome, and who nursed the poet as he slowly died from tuberculosis. Severn’s account of the grave and its popularity, however, comes from four decades after Keats’s death. Writing for the Atlantic Monthly in April 1863, Severn recalls that the adulation of Keats and his memory was not immediate among the English visitors to Rome. He recalls that “when his gravestone was placed [in 1823], … then a host started up, not of admirers, but of scoffers, and a silly jest was often repeated in my hearing, ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water, and his works in milk and water;’ and this I was condemned to hear for years repeated” (404). After a two-decade absence from Rome, Severn returned in 1861 to serve as the British Consul, and upon arriving he found Keats’s reputation there quite different. The evidence comes not in the form of “new editions of his works, … or by the fact that some favorite lines of his have passed into proverbs,” but rather via “the touching evidence of his silent grave.” The grave speaks through its status as “the poetic shrine of the world’s pilgrims who care and strive to live in the happy and imaginative region of poetry.” Severn claims that on two different occasions, “loving strangers,” both Americans, had paid to restore the “head-stone, having twice sunk, owning to its faulty foundation” (406). And the cemetery’s custodian has been overwhelmed by visitors who “pluck everything that is green and living on the grave of the poet.” Once again a generous visitor comes to the rescue: “Latterly an English lady, alarmed at the rapid disappearance of the verdure on and around the grave, actually left an annual sum to renew it” (407). Of course, Keats’s posthumous fame had been enhanced by new editions of his works and by some of his fine phrases circulating even more widely—the opening line of Endymion, for instance, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,” crops up frequently by mid-century, and especially after it adorns the archway at the entrance to the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition in 1857. Severn’s account, though, reminds us that the culture of literary tourism around Keats’s grave also played an important part in the shaping of his Victorian status.

As I’ve already suggested, the grave does not merely function as a material site, but a discursive one as well. Indeed, the material and the discursive are combined in the practices of poets visiting the grave, often collecting flowers from it, and then publishing poems in which they depict the grave and its significance.[3] Maria Lowell, when she visited in March 1851, must have arrived soon after a large culling of the flowers around the grave, for her poem “The Grave of Keats” (1855) laments the barrenness of the spot: “O Mother Earth, what hast thou brought / This tender frame that loved thee well? / Harsh grass and weeds alone are wrought / On his low grave’s uneven swell” (21–4). Sarah Helen Whitman’s “A Pansy from the Grave of Keats” (1859) is a more favorable depiction of the spot, although as much through her imaginative overlay of Keats’s poetry onto the flowers that adorn his gravesite as for the actual beauty of the place. She sees in “every petal, o’er and o’er, / All legended with faery lore, / A palimpsest of fables old / And mythic stories manifold” (7–10). The rest of the poem recounts elements from all of Keats’s narrative poems. Whitman concludes by returning to the “pansies [that] bloom / Beside his far Italian tomb” (54–5), and reiterating that one can imaginatively access “each fair creature of his dream” (58) by taking a flower from the spot. In an almost literal sense, she suggests that the corpse of Keats imbues the flowers above him with his poetic dreams, which then are “Transferred to daylight’s common beam,” where they “[Live] the charmed life that waneth never, / A Beauty and a Joy forever” (59–61).

It’s unclear if Whitman traveled to Rome to retrieve a flower, or if one were sent to her, or if the poem merely conjures one from imagination. What matters for my purpose is the way in which the poem yokes together the material and discursive practices. Although Severn is prone to exaggeration and distortion, especially when writing forty years after Keats’s death, it does seem to be the case that many visitors did actually engage in the practice. But we need not simply trust accounts of doing so because in some cases the flowers themselves still exist. On March 31, 1887, Thomas Hardy visited the Protestant Cemetery with his wife, Emma, who noted in her diary, “Gathered violets off graves of Shelley & Keats.” Her husband wrote a letter to his friend, the literary critic Edmund Gosse, and enclosed with the letter he included some of the specimens: “I send you a violet or two which I gathered from Keats’s [grave]—He is covered with violets in full bloom just now, & thousands of daisies stud the grass around.” Today that letter resides at the British Library, along with the flowers, which have since been sealed in plastic. The scrap of paper in which Hardy placed and pressed the flowers remains archived with the letter and the botanical materials, and one can trace the outline of the organic material which was transferred from the flowers to the paper by their long placement together. The violet petals are not particularly prominent any longer, but the leaves—still preserved in plastic alongside the stems from which they at some point separated—feature veins which remain strikingly distinct. When I viewed these materials in the reading room at the British Library in 2015, I confess that I had no real reason to look at the Hardy letter. I was there to work with other Keats-related materials, but I felt drawn to the Hardy letter and its relics from Keats’s grave. Like others who have made the pilgrimage to Keats’s grave, I desired a connection not only to Keats and his work, but also to other acolytes of the poet who’ve previously engaged in the ritual of gathering flowers at the grave.

Hardy did write a poem on the occasion of his visit, and while it features no mention of violets or daisies, it raises another significant issue related to the ongoing negotiation of meanings around Keats’s grave. Hardy’s poem treats Keats and Shelley together, as indicated in the title, “Rome at the Pyramid of Cestius Near the Graves of Shelley and Keats” (1887). The pyramid of Caius Cestius, built around 12 BCE, occupies much of Hardy’s interest in the poem. It remains a more widely known landmark than the cemetery that abuts it (a fact I learned upon attempting to direct a taxi to the “cimitero acattolico” without having much facility in speaking Italian; success occurred only when I mentioned “piramide,” and the driver immediately knew where to go).

But as was true for me during my visit in 2004, Hardy knew nothing of the man buried underneath the pyramid: “Who, then, was Cestius, / And what is he to me?” (1–2). The answer is that Cestius and his ostentatious grave matters only through its association with the poets buried nearby. Hardy goes as far as to suggest that the pyramid’s “purpose was exprest / Not with its first design, / Nor till, far down in Time, beside it found their rest / Two countrymen of mine” (9–12). The final stanza reiterates this idea: “—Say, then, he lived and died / That stones which bear his name / Should mark, through Time, where two immortal Shades abide; / It is an ample fame” (21–4). There’s a sense in which the poem fits into the notion of translatio imperii common in Victorian Britain, what with the relic of Rome only really acquiring its true meaning once a couple of English poets lay buried next to it. But Hardy’s playfulness in the poem suggests something else: the continuing uncertainty and mutability of fame. Cestius sure went all out to be remembered with the help of his giant pyramid, and yet it means nothing to Hardy beyond its status as signpost for literary tourists seeking out Keats and Shelley. The English poets may claim pride of place in the Protestant Cemetery today, but they’ll become signposts for something else in their turn as well.

Of course, a message of ephemerality is appropriate for Keats and Shelley—the latter of whom wrote two poems called “Mutability (1816, 1821),” and the former of whom repeatedly viewed posthumous fame with skepticism. What this message also suggests for understanding the significance of Keats’s grave is that we must continue to work to make it significant. The tribute poems from the nineteenth century, along with the pilgrimages that inspired them, continue to shape how we make sense of the place. The ongoing nature of what we might call noting Keats’s grave is a topic of some tribute poems as well. Andrew Marvell long ago noted, “The grave’s a fine and private place, / But none do there I think embrace,” and I won’t quarrel with that claim. But it turns out that above the grave of Keats affective bonds do form. Obviously, the poems already mentioned demonstrate the way that writers feel connected to Keats by visiting there. The sending of flowers to loved ones also functions to triangulate affection through Keats. A tribute poem by Christopher Pearse Cranch demonstrates the dynamics at work in the combination of both: the connection to Keats, the gathering of flowers from the grave, and the bonds with others forged through those processes.

Cranch wrote his poem in May 1883, but it was rooted in the recollection of his visit to the grave in summer 1846. Just about a decade before that, in fall 1837, he forged an arguably closer connection to Keats. It was at that time that Cranch temporarily replaced James Freeman Clarke as the preacher at the Unitarian church in Louisville, Kentucky, while also taking over Clarke’s editorial responsibilities for The Western Messenger. In that publication a year earlier, Clarke had published two letters written by Keats, which Clarke had access to thanks to his friendship with a prominent Louisvillian, one George Keats. John Keats’s brother George had emigrated to America in 1818, eventually settling in Louisville and establishing himself as a successful owner of a sawmill. When Clarke arrived in Louisville in 1833, he and George became fast friends. By November 1834 he would write to Margaret Fuller that “George Keats is one of the best men in the world. And I have taken a strong liking to the character of his brother John, which has just dawned on me through the medium of his letters and accounts of his personal history” (Clarke 107). Cranch, like so many other earlier admirers of Keats, had read his poetry in the pirated edition of the works of Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats published in Paris by the Galignani brothers in 1829 (the lack of international copyright laws made piracy of this sort endemic). It’s no surprise, then, that he would seek out the acquaintance of George Keats when he first arrived in Louisville. Cranch wrote to his sister in October 1837, “I went the other night to see Mr. Keats, an English gentleman residing here, and brother to Keats, the poet” (Scott 37–8). During the visit he saw one of the Keats children, most likely Emma (1823–1883), and remarked of her that she had “face and features strongly resembling Keats, the poet,” to the extent that he “could scarcely keep [his] eyes from her countenance, so striking was the likeness” (38).

Cranch did not develop the same level of intimacy with the Keats family that James Freeman Clarke did, but it appears that Keats remained significant to Cranch in other ways. Like so many other literary pilgrims in the later nineteenth century, Cranch went to Rome in search of the grave. Traveling with him in 1846 were his wife Elizabeth (née De Windt—a great-granddaughter of John and Abigail Adams) and his friend George William Curtis. It was to the latter that Cranch’s dedication, “To G. W. C.,” refers in his poem, “At the Grave of Keats.”[4] It tells of the two young men making their way “Beyond the Forum’s grass-grown piles” and eventually arriving at Keats’s grave, where they find “A rose some loyal hand had planted there” (5, 10). The friends reverently pluck it, while “kneeling on the humble mound” (15), such that the event takes on the air of a religious ceremony at the altar of Keats. They then “shared its leaves” as they “shared the thoughts of one / Called from the fields before his unripe sheaves / Could feel the harvest sun” (17–20). The final stanza then translates the literal rose into a figurative one: “That rose’s fragrance is forever fled / For us, dear friend—but not the poet’s lay. / He is the rose—deathless among the dead— / Whose perfume lives to-day” (21–4).

The poem’s tropes are akin to many other tributes written at or about Keats’s grave. It features the floral imagery, and the alignment of the rose with Keats himself recalls Shelley’s description of Keats as a poet whose genius was like “a young flower … blighted in the bud” (not to mention many other accounts of Keats which employ similar imagery between Shelley’s writing in 1821 and Cranch’s in 1883). It also insists on Keats’s immortality (“deathless among the dead”), which Shelley also established in Adonais (“He lives, he wakes—tis Death is dead, not he”(361)). What Cranch adds in his poem is the focus not only on love for Keats, but the love between friends that is enhanced around the poet and his grave.[5] The rose whose petals the friends share with one another then becomes the poet himself, and the rose’s “fragrance” transforms into “the poet’s lay,” a sensory commingling that Keats himself would have likely appreciated. Cranch and Curtis thus share the experience, the actual flower, a love of Keats figured by the flower, and a love of Keats’s poetry figured by the flower’s fragrance.

It’s not only in the moment they share at the grave that the friends forge this bond. Almost forty years later, the poem begins its life shared via correspondence between Cranch and Curtis. The poem was written on May 7, 1883 and sent to Curtis sometime shortly thereafter. Curtis responded on May 27, writing that “Your beautiful little verses are full of music and picture—and youth. How far away it seems but how fresh, how fair!” (Scott 342). He goes on to reiterate the freshness of the memory in his mind, which he connects as well with the freshness of Keats’s posthumous life: “I recall perfectly the peace of that bright Roman morning when we stood by his grave, the morning which dawns again in your pensive lines, and which will always shine over his grave” (343). The visit, the verses, and the friendship combine to support the eternal dawn which rises over Keats’s grave.

It wasn’t until two years later that the poem entered public discourse, when it was first published in Harper’s Magazine in December 1885. But it’s also worth noting that even the private exchange between Cranch and Curtis in May 1883 is influenced by the public discourse around Keats. In between Curtis’s two mentions of their private visit to the grave, he asks Cranch, “Have you seen the sad, wasted, dying face of Keats in the current ‘Century’?” He expands by noting “It is much the same as that published in the ‘Correspondence with Fanny Brawne’—a cruel book which … make[s] a man ask if nothing is to be sacred in privacy or human relations” (Scott 342–3). Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne was first published and edited by Harry Buxton Forman in 1878, and it caused a great deal of controversy, the nature of which Curtis addresses and still laments in 1883. Critics of the book claimed that it was indecorous to publish such intimate letters, especially given that they appeared to damage Keats’s reputation among Victorian readers (whereas today the love letters tend to be highly celebrated). Matthew Arnold famously characterized them as “the sort of love-letter[s] of a surgeon’s apprentice which one might hear read out in a breach of promise case” (103). The frontispiece to Forman’s edition of the letters to Fanny Brawne featured the death-bed portrait of Keats by Joseph Severn, which had not been before published. Curtis’s objection to the reappearance of the image in the May 1883 issue of The Century combines his rejection of the Keats of the letters to Fanny Brawne with his rejection of the death-bed sketch and “how little the pathetic head has in common with his rich and abounding strain!” (Scott 343). In other words, Curtis’s reception of the private verses sent to him by Cranch commemorating their visit to Keats’s grave cannot be separated from the ongoing negotiation of precisely which Keats ought to be conveyed to posterity.

What Curtis does not mention is that the image of Severn’s sketch appears in The Century as an accompaniment to yet another tribute poem, Edith M. Thomas’s “On Severn’s Last Sketch of Keats.”[6] Thomas collapses the distance between the moment captured by the image, when Keats seems somewhere between sleep and death, and the decades since when Keats has been “In peaceful barrow by the daisy drest” (11). Thomas imagines herself—and perhaps all of us, given her use of the first person plural—at Keats’s bedside during his last days: “We keep a vigil,—by thy pillow bow, / And listen, smiling through our tears when thou / Murm’rest of flowers that spring above thy breast” (12–14). According to Severn’s account to John Taylor two weeks after Keats’s death, a few days before the final passing, Keats had said to his caretaker, “I can feel the cold earth upon me—the daisies growing over me” (Letters of John Keats II, 378). Thomas’s poem, then, through the contemplation of Severn’s drawing, transports readers by “Forgetting all [Keats’s] years profound of rest” (10) and arriving at the moment when the poet himself imagined that rest and the daisies which would emerge above the ground during it. The poem represents a visit not to Keats’s actual grave, but a mental time-travelling journey to the plot of ground Keats pictures in his mind days before his body is lain in it. The detail of “smiling through our tears” suggests that Thomas and/or the reader know that they are witnessing a moment that will become part of Keats’s continuing legacy, even as they also weep to see his death. This imaginary scenario and the complicated feelings it engenders is perhaps an accurate summation of what it means to visit Keats’s actual grave. One cannot help but feel the weight of myth and legend built up around the spot. There’s a kind of joy in knowing that one participates in a nearly two-century continuum of constructing affective bonds through the process of making this literary pilgrimage. And yet we must also remember that it is still the spot where a young man was buried after immense and long drawn out suffering.

Keats’s grave and the material and discursive practices surrounding it which take root in the nineteenth century thus demonstrate one of Keats’s own insights: Melancholy and Joy share a single habitation. To “burst Joy’s grape” against one’s “palate fine” means that knowledge of suffering won’t be far behind. Or as Keats poses it in another poem, “Welcome joy and welcome sorrow.” Visiting Keats’s grave and participating in the love of the man and the poet ought to be an embrace of both. All too often in the mythologizing of Keats joy is sacrificed to sorrow. It may seem an odd place at which to find a reminder of the necessity of the former as well as the latter, but I hope that the material-discursive site that is Keats’s grave, as I’ve constructed it here, manages to do so.


Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. Essays in Criticism: Second Series. London, 1893. Google Books. Accessed 23 August 2018.

Clarke, James Freeman. Autobiograhpy, Diary, and Correspondence. Ed. Edward Everett Hale. Boston, 1899. Google Books. Accessed 6 August 2018.

Cranch, Christopher Pearse. Ariel and Caliban: With Other Poems. Boston, 1887. Google Books. Accessed 22 August 2018.

Lowell, Maria. Poems. Cambridge, 1855. Google Books. Accessed 5 August 2018.

Matthews, Samantha. Poetical Remains: Poets’ Graves, Bodies, and Books in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford UP, 2004.

Najarian, James. Victorian Keats: Manliness, Sexuality, and Desire. Palgrave, 2002.

Robinson, Jeffrey C. Poetics and Reception in Keats: “My Ended Poet.” Macmillan, 1998.

Scott, Leonora Cranch. The Life and Letters of Christopher Pearse Cranch. Houghton Mifflin, 1917. Google Books. Accessed 4 August 2018.

Severn, Joseph. “On the Vicissitudes of Keats’s Fame.” The Atlantic Monthly, April 1863, pp. 401–7. Google Books. Accessed 22 August 2018.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Eds. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. Norton, 2002.

Thomas, Edith M. “On Severn’s Last Sketch of Keats.” The Century, June 1883, p. 217. HathiTrust. Accessed 23 August 2018.

Westover, Paul and Ann Wierda Rowland, eds. Transatlantic Literature and Author Love in the Nineteenth Century. Palgrave, 2016.

Whitman, Sarah Helen. Poems. Boston, 1879. Google Books. Accessed 22 August 2018.

[1] Lynch’s Loving Literature: A Cultural History examines “how it has come to be that those of us for whom English is a line of work are called upon to love literature and to ensure that others do so too” (1). She locates the linking of those two elements of literary studies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In her final chapter Lynch focuses on how “since the romantic period declarations of love for literature have been framed in elegiac terms” (238). That “literature is never more lovable than when at death’s door” (238) perhaps contributes to why Victorian readers of Keats so readily extend their love of his writing to love of the man himself.

[2] Rowland and Westover write that “What makes the transfer of interest and affection from text to author possible … is the extent to which literary culture functioned as a structure for personal and social feeling” (5). In the case of Keats, his grave—as one small locus within literary culture—offered particular structures of feeling within which admirers operated.

[3] In Reception and Poetics in Keats: “My Ended Poet, the subtitle of which comes from Alice Meynell’s poem “On Keats’s Grave” (1869), Jeffrey C. Robinson discusses the tradition of poets writing tributes to Keats. He does not focus significantly on the grave, but he does mention it as one of the objects that becomes fetishized in tributes to the poet: “A lock of Keats’s hair, a page from a book, a sight on Hampstead Heath, the Roman grave itself are all worshipped as signs that bring the poet closer to the present” (59).

[4] The poem was written in 1883, as discussed below, but I quote from the published version from Cranch’s Ariel and Caliban: With Other Poems (1887), which differs only slightly. The poem was first published in the December 1885 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

[5] James Najarian has written about the way that Victorian readers of Keats frequently engaged with him and his legacy through anxieties around gender and sexuality. Some writers (like Matthew Arnold) seek to “cure” Keats of his perceived effeminacy, while others were drawn to Keats in part because of the opportunity for the expression of homoerotic desire that Keats afforded (like Walter Pater). One certainly sees this sort of dynamic at work in Cranch’s poem, which is as much about the forging of a homosocial bond with his friend to whom he dedicated the sonnet, as it is about a bond between the men and Keats.

[6] Also included in her first volume of poetry, A New Year’s Masque and Other Poems (1885).