a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

Grasshopper days: speaking of heroes

Posted on the October 26th, 2009

I am being haunted by Lord Byron. Last Saturday evening, while entering the park at Villa Borghese in Rome, a statue of the poet loomed up alongside the path. Yesterday, perched on a mossy boulder while taking a lunch break during a long walk, from high on a hill I gazed down at Lake Nemi. Entering and playing and replaying through my mind came Byron’s poetic image in “Childe Harolde”:

Lo, Nemi! …
A deep cold settled aspect nought can shake,
All coil’d into itself and round, as sleeps the snake.

A more apt description even than a photograph, I thought when I read those lines days after first seeing the lake.

And now this morning, my A.Word.A.Day newsletter served up Byronic.

It’s silly of Byron to haunt me, I think. I know next to nothing about him. It’s his contemporary Keats whose spiritual ghost I myself spent years pursuing. Years ago, during a decade long spiritual pilgrimage immersing myself in Keats’ poems, biographies, commentaries and that tremendous sadness that characterized his life experience, I managed to memorize in its entirety his 78- line ” Ode To A Nightingale.” On going to bed, I would recite the lines to myself as if they were a lullaby:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense…

One of the very first things I did after coming to Italy — on my first visit to Rome the first evening after I arrived — was to seek  out Keats’ old apartment next to the Spanish Steps. It’s now the Keats-Shelley museum. We reached the front doors just after midnight. I stared up at the darkened windows of his old rooms, hoping something would evoke his presence.

I’d made the tourist’s error of  being persuaded to buy one of those awful scentless red roses that street vendors push into the face of unwary passersby. On impulse, I tucked it under the museum’s door handle. It felt a foolish thing to do, and through my imagination came the sound of one of Keats’ sad sighs, he despairing over such a tawdry tribute.

“This Grave contains all that was Mortal of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET Who on his Death Bed, in the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired these Words to be engraved on his Tomb Stone ‘Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water”

A month or so later, I insisted we go to what is  known as the Protestant Cemetery just outside Rome’s walls. I wanted to  visit Keats’ grave there. I remember that it seemed off in a corner all to itself. In morbid fashion, I hovered next to the grave for a few minutes before sitting down on a bench nearby. A black cat, behaving as if it were the grave’s proprietor,  leaped up to sit next to me. Pleased, I reached over to stroke it. It promptly scratched me, jumped down and stalked away, its tail high.

Enormously susceptible to symbolism, I felt as if Keats himself had rebuffed me. Feeling hurt and silly, I slunk away from the bench. I relinquished my long homage. Keats is refusing to tolerate my mourning of him, I thought…  and still think.

So  I gave up my own haunting of Keats, Poor fellow! But now here is Byron at my doorstep, so to speak, haunting me. Or so I imagine. What does he want, I soliloquize to myself. I grasp at this for fun, for pleasure, for learning, for life. Confronting the celebrated, celebrating, heroic Byron.

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