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FOUR

John awoke to the bright December morning coldnosed and well, and he knew why. He had strapped on to a soldierly back the burden of dying for love. This was not war, this was not epidemic. Death did not like to be laughed at. Its multiplication was not funny, but its duplication was sidesplitting. For himself and Elton to be spitting arterial blood together would be the most comical thing in the world. One deals a red ace, the other trumps it. Elton could attend to his own death first; his, John Keats's, could follow at an uncomic interval. Death would endeavour, in its glum way, to keep things serious. He went into Severn's room. Severn was working on sketches for a painting to be called The Death of Alcibiades. John said:

"You know what I said I would write?"

"A poem on the river Severn you said." Severn smiled up with shy pleasure.

"Yes, full of sweet Severn and gently flowing Severn and mighty Severn and Severn well-loved. Your name eternised in verse and you to glory in adventitious fluminous attributes."

"I did not say that. I did not think that. I am pleased that you think of working again. I should, of course, be pleased also with a dedication."

"To Severn this poem on the Severn. That would never do. I could of course write instead on the Tiber. The syllables are the same, both names trochaic. The fluminous properties differ little, though the history of what each river has borne upon its back well, no: men are men, battles battles, bridges bridges. I see little difference. Tiber has rhymes, at least I can think of one rhyme fibre. A useful rhyme?"

"You must decide what is useful. You must decide whether to rhyme or no."

"Is that Alcibiades? He looks a little like Wordsworth."

"You mock, John."

"Seriously, I am here in Rome and I dream of English themes. Is that right?"

"You must decide."

"Let us imagine that William Shakespeare is brought here by his patron and friend the Earl of Southampton. It's possible, of course, that he was, and to Venice and Verona and Padua besides. What would he write?"

"The Rape of Lucrece?"

There was a knock at the apartment door, and John went to answer it. A sturdy young curled Roman, very ragged, his feet bare, smiled, pulled at a curl in humble greeting, held out a parcel roughly wrapped in newspaper, French for some reason, an old copy of the Gazette de Francfort. The lad said: "Misiter Kettis?"

"Approssimativamente."

"Is lettera, misiter."

There was indeed. A note from Elton. With a book, a very big one. Queen Anna's New World of Words. The author John Florio. John's heart prepared to leap. He smiled at the boy and said: "So you speak some English?"

"Misiter Eliton a little a teach."

"And your name? Come ti chiami?"

"Mario." One of the surname-lacking poor. John felt in his pocket for a small coin. Mario thrust out his palms against the gift in horror, as again proffered violence. "Misiter Eliton he say a no. He say a Misiter Kettis molto povero."

"So it shows." John sighed. "Very poor, yes. Take this just the same." And then he had a remarkable vision. He saw this Mario as Marius, living by the Tiber while Rome was building, living through the growth and fall of the empire, always the same with his wine and bread and garlic, through two thousand years of the city's life. He gaped at the boy in awe. The boy said grazie, pulled a curl, ran. John leaned against the doorpost, trying to get breath back. The huge old book in his hands nearly slipped from them. Severn came out.

"Who was it? What is that? Are you well? You're pale. Is it bad news?"

"Not bad news, Severn. A present from Elton, that's all. Two presents from Elton, I think. I will lie down."

"Have you drunk your milk?"

"Some of it. I will drink the rest now. Lying down."

"But you're so pale."

"Not from weariness, Severn. Not that." And he went to lie down.

One thing at a time. He pushed from his head the vision of eternal Marius-Mario. He read Elton's note. "I take coach today. I woke well enough, though tired. No further you know what. I have taken much pleasure in our walks and talks together. Here is a farewell gift, a dictionary which I will no longer need since I am leaving Italy and am unlikely to return. It is very old, my great-grandfather had it. It is perhaps too old to be of use, but have it just the same. I will long remember the foul fustilugs and the business of the nose blowing, they will aid me when I am sad. A foul libel on the sex, sir, and the sex deserves it. Sincere good wishes from I. M. Elton, Lieut RE."

The book was intolerably heavy in his hands. He brought up his knees and made a lectern of them. LONDON, Printed by Melch. Bradwood, for Edw. Blount and William Barret. ANNO 1611.

Year of the King James Bible. Shakespeare was how old? Forty-seven. With five years of life yet to run, he might have held this book, this very copy, in his hands, also finding it heavy. John's lectern-knees became Shakespeare's. John Florio had been Shakespeare's friend. At least he had been secretary to Shakespeare's noble dearmylove and patron.


Cazzo, a man's priuie member. Also as Cazzica.

Cazzolata, a ladle-full. Also a musical instrument without strings.

Cazzo marino, a Pintle-fish.

Cazzo ritto, a stiffe standing pricke.

Cazzuto, a man that hath a pricke.


And a man that hath not? Incazzuto, perhaps. This is my dear friend, Signor Incazzuto. Apt for some play of Ben Jonson's, English humours in an Italian setting. Those worlds had been very close: the Italian realms and Elizabeth's own, or James's. No, with James they had begun to drift apart. Elizabeth or Elisabetta. She speaketh the Tuscan to perfection, my lord. Rightly is she named La Fiorentina.

He could not now, a minute after opening the book, recall whether he had opened at random or not. Cazzica, an Interjection of admiration, what! gods me! god forbid, tush. Tush, not to be superstitious, it was as though there might have been a sly Elizabethan guiding of his finger to cazzo and the rest that approval might in a manner thus be expressed from the shades of his translating that prick-naming sonnet. An interjection of admiration. He turned now to the back of the book, where Florio gave instructions as to the pronunciation of Italian:


For so much as the Italians have two very different sounds for the two vowels E and O which for distinctions sake, they name the one close and the other open The close E is pronounced as the English E or Ea, as in these words, Bell, Beane, Den, Deane, Fell, Flea, Meade, Quell, Sell, Tell amp;c and the open E is ever pronounced as Ai in English, as in these words Baile, Baine, Daine, Faile, Flaile, Maide, Quaile, Saile, Taile, amp;c


It began to sunrise upon him slowly what this meant. It meant that he was being granted a vision (not the just word. Audition?) of how Shakespeare spoke. He spoke like an Irishman, cazzica. He said not flea but flay. He pronounced reason as raisin. And now it flashed in where the joke was in Falstaff's words: "reasons are as plentiful as blackberries." Of course, raisins. With awe and something of fear, John felt as if he were being instructed by the dead in person, souls of poets dead and gone. Doors were being opened. Welcome to long life and further revelations. The gods were accepting the blood sacrifice of Lieutenant Elton. He, John Keats, was being reserved for, preserved for -

He was on his feet, hands behind him, pacing from wall to wall when Dr Clark came in. Clark said: "Good morning," tossed a coin in his head it seemed and decided on Scotch. "Ye seem restless, restive, unrested. Ye luik to me to hae a fever, mon."

"I am well, I never felt better. There are so many things I have to do. Let me tell you my -"

"Ye may tell Signor Gulielmi, wha's waiting for ye ootside. I hae nae time the noo for poetical blatherings. Weel, the starvation diet is haeing its effects. Ye are thinner though, aye."

"Being thin I conform the better to your view of how a consumptive should look. You never liked the appearance of unsick normality. I am hungry all the time, and I cannot think that to be good, I am damnably hungry."

"That's subjective, mon. But, to be objective, nae bleeding."

"No, no blood comes up. Or down."

"Weel then, that is because of the licht diet. Persevere, and ye may weel soon be like Lieutenant Elton, the blood-spitting gone and he on his way hame."

"I shall end up here, sick or well, dead or living. I think Rome and I have things to say to each ither, other."

Clark waved that away as of no moment. "Gulielmi has a mind to take ye to see Roman things, meet Roman folk forbye. We'll gang doon together." He suddenly grew weary of Scotch, it seemed, as of a language it required concentration to speak, a sort of Italian. "It is not all that warm outside. The sun is a deceiver. Take your topcoat." John listened with interest to the patrician accent. He caught a flash of Clark in high places, a physician to the nobility perhaps, saw him in a gilded bedroom with a scutcheon over the bed, but heard comforting Scotch treacling out like a placebo: Aye, aye, ye rest yon heid the noo, yer grace.

"Aye," John said.

Gulielmi, raw northern bones and droll Roman eyes, drably dressed for the bright day, smiled faintly at a mother seated on the Spanish Steps, giving her great breast to a boy who was surely more than ready for weaning. Both wore costumes of the Campagna, artist's models both. The Steps were a lolling minced rainbow of artist's models, and there were also the flowersellers. The church bell sang once, and in some strange way it embraced the scene. John saw why, and his heart jumped. The whirring fragments of sound that splintered off from the bell's main note were those colours, and the fundamental bongggg was white. Colours whirred or whirled into God's white and away and back again. What did God have to do with anything? No, here in Rome you could not say that. There was room for Apollo and Venus and still some for God. He tasted the faint aloes of resentment at the hunched coughing narrow-chested God of the English.

"Mr Keats," Gulielmi greeted, "I see the rose of health on thy cheek."

"Master Kates, Shakespeare would call me. I have had the revelation this morning of hearing Shakespeare's voice. Florio's Dictionary. I have learned that Shakespeare said t^ele for tail and m^ede for maid. Their sounds were not ours, they were European sounds. I wonder if Shakespeare was ever in Rome."

"Well, he was closer to Rome, and to Veneto, and to the whole of Italy than any of your poets have been since, Mr Shelley and Lord Byron not excepted. England seems more and more to move away from Europe. Speaking of moving, do you feel yourself well enough to move by ferry and carrozza to the Cappella Sistina?"

"Not too much excitement," Dr Clark answered for John. "Let us no undo the salvatory work of the light diet. Fish. If there is to be dinner, let it be fish."

"Fish, yes. But Michelangelo before the fish," Gulielmi said.

"Michelangelo is unco' exciting." And Dr Clark fussed off to see other patients. Gulielmi hailed a carrozza on the Corso, telling the rogue of a driver to drive to the Porto de Ripetta ferry. John's supply of breath was not enough to sustain the skyboat of his enthusiasms. He tried to tell Gulielmi about the idea within himself that was trying to attain the first crude crudely workable shape, the "Blobs of mercury being brought together by some helpful fingertip to form the one quicksilver disc -"

"Calm. You must be calm. It is good for you to be calm."

So John saved his breath and took in the Romans workmen, carriers, barefoot child beggars skilled in adult obscenity: cazzo coglioni puttana vafnculo. He would have to start reading hard. He would have to think of a stanza form. Blank verse, rhymed couplets, no. Terza rima? But that would seem like a mockery of Dante. The sonnet used as a stanza? That meant each phase of the story would thud or sweep or sidle in like a wave, then recoil. And why not? The octave for the public event, the sestet for the unchanging Marius or Mario. Unchanging, there was the rub. Could you really compose a lengthy poem about what never changed? His heart began to sink, and he recognised that, in a manner, his survival depended on the right burgeoning of this poetic idea. But to what category did the idea, would the poem, belong? Tragedy? Hardly, great men dying but a small man eternally remaining. Was he capable of it? It was some new thing, some category to be freshly invented. It was not the comic of Don Juan, not squibbish and irreverent. It was mightily reverent to this persistent Roman. Yet (heart dropping further, awareness of light flooding his eyes as his eyes further widened) what does Marius-Mario do but persist in living, begetting, working, owing rent, borrowing, drinking? He does not move, he does not generate a narrative.

They had been set down in the piazza of St Peter. "You look pale," Gulielmi said. "You need some grape spirit." And he led him, hand gently on his arm, to a wineshop off the square, cave-like, dusty, not warm.

"It tastes," John said, when he had sipped a little, "not unlike the way an old dog smells."

"It will do you no harm."

"I'm trying to bring to birth a long poem which shall somehow celebrate Rome. I'm disturbed by certain difficulties, and I cannot afford to be so disturbed, not now, not not now."

"Tell me the subject." Gulielmi looked grave as he listened.

"You see, for the first time in the history of poetry we have a common man, an ordinary soul with Wordsworth you have peasants and shepherds but the poet imposes on them his own metaphysic. He pretends to present the speech of ordinary men, but does not. Here, through a common Roman -"

He stopped, in evident distress. Gulielmi waited. Then he said: "Go on."

"How could an Englishman do it? The ordinary speech of Romans is to be set down by Romans, not by Englishmen." The sudden distress seemed to make him thinner and smaller. He hunched over his little glass of grappa as to draw warmth from it. Gulielmi wished to say, but dared not: It is not for you, this thing is reserved for another. The muse presiding over this notion has hit the wrong season and the wrong poet. Aware of the depth the despondency could reach and of its danger, he said instead:

"Most fine notions begin in despair. This you must know. There is a whole wing of your mind's mansion unknown to you, where, as it were, work is already proceeding on your notion. A thousand clerks are scratching away. Or shall we imagine that it is the headquarters of a Grand Army of the poetic imagination, with some inner Napoleon plotting with his staff, maps spread, dividers calculating the day's march, while a whole corps awaits its orders. You must not think of this again, not with your brain of the daylight. Let us go and see Michelangelo."

John's face seemed to fill out again and the rose returned. He smiled, though ruefully, and let the last drop of dog-smelling grappa fall on to his tongue. He said:

"How old was Michelangelo when he died?"

"Ridiculously old. In his nineties and working till the end. But he felt he had learned nothing of his art. If he had lived to one hundred and ninety he would perhaps have felt the same."

"The life so short, the art so long to learn. I have done nothing."

"His very words. Come."

They entered the chapel by way of the Stradone dei Giardini. A guard responded to Gulielmi's triple knock and they were almost at once set upon by Michelangelo. It tired John to throw back his head, like a hen drinking, to be drowned by the muscular ceiling. He concentrated on the Last Judgment. "It is very fine," he said politely. "But not very Christian."

"It is a statement of Christian doctrine. Christ shall say to the wicked: Depart from me ye cursed into everlasting fire -"

"Yes, I know of that, Godless one as I am. But he also welcomes the blessed into everlasting bliss. Where are the blessed?"

"There you see them. There, you see, is the flayed Saint Bartholomew, and the skin he is holding is the skin of Michelangelo himself. You see the ghost of his face in the skin. That is very much a self-portrait."

"There are no signs of blessedness. It is all horror. All hell. Nor is that the Christ they teach of in the churches. Look at his great muscles. Look at his bearded ferocity. He is more Prometheus than Christ, except that he has no love of mankind. He does not bring us fire, he throws us into it. Where did he get those huge shoulder muscles? Not from a year or so of work in a carpenter's shop."

"San Bartolomeo," a voice said behind them. "Lui stesso." They turned. John saw a neat young swarthy man with one bigger and tougher, great-eyed, ebon-locked, mustachioed. This latter was carrying a sevenbranched candlestick, the seven flames dancing in unison to a breeze that wafted through the chapel. Gulielmi said:

"Belli. Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, poeta. John Keats, poeta." The two poets piacered each other warily. Belli was gorgeously decked in the flames of his candles, all gold and shadow and face-caves. Belli said:

"Don Valentino Llanos." A Spaniard, then. The Spaniard bowed. He said in very fair English:

"A poet from England? I am most happy." His aspirate had the swift throatiness of a jota. "Your name again, sir?"

"Keats."

"But I know your work," Llanos said in delight. " 'Much have I travelled in the realms of gold.' " A Spanish roundness in that gold, the jav and the trav true rhymes, a slack b quality in the v. And the much a truncated mucho. He, John Keats, had travelled to the realms of gold. "I study the poets of England. I am happier to meet a poet alive than a painter dead. I shall ever remember meeting Mr Keats under the Day of Judgment."

"Better under than on." He despised himself for the joke in the act of making it. "All Don Juans go the same way."

"But this is no true hell. It is as it were all pure energy with nothing of sin or judgment about it."

"I first saw it as terrifying, now as absurd. The painter has filled it with his own guilt. I can guess at the nature of the guilt, I think. He was too fond of broadshouldered boys."

Meanwhile Gulielmi spoke to Belli.

"You were where?"

"In the Marche."

"You saw young Leopardi?"

"Leopardi, no. Not Leopardi."

"So. I ask no more questions. Is your Laura turning you into a Petrarch?"

"Do not joke, friend. I will show you what she has inspired. You will not grin then."

"Sonnets?"

"And more than sonnets."

John said to Llanos: "My last unfinished poem was, I suppose, about Michelangelo giants. Ponderous. It will not now be finished and I have few regrets. Michelangelo cures through his pretensions pretensions of our own. I am sick of big men. I would write of little ones if I could."

"Why are you here in Rome? You join the exiles like myself?"

"A matter of my health, se~nor. I have offended no tyrant, I think."

Belli was saying to Gulielmi: "What is his name again? Kettis? Kattis? These English names are impossible." John heard that and said:

"Keats, signore, Keats. You have the combination of sounds already in your language. As in cazzo, as in cazzica."

Belli emitted a long mouthful at that, which John understood to convey the shock Belli felt at the impropriety of the employment of such language in a holy place before and under holy pictures.

"Mi dispiace, mi dispiace molto. I am a horrible obscene irreligious Englishman and mi dispiace moltissimo." That mollified Belli somewhat but reproof, dramatised by his flapping candle flames, rested in the fine eyes.

"Signor Belli," Gulielmi explained to John, "is, shall we say, professionally prone to sensitivity about these matters. He is a papal officer, you see, and is sometimes assigned to the duty of showing distinguished visitors the holy art of our city. However what you would wish to do now, I think, is to rest. We shall go to my apartment in Trastevere. I will go out and send some urchin tor a carrozza."

"Michelangelo," John said, "does seem somewhat to breathe all the available air. But I am, believe me, grateful for this opportunity to see his masterpieces. They are a terrible warning "

Un ammonimento spaventoso," Gulielmi tranlated. Belli nodded his great eyes full of candles, and beat his breast thrice to the loud bassoon of the Judgment.


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