A rainy evening in Rome. There are still a few tourists making their way down the Spanish Steps to the Piazza di Spagna, Rome’s answer to Piccadilly Circus. Few, if any, of them notice that the house to the left is gently lit, as though by candlelight, and visible through the long windows are a woman in a flowing dress that bares her shoulders, and a dark-haired man in a white, opulently frilled shirt. Mary Shelley has her back to the windows, but when I wave, Byron waves back across the centuries. I descend to the foot of the steps and buzz to be let into Keats’s house, now the Keats-Shelley museum.
9 April 1819
We are delighted with Rome, and nothing but the Malaria would drive us from it for many months – it is very busy now with the funzioni of the Holy Week, and the arrival of the Emperor of Austria… We saw the illuminated cross in St Peter’s last night, which is very beautiful, but how much more beautiful is the Pantheon by Moonlight! … I don’t think much of St Peter’s after all – I cannot – it is so cut up – it is large – and not simple.
10 May 1817
Of Rome I say nothing – you can read the Guide-book – which is very accurate.
Pele Cox, former poet-in-residence at the Royal Academy, has created a drama, ‘Unbound’, around the triangle of affection, love and rivalry between Mary, Shelley and Byron in their Italian years, and I’ve become an informal literary consultant to the production. Byron and Shelley, two of the most highly strung men in English literature, are played by Edward Akrout and Christian Roe, fully immersed in their roles; Cox plays Mary
Shelley, a quieter, cooler presence. But there has been a change of plan: Roe has suddenly had to go to Manchester to film Skins Redux; tonight I meet the other Shelley, Tristan Shepherd. I don’t know, you wait all your life for a Shelley then two come at once …
How beautiful is sunset, when the glow
Of heaven descends upon a land like thee,
Thou paradise of exiles, Italy!
(P. B. Shelley)
Chairs have been set out in the largest room of the museum, the library. The green room is off to the left, sanctified by a relic: a fragment of Shelley’s jawbone in an urn. The audience for the first night of ‘Unbound’ is largely made up of Italian liceo students, sixteen years old, and their teacher. Nerves make the first performance rattlingly fast and some giggling and wriggling sets in among the teenagers. Are they getting it? The elliptical text is a mosaic of the trio’s own words, from letters, journals and poetry, and is challenging stuff even for native speakers.
Afterwards, their teacher asks for a question and answer session with the performers. The students are difficult to draw out until Cox asks them what they particularly liked about the piece. One girl blurts out: ‘Byron!’ to laughter and nudges. Shelley withdraws into silence, and Akrout begins to play up, dispensing jaded wisdom to the teenage girls: ‘If you ever meet a Byron – run a mile!’ The Italian boys, outgunned by all this Romantic charisma, slump at the back in fidgets.
We head out to Trastevere for supper, in pursuit of what Akrout assures us is the best spaghetti carbonara in Rome. There is a bizarre moment when one of the ubiquitous umbrella sellers begins a hard sell, even though all four of us are already carrying umbrellas. Akrout stalks off into the winding streets, Shepherd trotting at his heels. ‘Look at that. So Byron,’ says Cox.
‘Unbound’ is eerie, less a play than an invocation. These roles are hard to shake off. The next morning, at the cast’s flat near the Coliseum, Shepherd is lying prone on the sofa, in the manner of University College’s marble statue of the drowned poet, muttering something about the White Russians he and Akrout drank after Cox and I wisely retreated. Roe has flown in for one performance only, due back in Manchester for filming the following day. ‘Hey, maybe you should do it tonight as well,’ says Roe. ‘I’m sure you were brilliant.’ ‘No, man, you should do it,’ says Shepherd, weakly.
Désirée Ballantyne, the dancer from the English National Ballet, has arrived and the rest of us go for lunch, leaving Shelley 2 to recover. Later, I accompany Ballantyne to the museum so she can examine the space. If she is shocked at the cramped dimensions, she doesn’t show it. Putting on her pointe shoes, giving a glimpse of chafed toes, she tries a few steps on the old tiles. ‘It’s whether it’s slippy or not,’ she says. Tap-tap-tap. ‘No, it’s fine.’
This time when I descend the Spanish Steps, I glimpse Byron and Shelley sitting on the terrace in the twilight, unnoticed by the hordes of tourists. A party atmosphere is bubbling in the Piazza di Spagna; a group of revellers form a riotous ring and start singing and stamping. Poor Keats upstairs,
dying in his bed!
Inside the museum, nerves are twanging. Tonight is the gala audience, by special invitation, champagne by Moët. Akrout wants me to pummel his back with both hands while he does his vocal exercises. After a few moments, Roe murmurs, ‘Can I be next?’ There is much leg and arm swinging and staring into the middle distance. Byron is pacing, ignoring Ballantyne who is arabesqueing all around him. The performers scurry to the green room. ‘Group hug,’ commands Roe. In the spirit of ‘School of Rock’ I invoke the God of Poetry and the audience files in.
Ballantyne begins to dance in the tiny space, the only sound the tap-tap of the pointes on the floor and the occasional puff of breath. It’s breathtaking to see such artistry so close. She wheels and spirals, her outstretched foot almost grazing the glazed display cabinets behind her. Is she the ideal paramour so longed for by Shelley? Or, all in black, the beautiful death they courted all their reckless lives? After her dance, Ballantyne smiles radiantly and flees down the aisle.
Rarely, rarely comest thou,
Spirit of Delight!
Wherefore hast thou left me now
Many a day and night?
Many a weary night and day
‘Tis since thou art fled away.
(P. B. Shelley)
Roe’s Shelley is more forthright than Shepherd’s; here we can see the political agitator, someone with an essential toughness, even ruthlessness. The
scene where the poets meet for the first time, on the shores of Lake Geneva, is a prolonged face-off, and it is Byron who cracks first, bantering about his tame bear and finicky eating habits. Roe’s superb rendering of Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ ends the play. The celebrated lines ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’ cue Ballantyne, who enters from Keats’s quarters. Now perhaps she is one of those deathless maidens on the vase: ‘Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!’
In the Q and A, one audience member wants to know why Keats does not appear. ‘Because they weren’t friends,’ Cox explains. ‘They were mean to him!’ The inclusion of the Grecian Urn alludes to the poignant fact that a book of Keats’s poetry was found in Shelley’s pocket when he drowned, the pages roughly folded back. Keats was the last thing he read. ‘So he loved him after all,’ Cox says.
Go thou to Rome, – at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness;
And where its wrecks like shattered mountains rise,
And flowering weeds, and fragrant copses dress
The bones of Desolation’s nakedness
Pass, till 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.
(P. B. Shelley)
The next morning we meet Giuseppe Albano, director of the museum, at Pyramide metro station to pay homage at the graves of the poets. Shelley 1 has returned to Manchester, Shelley 2, recovered from his hangover, mooches in a hoodie. Akrout stalks along wearing a ridiculous hat in the shape of a bear’s head, with long paws that dangle over his ears. On him, though, it’s a warrior’s casque; he looks as though he’s setting off to fight
for Greek independence.
The famous ‘Protestant Cemetery’ of Rome is now more accurately called the Non-Catholic cemetery, accounting for the presence of Orthodox Christians, Buddhists and Jews, as well as pantheist atheists such as Keats and Shelley. Under the white mass of the pyramid of Cestus (‘wedge sublime!’) we brood on the shocking poignancy of the words on Keats’s grave: ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’. His grave, and that of his friend Severn’s next to him, is covered with the leaves of violets. Shelley, Albano informs us, was a year too late to be buried in the old cemetery; but he bagged a prime spot in the new, at the top under the wall, near a ruined tower; you rise to meet him up the steep paths.
‘What does “Cor Cordium” mean?’ asks Cox, contemplating Shelley’s austere slab. ‘Heart of Hearts.’ The poet Gregory Corso is buried at Shelley’s feet, and by his side his friend Trelawney, who died nearly sixty years after him: ‘Let not their bones be parted / For their two hearts in life / were single-hearted,’ a beautiful sentiment, albeit one which might have surprised Shelley in this context. Severn and Trelawney long outlived their poet friends and it’s impossible not to be moved by the staunch affection that led them to lie with them in death.
Even without Ballantyne, who has flown back to her job at ENB, the final night is electrifying. There’s no back-pummelling when I arrive; the actors are laughing and relaxed, having done the final run through in Deep South accents. The verse-speaking is thrilling and fluid, the dynamic between the characters powerful, easy and natural. They banter, they flirt, they fret. I’ve now seen three performances and haven’t been bored once. In fact I have no idea what the running time is.
But this is the best performance of them all, which is not to prefer Shepherd’s Shelley to Roe’s; they have different emphases. ‘I’ve stolen bits of Christian’s performance,’ grinned Shepherd before the show. ‘I thought, ah, I’m having that.’ It’s just that everything gels tonight: Byron is more funny and swaggering than ever and Shepherd and Cox fully inhabit the tenderness and wariness of Shelley and Mary’s fraught relationship. Shepherd’s shadowed, inward look speaks volumes about marital distress and disillusionment.
The next morning, Akrout flies to Paris to perform as Orpheus, I miss my flight to London, and Cox and Shepherd, the last to leave, fall in a tangle of limbs and bags down an escalator at the airport, a fitting metaphor for bumping back down to earth. We are all disorientated, bereft. Can life be lived at the pitch of the Romantic poets without going completely mad? It has been a transformative few days. As Shelley reminds us: ‘It is our will / That thus enchains us to permitted ill – / We might be otherwise – we might be all / We dream of happy, high, majestical.’
In the Non-Catholic Cemetery
Roads rack his rest where once only
Hooves, cries and wheel-rims woke him.
The ash garden, guarded by the white wedge
Of Cestius, forgotten. Two stones make
A double bed, and a baby too – Severn’s,
Soul friend. Violet leaves for a coverlet.
You ask me why his name was writ in water
And it’s the same question almost as before:
The first love gone, can there be another?
My no-answer is your answer. Yeats, tugging
The blue hem of the giantess, Maud Gonne,
Queen Maeve of the tea-cups. Being stone,
This lyre will never more chord out
An elegy. Bodhidharma’s pupil,
Spurting from lopped limb, harsh parable,
Is every lover who melts from ‘I’ to ‘you’.
Tender is the night, the day, the dawn.
Keats’s bird bones splinter underground.
These painted beams he gazed at,
His living coffin lining; we gazed too,
Danced on his red tiles, hexagonal,
Lamplight under stares of stone and seeing clay.
His furnishings a holocaust. The sounds remain
Of singing, splashing, laughing, since that day.
Quaint pilgrimage. It took me years to see it;
Now, on a bench by Keats’s grave, this feeling
Is both the awe and end of it. Wild silence.
This is about graves, and those who lie in them.
They are coming with their boarding passes.
You rise, needing no cortege of leaves.