Long time back my favourite poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote,
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;
These words are to be felt, these words are to be lived, these words are to be relished while in Rome. Yes just recently I made this week-long trip first to Paris and then Rome. And though I enjoyed my time in Paris in a unique way, but I felt more lost in the tragedies and triumph of history while in Rome. And on the last day, I made this unusual journey to a place where leading English and German literary and philosophical figures of their time made it their resting place. For this visit, though I had to miss some other famous places like Spanish steps and all as the time was limited, but I could not resist myself from going to this special cemetery.
The Protestant Cemetery in Rome or which is called Cimitero Acatottolico( Non-Catholic Cemetery) or often called Cimitero Degli Inglesi( Englishman Cemetery) is located near the Pyramid( yes an Old Roman built a small Egyptian style Pyramid in 30 BC) on Via Caio Cestio road. But I think both these names do not correspond to the name of the people whose graves are present there. Percy Bysshe Shelley was not a protestant or non-catholic but an atheist. Similarly we can’t term Humboldt or Ivanov or even anatomist John Bell as Englishmen as they were from Germany, Russia and Scotland(sarcasm intended).
This cemetery is an Island in the present Rome today as though each and every place is teeming with tourist,sellers, chaos and all, this place in the city is much emptier and looks like an abode of peace. I think every cemetery in a way can be expected like this. But being there, when I see a young woman sitting on a bench near the grave of poet John Keats and reading his poetry, my heart filled with joy. One of the great poets of English Literature,John Keats died in Rome of tuberculosis just at the age of 25. He died in oblivion at that time and it was only for his personal friend Joseph Severn’s lifelong efforts that the world came to know greatness of Keats poetry. I had read about Keats epitaph earlier, but looking at it personally on his grave made me a bit emotional that point. It reads, “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.”
It is only an irony of time, that both Keats and Shelley were contemporary poets, not much known in their lifetime, met with early death and buried in the same cemetery. Shelley has always been my personal favourite. As one of my friend suggests to phrase it in this way, “Not that I love Keats less, but that I love Shelley more”. Shelley who did not know how to swim drowned in Italian Riviera while sailing his yacht in 1822, just a year after Keats died in Rome. In his pocket, a copy of Keats poetry was discovered in a way that it looked like it had been put away in a hurry. Standing near his grave, I just constantly thought of the poet and his brilliant poem “Ode to the Skylark”. Before departing his grave, I murmured the last stanza of this poem,
Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know;
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow,
The world should listen then, as I am listening now
Though there were many graves of great people, but after passing through few of them I made my last stop at the grave of Italian philosopher and the leader of Communist party there Antonio Gramsci. I think no other Marxist changed the societal discourse in such a radical way as Gramsci did with his theory on cultural hegemony. His belief that states use cultural institutions to maintain power in capitalist societies has greatly influenced my personal outlook also. One of the columnist of Financial Times here called him the most humane of all Marxist while visiting his grave. To me that’s an interesting observation.
We all go to Rome to see Colosseum, to see the Roman Forum or the Trevi Fountain. I also did the same. Though cemeteries are not Museums and preserve relics of the ideas of the people, but to me they are an important connection with the past. The mortal remains buried in the ground of many great people often evokes a sense of nostalgia. This connection, this nostalgia of the past only teaches us many perspectives which we should incorporate among us to think of the future.