A Death Mask

The Keats and Shelly House is located in an unremarkable former boarding house next to what later became the Piazza di Spagna, or the Spanish Steps. The rooms dedicated to Keats were the very rooms where he took his last wheezing, blood garbled breaths in the company of his friend, Joseph Severn.

I sat in what would have been a parlor situated between the rooms of Keats and Severn and those of their landlady. I listened to the young british woman recount Keats life story with sympathy while I stared in awe at the collection of encased books wallpapering the large room. During the course of a slowly passing hour, she told us that Keats was born in 1795, that he was the eldest of six, that his father died, that his mother died, that some of his siblings died, that he took care of those siblings who didn’t die, and then that he died of tuberculosis at the age of 25.

I leaned forwards in my upright chair. I slouched backwards. I took notes and I tried to listen. I wanted to listen. His life seemed interesting, even delivered in a logical ordering of hard facts softened by a tone of sympathy. Yet, I wasn’t captivated. It was merely the life of some man in an unreal past who had died. It was tragic, yet I felt no tragedy even though I knew I sat mere feet away from the room he died in. And although I sympathized with his struggle to become a recognized poet, and admired that he choose that path after being trained as a surgeon, and could even know the slow pain of dying after watching my mother die of cancer, I wasn’t captivated or intrigued or even saddened by what I heard.

When the woman had finished telling her logical version of Keats’ life, I stood up and stretched my stiffened limbs. The students in the room with me all did the same before heading towards rooms dedicated to Shelly and Byron. “Keats had an interesting life and all, but I don’t feel anything from his poetry,” one of my fellow tripmates said to another as they slipped through the doorway together. Sometimes I feel the same way when reading all of the “thees” and “thous” and “thys” in his words, but our class was there to learn about Keats and we had had an assignment due that afternoon, so I entered the empty rooms opposite from Shelly and Byron. The museum had two small rooms dedicated to Keats, and so pictures, scraps of his handwriting and first editions of his poetry collections were hung in cases on the walls or displayed in one small double-sided case in the center. There was just enough space for one person to walk around the center case in the first room and not touch those hung on the walls. The next room had been his bedroom, and had a bit more space to move around in. It also had a center case and things crammed on the walls, but the difference from the previous room in which Jospeh Severn had slept in, was that this one had a bed that was “a style typical of the period”. On the bed were bright silk sheets that “were also typical of the period.”

Even though the bed had a “Do Not Touch” sign above it, there was a sign near it that explained how the bed was a reproduction and not the one that belonged to Keats as that had been burned after his death in an effort to prevent the spread of tuberculosis. Taking this as an invitation, I laid down on the bed, my feet hanging off the foot of it, and stared up at the daisy square motifs on the ceiling that was said to be the only thing left of the rooms he stayed in. This ceiling was the very one that he stared at every day while he died, and so I stared at it, trying to feel something other than a placid interest. The story goes, that when Keats was dying in Rome, Severn found and paid for his grave plot. Keats asked him what it was like there, and Severn described the peaceful meadows around and how the plot was covered in wildflowers. “I can feel the wildflowers already growing above me,” Keats told his friend as he stared up at the ceiling with daisy motifs, I stared at the flowers, thinking of this, and they seemed to stare back at me in the unsettling way that cherubs decorating church ceilings stare with smiles at those standing below.

I got off the bed and then moved about the room, examining the various artifacts on display. Eventually, I came to a single case hanging off the wall near the bed that I had overlooked while gazing at the ceiling. In that case was a white plaster mold of Keats’ face with the label “Keats’ Death Mask” below it. I stared at it, examining how the impression of his lips were slightly parted and appeared to form a half smile, as if the timeless pain in his chest had stopped and he could finally inhale deeply for the first that time he could remember. His eyes were shut and his face relaxed into a serene bliss. I stared with a numbed mind for some unknown amount of time before asking myself: did someone mold his face into that shape of peace or did it naturally happen when he died? I continued to stare at the plaster face, engrossed, examining how one eye had been slightly opened when the mold was made which meant there was probably traces of plaster on his eye when he was buried before he began to decompose under the wildflowers. I remembered how four years ago I had sat in a waiting room full of flowers and inspirational pictures with footprints and forests, and how a cheerful secretary explained to me that when a body is cremated the bones don’t really burn so they have to crush them and so not to be shocked when chunks of bones fall out as I throw the ashes. I remember wanting to throw up, tears streaming down my face as I imagined my mother’s body being burned and crushed into black dust. A drop of water then landed above that unclosed plaster eye, and I wiped it off with my finger before realizing that I was crying.