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The Oxford Letter

By Christopher Janus

I'd forgotten that Keats died in Rome. It was only by accident last night while lingering in the Piazza Di Spagna--the center of life of the old Papal Rome--that my eye wandered from the beautiful fountain of the "Baracaccia" to an inscription in Italian and English on the side of an old red building saying that here in 1822 the young English poet died.

Early this morning I went to the house, up two flights, paid two lires and was toured about by a young Italian girl who very carefully explained to me that Keats was a great poet; and so was Shelley and now this was a memorial library to them both all made possible through the generosity of English and American admirers. And now would I sign the book? Many people have signed it who have become great since. Then I seemed to hear the words:

"Fame, like a wayward girl, will still be coy to those who woo her with too slavish knees ..."

But I signed: and underneath a "Mr. Longing, Dentist, Omaha" and "Mrs. Peters, Writer, Brooklyn;" I, being nothing, wrote in big letters!

I spent an hour or so in Keats' room (which is next to Severn's). On the one side it overlooks the majestic staircase of the "Trinita Dei Monti" and on the other the Piazza and the Fountain. Immediately below is a charming outdoor flower nook owned by a jolly old Italian and you can call from Keat's window and he will bring you up a rose; and if he likes you he may give you one for "the Signore" free. Without superstition I think nowhere in Rome have I seen flowers so fresh and so seemingly content: as if perhaps they are conscious that here in the shade of one who loved beauty so well they are happy to pass their watery existence or be sold, as Fate ordains.

Yet, in the quiet of the evening--even as I saw them yesterday--when the old Italian draws water from the fountain for the young ones who were not sold, casting out the old to urchins playing in the street, and then puts to the shutters of his trade, might not then the more bold of the lot, feeling the strength of a kindred spirit, steal by the fragrance of their souls into that same room where lives the memory of him who loved them so well?

And in the morning when the old Italian returns, raps on the shutters and lets in the sun; and bunch by bunch takes the truant roses to the fountain to wash their sleepy faces, splashing water also on his own, does he ever guess their night's sweet escapade? I suspect he does, but being a bit of a poet himself says nothing: only this little song: "Roses, Roses, Roses: Fresh, young roses." At least so it seems to me.

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