Monday, October 28, 2013

The Muse of Tomb Envy

“It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place”
—Percy Bysshe Shelley

The Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome

Three Dead Poets

The Day of the Dead is approaching, and I find myself musing about the gravestones of poets. I had an experience with three of them recently, in the lovely cemetery for non-Catholic Foreigners in Rome. Keats is buried here. Most of Shelley is buried here—though it is said that his heart was snatched off the funeral pyre by his friend, Edward Trelawny and given to his widow, Mary. To my surprise I found the grave of Gregory Corso, the beat poet, who is of Catholic extraction, buried here as well.

Gravestones used to be a high art form. Dan and I wandered among impressive busts and marble ladies lying in eternal repose, past a stone Psyche divesting herself of her mortal coil—high on a pedestal—to mourn a woman whose husband wrote: “Her loss is as that of the Keystone of an Arch.”


Dan took photos, I mused and took notes. As someone whose plan is to have my ashes scattered on my favorite mountain, I surprised myself with a fit of tomb envy. Imagine having a large angel slumped over your tomb, devastated by your death. 

Slumped Angel

Or imagine being immortalized by an angel with magnificent buttocks standing on a pedestal in some sort of triumphant commentary on the loss of you. I don’t care what your sexual orientation—this angel is an erotic fantasy.

Back of Standing Angel

You have to wander around to the front to be sure of his gender.

Front of Standing Angel

Eros and Thanatos seem to have been on close terms in the nineteenth century. Here a naked couple, looking as though they depict a Greek myth, stand in bas-relief on a tomb. Their little boy grasps the halter of a horse. What story are they telling about the dead Austrian gentleman here memorialized?

Tomb with Naked Couple

Goethe’s only son is buried here. So are professors from America, ladies from Australia, the Fischer brothers (I assume)—one with a cross over his name, the other with a Star of David. Therein lies a story, I’m sure.

Fischer Brothers Tomb
One with Nature

Death, like love, is a great theme for poets. What I’d not considered before is the power of a poet’s gravestone. Keats, who died at the tender age of 25, of tuberculosis, wanted the most modest of gravestones, with no name or date, but only the words: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” However his friends Joseph Severn and Charles Armitage Brown, angry at the critical reception Keats work had received, added the words: “This grave contains all that was mortal of a young English Poet who, on his death bed, in the bitterness of his heart, desired these words to be engraven on his tomb stone.” They also added the date.

Keats' Gravestone

That wasn’t enough for Severn. He had to add his own commentary, writ in stone:

Response to Keats' Gravestone

Later in life Severn and Brown regretted having disrespected Keats’ last wish.

Shelley, who knew and valued Keats, was one of those who believed that the critical attack on Keats had hastened the death of the young poet. In this lineage of sorrow, Shelley memorialized Keats with his long and passionate elegy, Adonaïs. Here are some of my favorite passages:

Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep—
He hath awakened from the dream of life… (stanza 39)
He has outsoared the shadow of our night;
Envy and calumny and hate and pain,
And that unrest which men miscall delight,
Can touch him not and torture not again… (stanza 40)

He is made one with Nature, there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird…(stanza 42)

That sweet bird of course, is a reference to Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”
in which the poet, addressing that “immortal Bird,” longs for death:

Now more than ever it seems rich to die,
   To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
      While thou art pouring forth thy soul aboard
          In such an ecstasy! (stanza vi)

In a strange variation on this lineage of death, Shelley became “one with nature” just a year later. He drowned in a sudden storm while sailing along the coast of Italy. A volume of Keats’ verse was found in his pocket. His gravestone bears the Latin Inscription: Cor Cordium (“Heart of Hearts”). His gravestone, referring to his death at sea, bears an inscription from Ariel’s song in The Tempest: Nothing of him that doth fade/But doth suffer a sea–change/Into something rich and strange.

Shelley's Gravestone

Corso, who described himself in a poem (“I Am 25”), “With a love a madness for Shelley,” made complicated arrangements and pulled powerful strings to get himself into this cemetery, just footsteps away from Shelley. Corso had had a harsh early life, been abandoned by his teenage parents, gotten into trouble with the law, done time. While in prison he read and began writing poetry. He found his tribe, his kin, when he met Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. He became an important voice among the beat poets. He, like Ginsberg, was a master of the long line list-rant. In a famous poem called “Bomb” he rants about death.

Some die by Swamp some by sea and some by the bushy haired man in the night
O there are deaths like witches of Arc Scary deaths like Boris Karloff
No-feeling deaths like birth-death Sadless deaths like old pain Bowery
Abandoned deaths like Capital Punishment stately deaths like Senators
And unthinkable deaths like Harpo Marx girls on Vogue covers my own

How I love that last line with its sly glide from “girls on Vogue covers” to “my own.”

In an amazing turn of events Corso was reunited with his mother late in his life. They formed a strong bond that also tied him to Italy, her country of birth. I imagine that being buried near Shelley put him in the company of his soul kin, in the earth of his mother country. 

Corso's Gravestone

I am dazzled by the poem on his gravestone—one of the most perfect poems I know—9 short lines that say it all, about life and death and being “one with nature.” 

is Life
It flows thru
the death of me
like a river
of becoming
the sea

I sat on a bench in the cemetery, amidst cypress tress and palms, pansies, begonias and violets, in the shadow of the Cestius Pyramid—an ancient Roman tomb. In the presence of a mysterious woman’s bust in stone—she seems to be listening to music—or is it poetry— from another realm, I wept for a poet I hadn’t read since I was young.

Listening Woman

I won’t ever have a prostrate angel mourning on my tomb. But I’ve got poems in the tradition of this lineage of poets who understand “the death of me/like a river/ unafraid of becoming/the sea." Following is the final poem in The Faust Woman Poems:

When I Die

I want the window’s yellow rose
To kiss my eyes goodbye—before
Green sisters do their rattle dance—before
I’m drunk by sun and swallowed
By the moon before the earth
Starts chewing on my bones— and you

To whom I leave my words—listen
For me in the grass— If I can lick
Your lips and steal into your ears
When I am long past breath I’ll borrow yours
And swing into your beating heart
Where I will sing a beat or two before
You breathe me out again—
                   Into the hungry sky
(First published in Reed Magazine)

Prostrate Angel

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