The Honouring of Dead Poets Society

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Keats' Grave

Keats’ Grave

The Honouring of Dead Poets Society

Around 130 years ago there was an effort to raise funds to belatedly help the poet Keats, or rather his sister who was his only surviving close relative. There was a sense that not enough had been done to honour the young poet during his too-brief life. Only recognised post mortem as one of England’s greats, John Keats had been neglected and he and his family subjected to unnecessary suffering as a result.

I discovered this attempt at fund-raising when reading some of another poet’s letters in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The Preraphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti was writing in February 1880 to Harry Buxton Foreman, a collector of Keats manuscripts, to ask about Foreman’s copy of Endymion. Rossetti describes himself as “a lover of Keats” despite the fact that he then goes on to diss Keats quite severely (most of his sonnets were “very faulty or inferior”, although his sonnet on Chapman’s Homer is good and the finest is On a Dream). He then refers to the subscription to help Keats’ sister Frances Mary, wife by this time of Valentine Llanos. Rossetti is sad that so little has been achieved by this point:

“It is grievous to me to find how little progress has been made with the Keats subscription. I have found a lukewarmness incredible to me even among special admirers of the poet. I had hoped much from America, but this it seems proves fallacious.” [1]

There was to be a happy ending eventually, however. Disraeli, now Lord Beaconsfield, granted a Civil List Pension to Frances Mary in old age, the younger sister of the young dead genius. What else could the lovers of Keats do? There was always his grave in Rome with the memorial stone without a name, only to the one whose “Name was writ in Water”, organised by the painter Joseph Severn who was with Keats when he died and honoured his request concerning the brief epitaph. Many, including Oscar Wilde, made the journey there to honour their poetic hero. I must confess, though I have been to Rome, I have never made that pilgrimage, although I did visit Oscar Wilde’s grave in Pere-la-Chaise cemetery in Paris in the 1980s. I still have the photo of me aged 20, standing under an umbrella next to the large Jacob Epstein monument of a sphinx, looking intense and dismal in the rain in an inappropriately bright cardigan that just failed to be sunflower yellow. The Epstein monument records lines from Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol : “For his mourners will be outcast men, And outcasts always mourn.” I had already memorised these lines as a Melancholy Romantic teenager and so was delighted to find them as the last word on my favourite poet of that time. (A bit different to Wilde’s last reported words: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do”, or indeed Disraeli’s great last words: “I think I’m getting better now”!) But it still took a while longer for Keats to be honoured in his own country with a memorial. There was an attempt in 1939 to have a plaque dedicated to him in Westminster Abbey but the advent of the Second World War delayed things till 1954.

But this November marks the honouring of another poet who was not honoured (as a poet, at any rate) in his lifetime. The great writer and scholar C S Lewis (the writer of Dymer rather than Endymion) is to have a plaque unveiled to his name in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, largely due to the efforts of Dr Michael Ward.  It has often been noted that Lewis, though sometimes ignored in Britain, has been embraced by America, and this is certainly true of those subscribing to the memorial to Lewis for Westminster Abbey. There has not been the “lukewarmness” from the USA that Rossetti noted in the Keats fund-raising, for which we’re very grateful.

But there is a slight way to go. You can still make donations at where you also get your free tickets to come to the celebrations. This is your chance to be a part of it. And this time I get to be part of it too, as one of the speakers at the Symposium on 21 November. I promise not to wear the unfortunate yellow cardigan.


[1] D G Rossetti, John Keats: Criticism and Comment, Private Circulation, 1919 (30 copies of 5 of DGR’s letters printed for T J Wise of Hampstead).