Young American tourists like me, clutching their copies of "Europe on $5 a day," packed the Spanish Steps on a splendid midsummer morning.
I was the only visitor to the Keats-Shelley Memorial House next to the Roman landmark where the young backpackers gathered like a flock of birds above Bernini's Barcaccia fountain.
Adjacent to the Spanish Steps, the two-room apartment where John Keats died on Feb. 23, 1821, was faithfully recreated, down to a replica of Keats' deathbed. After the 25-year-old poet's death from tuberculosis, Italian authorities had burned everything that remained.
When I entered, a severe English woman stroking a cat held in her arms came out from a back room, looked me over, and retreated.
All alone, I inspected the impressive collection of rare Romantic and Victorian books and artifacts, and stood for a moment beside the tiny bed in Keats' room before exiting into the brilliant sunshine and my contemporaries' palpable erotic energy.
In hopes that the warmer climate would improve his condition, Keats had traveled to Italy from England in the fall of 1820 on the Maria Crowther. After the ship docked in Naples, Keats was quarantined before making an arduous journey to Rome.
English artist Joseph Severn, who had nursed Keats during his final three months, drew a death portrait. Severn, in one of history's most encouraging humanitarian gestures, had agreed to accompany the dying Keats to Italy, although he'd barely knew him in London.
After a successful career as an artist and diplomat, Severn died in 1879 at age 85, and was buried next to Keats in Rome's Protestant Cemetery.
I was at the same age at which Keats died when I visited Europe. Now, 50 years have passed away. An epidemic has cost the lives of 500,000 Americans in 51 weeks. At times, it feels as if the world has made little progress in the 200 years since Keats died. Humans have ravaged the natural world that Keats celebrated in his poems. Those 200 years have been marked by endless wars. along with amazing accomplishments. Keats' poems are everlasting.
As Notre Dame English professor Ian Newman said in a recent essay, Keats' death shouldn't overshadow the cheerful, vibrant young poet of his marvelous letters, a personality so intellectually and artistically aware.
In the winter of Keats' death, let us remember the glorious spring and summer of 1819, when he wrote some of the English language's greatest poems.