Young American tourists like myself filled the Spanish Steps on that warm summer day in Rome nearly 50 years ago.
The backpack tribe basked in the sunlight, ready for adventure and romance. But I climbed past the tanned young men and beautiful bronzed young women to the top of the steps and turned toward an ancient building.
When I knocked on the door, an austere, elegantly dressed British woman answered, and I entered a quiet place far different from the crowded, hormone-dazed scene below.
I'd come to the Keats/Shelley House, where the English poet John Keats died of tuberculosis in 1821 at the age of 25. The small apartment where Keats was cared for in his final days by the British painter Joseph Severn also honors Shelley, who wrote a famous eulogy to Keats and like him lies buried in Rome's Protestant Cemetery.
All alone, in a state of near ecstasy, I viewed the exhibits of rare books and artifacts like locks of Shelley and Keats' hair. In small back room, Keats' death bed remained.
Poet Garrett Hongo brought back those memories with his poem "A Garland of Light," published in the summer Sewanee Review. In the poem, Hongo recalls his own visit to the Keats/Shelley House, and how its quiet refuge contrasts with the bustling Roman streets.
In the poem, Hongo thanks the noted black poet Robert Hayden for inspiring his love of Keats. Hayden, who taught Hongo at the University of Michigan, gave Hongo individual lessons on Keats poems like "Ode to a Nightingale."
Hongo's personalized Keats class from Hayden also struck home with me. When I was in college, I explored Keats' work with an English professor who taught me individually. Each week, I'd go to the stately woman's office in LSU's Allen Hall to discuss with her Keats' poems and letters.
Along with evoking Keats' genius, Hongo in the poem gives a warm portrait of Hayden. Hayden's"Those Winter Sundays" is one of my all-time favorite poems.
Hayden's lines "What did I know, what did I know/of love's austere and lonely offices" refer to a father who rose on Sunday mornings to warm the house and polish his son's shoes. But the lines also define Severn's heroic and selfless care for Keats, all those years ago.