Sunday 10 December 2017

'There, intact, were various objects all familiar...'

'The need of our time is for wisdom rather than cleverness, intelligence rather than intellectualism, understanding as well as knowledge. Where there is no vision the people perish.
 Our aim is to assist in publicising those liberal and humanistic values whose continued existence is seriously threatened at the present time in our own country as well as elsewhere.'

  How's that for a publisher's mission statement? The words are those of Christopher Johnson Publishers Limited of Great Russell Street, London WC1, and I found them on the tattered dust wrapper of a slim volume published in 1946, Keats, Shelley and Rome, An Illustrated Miscellany, compiled by Neville Rogers. It's a collection of essays (and a poem) about the two poets and the house that memorialises them and in which one of them died – the Keats-Shelley Memorial that overlooks the Spanish Steps and the Piazza di Spagna in Rome.
 What gives the book its special flavour is the time in which it was written, in the immediate aftermath of the war in which the Eternal City had suffered under both Mussolini and Hitler (and from the activities of partisans). The house on the Spanish Steps had been lucky to survive largely unscathed – and especially lucky in having a formidable Italian woman, Vera Signorelli Cacciatore, as its fiercely protective Curator. The book includes the Signora's vivid eye-witness account of the long-awaited June day in 1944 when the Allied troops finally arrived, so worn out that they immediately lay down to sleep:
'Within five minutes of the order to halt the Piazza was covered with recumbent figures. There in the moonlight slept the soldiers: on the pavements, in the dried-up fountain, on the Scalinata of Santa Trinita dei Monti, propped against the obelisk; pillowed on a haversack, a kerbstone, a doorstep or a comrade...'
 These memories – and the related sense of the perilous fragility of civilisation – were still fresh when this little book was published. The first essay is a New York Times correspondent's (A.C. Sedgwick) account of his arrival in Rome with the Allied troops on the day of liberation. With an English Major, he made his way straight to the Keats-Shelley House, climbed the stairs, and was welcomed by Signora Cacciatore. He and the Major were her first welcome visitors in four years.
'There, intact,' writes Sedgwick, 'were various objects all familiar.... There was the smell – more of England than of Italy, or so one thinks – of leather bindings that bewitched Henry James. There was quiet, peace, pause in our lives in which to think, reflect and be thankful that such a haven had been spared, it would appear, by a miracle. Outside – it seemed very far away – we heard the clatter of our mechanised cavalry.'
  Keats, Shelley and Rome is dedicated 'To Young Englishmen who Died in Italy'.


  1. Very evocative. In our neck of the woods the Keats-Shelley Society have a plaque on the Old Mill in Bedhampton. Keats is reckoned to have finished 'The Eve of St Agnes' here and, later, spent his last night on British soil in 1820 on the way to Rome. His ship, come from London, docked in Portsmouth Harbour for supplies enabling him to make the journey to stay in John Snook's house (he was brother-in-law of Charles Wentworth Dilke, Keats' friend). The Old Mill, which was haunted by kingfishers on my last visit, is now a place where one can stay the night (with up to 14 others) for a price.

  2. Interesting - I didn't know about Bedhampton.
    Our local Keats landmark is the Burford Bridge hotel at Box Hill, where he stayed while he was writing Endymion. He was very taken with the hill...

  3. This time in Italy/Rome and thereabouts - including the year after the cessation of hostilities in Europe - is also rather evocatively written up by Spike Milligan in his memoirs. He doesn't say much about Keats, but he has some funny passages about his attempts to avoid Gracie Fields.

  4. Ah Gracie Fields - a voice to flee from, if ever there was one...