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At Shelley’s Grave: The Ineffable Calico Cat at il Cimitero Straniero

“I’ll send for you.”

So I said, most impractically, to the obliging calico cat with yellow eyes, as we turned to depart the old Protestant Cemetery, that walled oasis of green quietude in the midst of hurried, cacophonous Rome. She had materialized, Ariel-like, just as we were running short of time to find Shelley’s grave, having somehow gotten lost amidst the crowded maze of old gravestones near the ancient pyramid of Cestius. Presto, the calico, presented herself as our spontaneous mascot and guide.

“Take us to Shelley’s grave,” I said half jokingly to our newfound feline friend. Momentarily, we saw it, Shelley’s famous gravestone.

It’s no surprise to meet a cat, calico or otherwise, in the Protestant Cemetery, as English speakers call this place. Countless cats live on the grounds of the quaint burial ground known to Italians as il Cimitero Acattolico (the cemetery for non-Catholics) or il Cimitero Straniero (the cemetery for foreigners). You can’t help noticing them even if you just stroll around the outside walls of the place, peering through chinks and crannies, possibly having failed to arrive on the right day or the right time to enter the grounds–these designations being subject to change.

Cats scamper furtively along the stone walls; they doze in nooks, lounge on benches, drape themselves over gravestones. Many are skittish of strangers, but some are sociable, even gregarious. The cats are part of the aura of the place. The staff feed them, using money contributed by sympathetic cemetery visitors. But then, cats are part of the aura of many places in Italy, though not often in such numbers as at the Protestant Cemetery.

Cats consoled us even when we found ourselves shut out of the cemetery, as happened on our first two attempts to visit. Like many others before us, we particularly wanted to visit the graves of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Both died tragically young in Italy–Keats before his 25th birthday, Shelley before his 30th. In poetry and in death, their stories are linked.

Keats, sick with tuberculosis, sailed to Italy in the fall of 1820, persuaded by friends to seek recovery of his health in a warmer clime. With him sailed the young artist Joseph Severn, who faithfully cared for Keats to the end. Shelley, already self-exiled in Italy, had invited Keats to visit him in Pisa, but Keats was too ill for such a visit. He replied to Shelley, saying he would be setting off for Italy “like a soldier marches up to a battery.” After an arduous journey, including two weeks’ quarantine on shipboard in the Bay of Naples, Keats and Severn made their way to Rome.

Shelley was in Italy not because of his health, although he too may have been infected with tuberculosis, but because he was generally not welcome in England. He had stirred scandal with his radical politics, his disdain of convention, and his views on free love. Then, in 1814 at age 22, he left his legal wife, Harriet Westbrook Shelley, and their two children in order to elope with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, his new soulmate. The daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, both well-known political-literary figures, Mary was 16 when she and Shelley eloped; at 18, she wrote Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus.

On one of the days we meant to visit the cemetery grounds but didn’t, my husband and I returned to the Keats-Shelley Memorial House at 26 Piazza di Spagna, where a gray cat named Cosimo presided in the entry hall. We had been to the museum house on a trip to Rome several years before, but were drawn there again. Keats died in this town house in February 1821, his health too far gone to be restored by a sojourn in Italy. The house is immediately adjacent to the Spanish Steps, a few minutes’ walk from our hotel on Via Sistina. The small corner room upstairs where Keats died overlooks the famous steps and the small fountain called La Barcaccia (old barge) in the piazza. Nowadays, in good weather, the steps and the fountain are a crowded hangout for young people; the outside atmosphere is a festive joie de vivre–a poignant contrast to the memorabilia-filled little room where Keats died.

There was little to comfort Keats as he lay dying here at age 25, never again to see England or his fiancee Fanny Brawn, though it is pleasant to imagine the burbling of the fountain having some soothing effect. One thing that did comfort Keats near the end was Severn’s description of the lovely resting spot he had found for him near the pyramid of Cestius. Years later, Severn, too, would be buried in the Protestant Cemetery, alongside Keats and Severn’s young son.

A fortnight before taking the train to Rome, on a Shelleyan exploration, we had spent two days and nights in Porto Venere, which sits north of Livorno (or Leghorn, as known to English speakers) on the Ligurian coast. Like the Piazza di Spagna district in Rome, Leghorn and the Ligurian coast became a favorite haunt of British expatriates in the 19th Century. The Shelleys and their circle, including poets George Gordon and Lord Byron, spent time there. In Porto Venere, our hotel room fronted the Bay of Lerici, also known as the “Bay of Poets,” in part because Byron swam across it, to the great amazement of locals.

But Shelley, unlike Byron, was no swimmer. He drowned in the Bay of Lerici in July 1822, a sudden tempest having swamped the boat he was sharing with his friend Edward Williams and a young English sailor en route from Leghorn to La Spezia. In Shelley’s pocket when his body was found several days later was a sodden copy of the poetry of Keats, as seems only fitting. On Keats’ death the previous year, Shelley had written Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats.

Before dawn on the day of our scheduled departure from Porto Venere, we experienced an extraordinary electrical storm. Loud thunder jolted us from sleep. Still groggy, we peered out our windows to see gothic fireworks lighting up the sky behind the town of Lerici across the bay. These coastal storms seemed to come out of nowhere, as was said of the storm that took Shelley down.

Days after Shelley’s shipwreck, on the beach near the town of Lerici, his remains were cremated in a bonfire–except for his heart, which is said to have resisted burning. It was retrieved from the fire, and given it to his widow, Mary. She kept it pressed flat in her late husband’s copy of Adonais until her own death in 1851.

Shelley’s ashes went to the British Embassy in Rome, then after considerable delay were interred at the Protestant Cemetery. Not everyone, Shelley included, who came to rest in this quaint urban oasis fits the category of “Protestant.” The term can scarcely be stretched to describe Shelley’s unorthodox spiritual bent, though certainly he did protest passionately against the many injustices he saw in the world.

In Rome, on the sunny Sunday October morning when we first set off for the Protestant Cemetery (the Pyramid stop on the Underground), our trip was cut short when a pickpocket managed to make off with my husband’s wallet. It happened just as the doors to the train we boarded were closing; we immediately changed our destination to the American Express office, and then recharted our day. For our second trip the following Tuesday, we decided to play it safe and hire a taxi, but, alas, on arriving at the cemetery, we found the gates locked, even though a schedule indicated they would be open. Not until our third try, again by taxi, did we succeed in entering the cemetery the next day, our last day in Rome. This time, we rang the bell outside the gates before saying goodbye to our taxi driver. We had little time to spend because we had a train to Naples to catch early in the afternoon.

We quickly found Keats’ grave. Someone had recently left roses on the gravesite, and several visitors reposed on benches close by. There was the famous headstone. Severn could not bring himself to follow Keats’ instructions for the inscription on his gravestone. Thinking he would die in obscurity, Keats had asked that it read simply, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” a phrase borrowed from Beaumont and Fletcher’s Renaissance play, Philaster. Instead, the inscription reads as quoted below; as is well known, the mentioned “enemies” referred to contemporary literary critics who reviewed Keats’ poems unfavorably.

This Grave contains all that was mortal, of a Young English Poet, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone: Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.

Cats are said to sleep nightly on the graves of Keats and Severn, and several cats sprawled nearby.

Many human visitors have lingered here, including Henry James and Oscar Wilde. Wilde called Keats’ gravesite “the holiest place in Rome” and prostrated himself on the grass. We longed to linger too, but our time was running short.

And so we set out to find Shelley’s grave, but soon found we were lost. That’s when the calico cat appeared, just as we had begun to despair of ever finding Shelley’s grave in the time we had left. When I said, “take us to Shelley’s grave,” she made a few leaps and bounds and landed on a stone that read:

PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY
COR CORDIUM

Cor cordium, heart of hearts. And below the birth and death dates (1792-1822), this Shakespearean quote from The Tempest:

Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

The words are from a song sung by Ariel, characterized as “an airy spirit” in the play’s list of roles–a favorite character of Shelley’s in one of his favorite works. Shelley’s death by drowning in a tempest makes them doubly poignant.

Having led us to the spot, the calico cat seemed to keep watch over Shelley’s gravestone–so much so that to photograph the inscription, we had to lift her from it.

Some demon of attachment must have possessed me to say, “I’ll send for you,” half-facetiously but half seriously, to this vagabond calico in Rome, a city that is famously overrun with street cats. They have other haunts besides the Protestant Cemetery, including the Coliseum (where tourists are told they are descended from the Christian-eating lions). And yet I can’t deny having a momentary fantasy of adopting this cemetery cat who had temporarily adopted us. Possibly the impulse had something to do with the fresh loss of our ailing 13-year old cat, an eccentric Himalayan. Several weeks earlier, we had ritualistically scattered her ashes on the Virginia hillside where she once loved to prowl.

Of course, I never did send for that calico with yellow eyes. How could I possibly send across the Atlantic for a cat without any name that we knew of, among the countless felines dwelling there? That is not to say she didn’t have a name. As a fan of Keats and cats, T.S. Eliot, alias Old Possum, once said, a cat properly has three names, at least one of which is beyond human ken–

His ineffable effable
Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

Anyway, the calico belonged to the Cemetery. Or maybe she belonged to Shelley in some sense. I like to think she was an incarnation of “the Spirit of the spot,” as Shelley wrote in Adonais scarcely more than a year before his own death at the age of 29. “Go thou to Rome,” Shelley urged the mourners of Keats, and see for yourself . . .

Pass, till the Spirit of the spot shall lead
Thy footsteps to a slope of green access
Where, like an infant’s smile, over the dead,
A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread.

And then we left to catch the train to Naples.

The years passed. We moved from the East to the West Coast, taking along another Himalayan cat we adopted as a kitten on returning from Italy; we gave her an Italian name, Chiara. To decorate our house in Portland, Oregon, I sorted through strips of negatives and ordered enlargements of selected photographs from our Italian travels. By some mixup, when I returned to pick up the enlargements, they included one I didn’t specifically order: a picture of the calico cat from the cemetery, with her unmistakable yellow eyes. They seemed to say, “Remember what you promised? You didn’t send for me, but here I am anyway.”

Of course, I remember.

And what can be said of the calico cat’s second coming? Am I surprised that her image materialized without my sending for it? Not entirely.

Say what you will, but I’m inclined to believe cats are privy to a great many secrets of the world. When they purr for no apparent reason, they’re likely meditating on those very secrets. Or, as Eliot said, they’re “engaged in a rapt contemplation” on their “Deep and inscrutable singular Name.” It’s all the same thing, really. If you’re skeptical, maybe you haven’t noticed how “meow,” pronounced backwards, sounds like “om.” And what is “om” (or “aum”) but the reverberating energy of the universe, both immanent and transcendent, the unphysical “sound” represented in ancient Hindu tradition as AUM. As described in the Upanishads, it is sometimes “heard” by the sages deep in meditation, as a reverberation in the mind. It is, you might say, the mystical ur-sound of the cosmos.

Shelley knew the sound, and in a late poem written in Italy, “To a Lady, With a Guitar,” in which he speaks in the voice of Ariel, he refers to “That seldom-heard mysterious sound . . . Our world enkindles on its way.” It is a sound, as the yogis say, which can only be heard at the level of the heart.