Not Just Adonais: Some Other Nineteenth-Century Tribute Poems for Keats

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonais certainly takes the elegiac cake when it comes to the most famous and influential of poems written to/in remembrance of Keats. But lots of other examples exist, too! As we near the bicentennial of Keats’s death, and the KLP’s virtual event featuring a collaborative reading of Adonais, let’s look at some of the other elegies for Keats.

First, a caveat: these are not all strictly elegies. In the spirit of plenitude that Keats himself so adored, we figured why not include a wide variety of poetic flowers in this gathering of tributes? Some poems elegize Keats in the elegiac mode as such; others simply concern Keats, his poetry, and his legacy in one way or another.

“Go thou to Rome”
So Shelley counsels mourners in Adonais (he even provides a description of how to find Keats’s grave next to the Pyramid of Caius Cestius). It turns out that many friends of Keats took that advice from early on, and writing a poem while at Keats’s grave became a ritual of sorts for many 19th-century poets. Here are some examples of the mini-genre:

  • Maria Lowell, “The Grave of Keats” (written March 1851, published 1853). Lowell found the spot uninspiring, and unworthy of one she esteemed as highly as she did Keats: “O Mother Earth, what hast thou brought / This tender frame that loved thee well? / Harsh grass and weeds alone are wrought / On his low grave’s uneven swell.”
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, “After a Lecture on Keats” (1853). Not only a jurist—also a fan of Keats!
  • Sarah Helen Whitman, “A Pansy from the Grave of Keats” (1859). The gathering of a flower from Keats’s grave is a common practice and an often featured trope in poems about the grave.
  • Alexander Anderson, “John Keats” (1873). Anderson also has a sonnet sequence called “In Rome,” and it features several that are about Keats’s and Shelley’s graves.
  • William Bell Scott, “On the Inscription, Keats’ Tombstone,” (1875). Scott’s poem is preceded by an image of Keats’s grave that he produced in June 1873.

William Bell Scott’s drawing of “Keats’ Grave,” from June 1873.

  • Richard Watson Gilder, “An Inscription in Rome (Piazza di Spagna),” (1873). Ok, this one isn’t about the grave, but it is of particular interest for its reference to the Keats-Shelley House several decades before that building was purchased by the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association in 1906.
  • Christopher Pearse Cranch, “At the Grave of Keats. To G. W. C.” (written 1883, first published 1885). Fascinating for both its temporal shifts (looking back at a visit to the grave nearly 40 years earlier), and for its affective bonds constructed between and among Cranch, Keats, and George William Curtis (the dedicatee). The visit to the grave in 1846 also included Cranch’s wife Elizabeth (née DeWindt—a great-granddaughter of John and Abigail Adams), but she remains conspicuously absent in the recollection.
  • Thomas Hardy, “Rome; At the Pyramid of Cestius Near the Graves of Shelley and Keats,” (1887). Hardy revises Cestius’ legacy such that the Roman tribune now owes whatever remains of his fame to the “matchless singers” now buried nearby.

One other fascinating detail about Hardy’s poem and its composition: although no flowers feature in the text, Hardy did indeed pluck some from the site when he and his wife Emma visited on 31 March 1887. Emma noted in her diary, “Gathered violets off graves of Shelley & Keats.” And her husband sent some specimens in a letter to the literary critic Edmund Gosse: “I send you a violet or two which I gathered from Keats’s [grave]—He is covered with violets in full bloom just now, & thousands of daisies stud the grass around.” That letter is now in the British Library, along with the flowers it contained, which have since been enclosed in plastic. The scrap of paper in which Hardy placed and pressed the flowers remains archived with the letter and the botanical materials, and one can trace the outline of the organic material which was transferred from the flowers to the paper by their long placement together. The violet petals are not particularly prominent any longer, but the leaves—still preserved in plastic alongside the stems from which they at some point separated—feature veins which remain strikingly distinct. These flowers—gathered from Keats’s grave over a century ago—still, still weep for Adonais.

For more examples of nineteenth-century (and later) poets writing about Keats, a good place to start is Jeffrey Robinson’s Reception and Poetics in Keats: My Ended Poet (1998). The book includes an appendix featuring a collection of poems written about Keats spanning from 1821–1994.

As our bicentennial coverage continues, the KLP will also post a list of some notable 20th- and 21st-century tribute poems written to/about Keats. So stay tuned.

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