The bells clashed on John Keats trying to still the anguish in himself by looking out of the casement on to the noonday magic of the piazza. Flower-carts blazed, their hues somehow sharpened by the bell harmonics seething from the Church of the Trinit'a dei Monti. Artist's models, men, women, children, lounged in easy grace on the steps, waiting for or resting from employment in this piazza of painters, clad in the bright raw costumes of the regions of Italy. Trying to still the anguish that had come upon him on the very second page of the volume of Alfieri. Such words did not help his condition: "Unhappy me! No solace remains but weeping, and weeping is a crime." No more Alfieri. Tasso? To go back to Tasso, poet of his boyhood, though now in the original sunlit language that foggy English blurred, would but be to be reminded that the ambition to be as great as Tasso could never now be fulfilled. He felt two slow tears, criminal, sluggishly coursing but wiped them soon. Were Severn here he would be over-sympathetic and try to insinuate in some trite Jesus consolation, but Severn was working at what he called his art in his room. So John now took from its hiding place within the pages of Tasso the manuscript sonnet (with coda) that Gulielmi, along with a literal translation, had given him. The poet's name was not to be disclosed, for the poet had abandoned his poem in hot shame, breast-beating.
The poem was in the Roman dialect, not easy to understand, but two known words leered out – cazzo and that glorious dumpendenne - like a whore's eyes from an alley, bringing to his own cazzo or dumpendebat that quickening he had always associated with the creative itch. The poem was but an obscene catalogue, a rhymed dirty glossary, ennobled (stiffened?) by the stringency of its form. But why not? He went to the table, found foolscap under the book-pile, sharpened a quill, dipped in the ferrous ink, began to paraphrase:
Here are some names, my son, we call the prick:
The chair, the yard, the nail, the kit, the cock,
The holofernes, rod, the sugar rock,
The dickory dickory dock, the liquorice stick,
The lusty Richard or the listless Dick,
The old blind man, the jump on twelve o'clock,
Mercurial finger, or the lead-fill'd sock,
The monkey, or the mule with latent kick.
He smiled at himself, finishing the octave – John Keats, lush or mawkish quite-the-little-poet. What would the Edinburgh Review say of this? Would Leigh Hunt print it in the Examiner and go to jail again on behalf of Free Speech? This will never do. He took breath and dove at the sestet:
The squib, the rocket, or the roman candle,
The dumpendebat or the shagging shad,
The love-lump or the hump or the pump-handle,
The tap of venery, the leering lad,
The handy dandy, stiff-proud or a-dandle,
But most of all our Sad Glad Bad Mad Dad.
And what to do with this – send it to brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana to read, breath of home, under the sumacs or sequoias, savage Indians who had not read Rousseau whooping warlike all around? Read it to Severn and have him run off screaming to pack his bags? The coda now, just like Milton in his Late Enforcers of Conscience if that was the right title.
And I might add
That learned pedants burning midnight tapers
Find Phallus, apt for their scholastic papers,
And one old man I know calls it Priapus.
His wife has no word for it but a sigh -
A sign that Joy has somehow past her by.
Or would "failed to satisfy" be better? Change "Joy" to "Life"? No matter. Well, could there be purer art than this well-wrought urn of elegant impurities? It was for no audience. Art at the last was between the artist and his god.
The ink dried, no need for sanding, while he read it through again. So his last poem would be no more than an obscenity, though might not obscenity be another name for homage to those primal and universal urges that Society amp; Religion, as Shelley had said once at Hunt's, clok'd through Fear? A primal urge denied all but those who could drab without shame or remorse, taking their salvatory mercury after as he had once done, following that night at Oxford best forgotten. For there had to be Love. He was ready to weep again, and then his self-pity was transformed to anger. But there on the table was his Anatomy of Melancholy, which was full of as it were comfortably tooth-sucking-after-dinner injunctions to season all with laughter. If Robert Burton were here he might read this tailed sonnet with gusto.
After dinner John went for his walk on the Pincio and found Isaac Marmaduke Elton already there under the ilexes, looking out towards the grape-hued cupola of St Peter's in the citron light. John tapped his left breast where the sonnet nested, smiled to himself, wondered whether this soldier might -
"I have a thing here," he said, "which may amuse you." But Elton, whose straight back he had addressed, turned stiffly in what John divined was a posture of distress and passed a fist rapidly over his eyes. "What is the matter? Some bad news -" The death-sentence for this soldier who had thought his lungs to be improving? Elton sighed and made a shrugging gesture he had, probably not by intention, picked up here in Rome. He said:
"Tomorrow I go to Naples, thence to sail to England. They say I am better. Much better," he repeated in bitterness.
"I am glad, though selfishly sorry as well. I shall miss our walks and talks. You don't seem very happy at being much better."
"This," Elton said, and he thrust a paper at John with a straight arm as in a drill movement. "There is still light enough for you to read. And there is not much to read."
"Her name is what? I take it to be her - I cannot quite – The signature is all cramped together."
"Augusta. Her name is Augusta. Not that it matters."
Augusta was Georgiana's other name. The letter, though, was not of the kind that Georgiana could ever write, not an intrepid girl daring the same fevers and arrows as her husband John's brother in America's wilderness. This was a spoiled young miss. "Dearest Marmaduke, you will recall how you gave me leave to regard myself as free from the obligations of our betrothal amp; how I said no I will wait for ever if need be. Mama has talked much of this amp; much prais'd your goodness amp; braveness amp; magnanimity -" Silly girl, silly uneducated miss. And so, John distractedly noticed, he was a Marmaduke after all. Probably Marmadukes received letters like this more often than Isaacs. "- I cried much but see how she is right that I am the eldest amp; have obligations to her amp; to papa amp; to Jane amp; Emma amp; Lizzy. So I accept that our engagement is at an end amp; now I am engag'd to be married to -" Some soldier or other, a fellow officer of dearest Marmaduke.
"I'm sorry," John said. The letter ended with something about loving dearest Marmaduke eternally like a brother and perhaps everything would be put right in heaven. Ever your loving.
"Accursed, accursed, they cannot be trusted, not one of them. And to think it should be him. And to receive that now -"
"The thing to do is not to let this set you back. You owe it to your health not to – I mean, to fall into a melancholy is the very worst thing -"
"I gave her everything – my heart, I promised chastity despite all a soldier's soldier's -"
"Temptations, yes, I see. We had best go to some wineshop and -"
"Drink, yes, drab, yes, for they are all nothing, they are things to be used and then flung away. I gave her everything, I gave her all my love -"
Pauline Bonaparte glided through the twilight, two servants keeping their distance behind. She was exquisite in taffetas. She turned her great eyes frankly, as before, on Elton. Elton spoke. Elton said:
"Madame, vous ne me verrez plus. Je m'en irai demain. J'ai 'et'e bless'e, oui, mortellement bless'e par une femme. Mal'edictions `a votre sexe, madame, un sexe tout `a fait maudit, madame -"
Pauline Bonaparte seemed no whit put out, maledictions on her sex being truly tributes to the power of it. But John cut into Elton's bad French with his own mongrel Romance:
"Altessa, cara principessa, mon ami est souffrant, la sua inamorata non, ne, sa fianc'ee, vous comprenez, aime un altro. Her love is dead."
"It is my love that is dead, damn her."
Pauline Bonaparte, to John's surprise but Elton's incomprehension, spoke Latin: "Alma Venus, caeli subter labentia signa quae mare navigerum, quae terras frugiferentes concelebras -" Then she waved the citation away into the twilight with a graceful snaking of her arm. She said: "Lucrezio." Then, smiling brilliantly, she swayed off, servants keeping their distance after.
"What was all that about?" said Elton. "Who's this Lucrezio?"
"Lucretius," John said. "Strange, I'd never have believed she knew Latin. That was the opening invocation to Venus in De Rerum Natura. What she was saying was that love doesn't die, not in the bigger sense. Everything grovels to Venus. She'll have you yet, Isaac Marmaduke."
"I'm leaving tomorrow, I told you I was leaving."
"Yes, yes, but she'll have you yet. Alma Venus won't leave you alone for long."
They went down the Steps in silence for a while. Then John said: "I see it, of course, I see the whole picture. Quite a little poem. The divine Pauline reclines as Venus reclining for Canova, and Canova gives her those lines to learn and repeat over and over, stop her fidgeting. That accent, I should suppose, is Corsican."
"Damn her, damn all of them, bitches."
They turned into a side-street off the piazza and went into a tavern. There were smoky oil-lamps and a few other drinkers, big-shouldered sincerely voluble Romans who stared their fill, moving their big bulks bodily the better to stare, and then resumed vivid gesture-sauced colloquies. A crone who limped brought wine.
"You know what it looks like?" Elton said. "It looks like horse-piss."
"It tastes well enough. A little acidulous. Strange how things always read better than they taste. Acorns and cheese brick-hard in Don Quixote, the wineskin cooling in the leaves – no meal more delicious in print. Wine in poetry is superior to wine in a glass. What will you do?"
"When I go back? I don't know what I will do. I loved her, you see." He had the sort of classical beauty that became inhuman when attacked by grief, a Greek facade meant only for sunlight. Gothic was best, John thought, looking at the face prepared to crumble into snivels, Gothic was built for storms. He said quickly:
"You should read Burton. Listen." And he began to recite the one paragraph of the Anatomy of Melancholy he had committed to memory. " 'Love is blind, as the saying is, Cupid's blind, and so are all his followers. Every lover admires his mistress, though she be very deformed of herself, ill-favoured, wrinkled, pimpled, pale, red, yellow, tanned, tallow-faced, have a swollen juggler's platter face, or a thin lean chitty face, have clouds in her eyes, be crooked, dry bald, goggle-eyed, blear-eyed, or with staring eyes, she looks like a squised cat, hold her head still awry, heavy, dull, hollow-eyed, black or yellow about the eyes, or squint-eyed, sparrow-mouthed, Persian hook-nosed, have a sharp fox-nose, a red nose, China flat, great nose, snub and flat nose, a nose like a promontory, gubber-tushed, rotten teeth, black, uneven, brown teeth, beetle-browed, a witch's beard, her breath stink all over the room, her nose drop winter and summer, with a Bavarian poke under her chin, sharp chin, lave-eared, with a long crane's neck which stands awry too, her dugs like two double jugs, or else no dugs, bloody-fallen fingers, she have long filthy unpared nails, scabbed hands or wrists, a tanned skin, a rotten carcass, crooked back, she stoops, is lame, splay-footed, as slender in the middle as a cow in the waist, gouty legs, her ankles hang over her shoes, her feet stink, she breed lice, a mere changeling, a very monster, an oaf imperfect, her whole complexion savours, an harsh voice, incondite gesture, vile gait, a vast virago, or an ugly tit, a slug, a fat fustilugs, a truss, a long lean rawbone, a skeleton, and to thy judgment looks like a mard in a lanthorn, whom thou couldst not fancy for a world, but hatest, loathest, and wouldst have spit in her face, or blow thy nose in her bosom, remedium amoris to another man, a dowdy, a slut, a scold, a nasty rank rammy filthy beastly quean, dishonest peradventure, obscene, base, beggarly, rude, foolish, untaught, peevish – if he love her once, he admires her for all this, he takes no notice of any such errors or imperfections of body or mind, he had rather have her than any woman in the world.' "
Even the Romans had been listening from about halfway through the catalogue, openmouthed. One old man said "Bravo" at the end. Elton goggled at Keats, his face restored to handsomeness, very vacuous.
"Why?" he said: "Why did you learn all that?"
"I like it," John said. "Besides, it's a manner of warning. Not to fall in love."
"But the whole drift is, as I see it, that love is strong and mighty and overcomes reason."
"Yes yes, I see, I know. Shakespeare was shorter with his brow of Egypt. Alma Venus works through madness." He drank. The wine took fire from the lantern on its shelf on the roughcast wall beside them. "Sour. I used Burton's book once to a very practical end. I used advice he gives for the stemming of lust. It was difficult for me at that time, you see. I was sharing a house with a man, and he was sharing his bed with the Irish maidservant. I could hear them every night and sometimes in the afternoon. And there was I in love, and desirous, and not able – Burton advised the thinning out of the diet. I took no meat, no wine. I was a very Hindoo with my mess of greens. It subdued desire and I was able to concentrate on love. What kind of a world is it that denies the goddess to us? Alma Venus, indeed, ruling all. She does not rule the way we of the middle sort must love."
Elton's face began unbecomingly to crack again. "It is not just any body, not just any breasts or buttocks or – It is hers under the muslin. Hers, hers only. Now Major Kettering will thrust in."
"Is this the Harry she speaks of?"
"I know him, I know the swine. We were at Rochester together. God curse, God damn -"
"For God's sake think of it as mere madness. Something that must be cured."
"Are you cured?"
John thought about that. "Perhaps," he said at length, "if you ate a beefsteak."
"Here? Beefsteaks here in this town? It's all veal. Their calves never reach bullockhood."
"That's good, that's well put. Here, read this. It is a translation I have done from the holy Roman." And he drew the tailed sonnet from his bosom and handed it to Elton. Elton read it with gloom as though it were a move-order back to St Helena.
"Coarse. I know all of these words for the member save that one – dumpendebat. That you made up."
"It's a holy word from a holy hymn."
"Major Kettering with his holy dumpendebat, thrusting it in. There were some of us after supper, pissing in the garden of the mess at Rochester, with the orchestra coming through very clear and the swish of the dancers, for it was our summer ball. Pissing under the stars and on the bole of the great elm that's there. One said, Captain Freebody I believe it was, there's an unholy great red rod you have on you, Harry. And Kettering says: made great with use. It all comes back to me now. God, God, surely that's where they met. And Augusta so demure in her spotted muslin ballgown, and her arms so tender and plump." Elton began to cry.
"Stop that," John said sharply. "We all have cause for it. It's not a man's way."
"Man's way." Elton stiffened. "Damn you, I'm a soldier," he cried, then drank off his wine, shuddered, poured himself all that was left in the fiasco and, before drinking again, called: "Hey grandma, more of this piss." The Romans heard that – thispis – with the respect due to an older and more authoritative tongue than their own, perhaps Greek, and tried it out (dispis) while the old woman, with a gummy garlic cackle, went to refill. "How did you get yours?" Elton asked.
"The thing we both have."
"I was nursing my brother," John said. "Tom. A mere boy. I caught it from him."
"And how did he catch it?"
"I don't know. But it can be a very catching thing, God help us."
"But not everybody catches it. The doctors don't seem to catch it. You know what I was told? I was told that all depends on the state of health of the mind of him who is exposed to it. And that if you are in love – if you are thwarted -"
"Please. Try not to think of it." The wine came. "Grazie."
"I put this as a general proposition, you understand, a general proposition." He took comfort from the words and quaffed like a soldier. "What was I saying then?"
"You were, sir, enunciating a general proposition."
"Good. The thwarting of desire, I said. His desire was thwarted. Yours also. And of course mine." He lowered his forehead almost as far as his wine-gripping hand and growled: "Desire."
"You speak better than you know," John said. "There was a fool, his name was Wells, not that it matters. No, it does. Wells of stupidity, of malice, wells of the rank stinking water of inhumanity. He convinced poor Tom that a foreign lady was madly in love with him. She did not, I may say, exist. But Tom in his fever cried out for her. I should have thrashed Wells before I left England."
"I had a corporal named Wells. He was a corrupt man and a drinker. No, his name was Willis. But it is near enough. I'll thrash this Wells for you when I reach home." Erect again, he nodded at John casually, as though he had offered to deliver a parcel. Then: "I have a confession to make."
"Make no confession to me. There's that chewing nodding priest at Trinity Church we see on the Steps. He hears confessions."
"Now you joke again and laugh at me. No, no, this is a confession that concerns only you. I lied to you, you see. I was never at St Helena. It was my cousin Jenkins that was there."
"You were very convincing."
"A lie, yes. But you lie, do you not? Is it not all lying with you? Is not your poetry a kind of lying?"
"A very Platonic way of looking at it. Fictions, yes, the making up of things, but with no intent to deceive. Coleridge says something about the willing suspension of disbelief. Your lie was charming and harmed no one. It was a kind of poetry. That was good, I thought, old Bony shouting Voltaire at you from his cabbage patch."
"Yes, I thought so too. It could have happened, could it not? I could have been posted to St Helena. In the army you are liable to be posted anywhere."
"Where were you in fact posted? When, according to your fiction, you were posted to St Helena."
"Oh, I was in Chatham. And now, naturally, you are fully within your rights not to believe that either."
"I believe. Credo. I believe any man who tells me he was at Chatham."
"Well, we must drink to it, we must sink a bumper."
"With all my heart."
Elton looked at John with a cunning kind of frowning. "You do not take me in, you know. You pretend things, but you are laughing at me all the while."
"I assure you I am not."
"To what is it that I just now proposed we drink then?"
"To Chatham, to St Helena, to the mendacious arts, to your recovery. We have forgotten your good news. You're no longer a sick man."
"Oh, I am very sick." Elton bitterly bit off the word several times to the interest of the Romans. "Seck," one of them ventured. "Aye, sick," cried Elton. "What do you common labouring louts know of the soul's sickness? I have given her everything and now she raises her petticoat for the pleasure of Major Kettering. He will pleasure her, aye." A gnarled wall-eyed huge-shouldered Roman nodded with Elton, also saying ai. "I will not have your mockery," Elton cried, "I have been mocked enough." He started to rise. John tried to hold him down, saying:
"No, man, sit. This wine is stronger than you think. Do not let the wine talk for you."
"My sword shall talk for me, damn you."
"You're wearing no sword."
"Am I not?" Elton, in surprise that seemed to contain no displeasure, tapped his swordside and looked down on it, then sat. "I must have forgotten to put it on," he said, smiling.
"But you're not in uniform, are you? You are dressed as I am."
"I am better dressed than you are, sir." Elton sped to becoming haughty and truculent drunk.
"You are a gentleman, sir, an officer, sir, and I am but a poor poet, sir."
"And a liar, sir, remember that, sir."
"It is you who are the liar, sir, and on your own admission, sir."
Elton drunk-thundered: "No man calls me a liar, sir." And then he sillily smiled. "Let us have all that again, about foul fustilugs and she is like a cow in the waist and her feet stink and so on." And then, in fine truculence, "It is a foul libel on the sex, sir."
"All of it?"
Elton simpered. "Some of it. What was all that about gubber-somethinged and a sharp fox-nose?"
"I am too weary to do it all again."
"It is true, though," pouted Elton, his eyes stern. "The nose, I mean. I had always wondered what her nose reminded me of, and it was of a fox's. Vixen's, rather. A very small vixen, though, and her nose was always very cold. A sign of health, they say." He felt his own nose. "A sign of good health, so they have always said." He started to laugh. "Blow thy nose in her bosom," he laughed. "The old rogue, whoever he was."
"You are emerging from the dark wood of sadness."
"Oh, but I'm sick, very sick. I love you, madam, but I have taken a severe cold. Permit me to blow my nose in your bosom." He laughed hard and then began to cough. He looked alarmed, coughing and not able to stop. John clapped his back, soft, hard, harder. Elton choked. He searched for his handkerchief and found it at last in his left sleeve. He spat heavily into it. He peered in the lamplight at the gob and said, "Oh no." He moaned.
"It may be the wine," John said, his heart stirred to pity and referred fear. But of course the wine was white, urine.
Elton sternly stowed the wrapped sputum in his right sleeve. "Tell no one," he ordered. "Don't tell that fool Clark."
"You must see Clark. At once."
"What will he do, the fool? Cup me, bleed me, bring in the leeches. I can rid myself of my own blood, thank you and him. I go home tomorrow, I will say nothing of it."
"You go home to winter weather. It will be a stormy cold voyage."
"I go home to Christmas, sir. To the bosom of my family and the house decked with ivy and holly. Perhaps my -"
"No snivelling, damn you." He saw with disgust and a kind of relief to be anatomised later the sickly vignettes: his last Christmas, the cosseting of wet-eyed brave parents, death at the time of the daffodils, daffodils in the sick room, the military funeral, weeping Augusta at the grave with her fox-nose red, red-yarded Major Whoeveritwas saluting. Here lies Isaac Marmaduke.