2001 January/Bishop Williamson

Dear Friends and Benefactors,

In a spare day after the Society’s official pilgrimage to Rome in August, I made a personal pilgrimage to two sites in Rome, the first of which probably and the second of which almost certainly no other of our pilgrims visited: the grave of the English poet John Keats in the Protestant Cemetery, and the church of San Paolo alla Regola in the Arenula. Keats they will hardly have visited because he is not a Catholic poet, San Paolo alla Regola because it is closed to the public for repairs, but the two sites fit together like lock and key!

John Keats (1796-1821) is a famous figure in English Literature. A handful of his best-known poems are to be found in almost any collection of poetry in the English language: “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer”, “When I have fears that I may cease to be”, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, “Ode to the Nightingale”, “Ode to Autumn”, etc.. He belongs to the Romantic period of English literature, so much so that more than anyone else he incarnates what the word “poet” has come to mean to most of us: an imaginative young man, not altogether masculine, finding beautiful language with which to put on paper his sensitive dreams.

Such poetry is in our times on the one hand so despised that if newspapers quote it, they will print it out as though it is prose for fear of alienating readers by anything so effete as “poetry”. On the other hand such “poets” reign supreme in the world of greeting cards which get sent on all sentimental occasions. As Oscar Wilde said, “Sentimentality is the bank-holiday of cynicism”.

Keats contributed towards this disintegration of modern man. He came to Rome with a friend in November of 1820 in the hope that the warm climate would alleviate the tuberculosis ravaging his lungs. It was too late. After four months of distant exile and severe pain, he died in March of 1821 at the early age of 25, in rooms overlooking the Piazza di Spagna which have also become a pilgrimage center for lovers of English literature.

He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery just inside Rome’s old city walls, in the shadow of the pyramid of Caius Cestius. He lies in the far corner of a welt-kept lawn scattered with the gravestones of other distinguished or famous non-Catholics who died in Rome. Amidst shady trees in the warmth of a sunlit August morning one would have thought anybody there could lie in peace, but then one comes to the gravestone of the famous poet. The inscription concludes with the one sentence Keats himself had wanted to be engraved there: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”!

What had happened? In fact, the great Romantic had lived in virtual despair for many months before he died. At some point after he left school and had become a medical student in London and, showing promise as a poet, had begun to mix in a group of the capital city’s artistic intellectuals, he picked up liberal ideas and turned his back resolutely on Christianity. During his last illness he admired and envied the Christian faith enabling his artistic friend Severn to watch over him faithfully, but Keats could not or would not believe in like manner.

In his short life, he had come to stake everything on human feelings of beauty. In a letter to a friend in 1819 he wrote the charter of Romantics: “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination – what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth”. To his brothers: “O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts”. His “Ode to a Grecian Urn” concludes with the famous lines: –

Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

So when the full ugliness of slow death by tuberculosis struck, Keats had none of what worldly people called “the consolations of religion”, he had only feelings, the darkest of feelings, left to him.

In fact Keats had envisaged literature as a kind of substitute religion, with poets like himself serving as substitute priests to bring happiness to mankind. And it is surely because his best poetry expresses the quasi-religious longings of the human heart without religion that he is like the incarnate poet for our apostate age. Here is a famous sonnet of Keats, meditating on death (it goes well on retreats!): –

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books in charact’ry
Hold like rich garners the full-ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love! – then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

The first eight lines present the tension between human Fame and Death: will the young poet live to unlock all the treasures in his heart? And given the beauty of his words, we need not doubt the treasures were there. In the next four lines is the tension between human Love and Death: the brief glimpse of a “fair creature” makes his heart resonate with the love that might be. But then – last two lines – what do all of Fame and Love mean when they can be cut down by Death? The heart says there must be a meaning – but there is none in sight. The heart lifts – and falls back. The heart longs with a longing as deep as the sea – but it is left with its longing.

The truth in Romanticism is the lift and the longing. The falsehood is the lack of corresponding object. Like Keats, not finding the answer or else refusing it, his many followers lifted and longed less and less, until the post-Romantics had nothing better to do than wallow in the mud and finally blow their brains out. Severn had had to persuade Keats several months before his death not to take his own life by a drug overdose, in those days, of laudanum.

From Rome’s Protestant Cemetery to the unknown Church of San Paolo alla Regola is a brief taxi-ride into what used to be the Jewish Quarter of Rome by the bend in the river Tiber where it turns south-east. Rome’s Synagogue is still near-by. The church, going back to the earliest times, was built on the very spot where St. Paul spent his first imprisonment in Rome, from perhaps 61 to 63 AD (Acts XXVIII, 30,31). From here it was that for at least two years under house arrest, by example and by instruction of Rome’s Catholics, he helped Peter to build the vital new church at the heart of the great empire. Here it was that he wrote what are known as the four Epistles of the Captivity, in each of which he refers to his imprisonment: Ephesians (III,1), Philippians (I, 13,14), Colossians (IV,3), Philemon (1). Are there any other books of the Bible of which we know the exact location where they were written?

In any other city than Rome such a place would be an outstanding shrine, but in Rome and in Roman guide¬≠books it is overshadowed by dozens of shrines and sanctuaries more outstanding still. The result is that the church of San Paolo alla Regola fell into disuse and material decay, which the State is now slowly paying to restore (materially). I could only gain entrance by ringing at a side-door through which a Peruvian Brother of a small congregation kindly let me in. The main church is chock-full of builders’ rubbish and materials. The side chapel on the exact site of St. Paul’s house – captivity is choked with scaffolding and planks and builders’ dust!

To think that from this place of ruination flashed forth a Prince of the Apostles, and Epistles of his which have built the Roman Catholic Church ever since! Here was penned the answer to poor John Keats: –

St. Paul has all the lift of Keats: “Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth”, but the lift is not adrift with feelings, it is anchored in Christ, “for you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. III. 2-4). There is all the longing of Keats: “To live is Christ, to die is again… and what I shall choose I know not”, but St. Paul’s yearning to live is anchored in serving Christians, his yearning to die is anchored in Christ, “having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, a thing by far the better” (Phil. I, 21-23).

In St. Paul there is any amount of the “heart’s affections” and their “holiness”: “For the rest, brethren, whatsoever things are true …just… holy… lovely …think on these things”, yet all these things that are not Christ St. Paul would let go “for the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but dung, that I may gain Christ” (Phil. IV, 8; III, 8).

So Fame and Love are nothing to St. Paul, except in Christ, but Christ he can reach once and for all only through Death, therefore Death is no longer the problem that cuts down all Fame and Love, as for Keats, on the contrary, it is the only gateway to true life and infinite love. Christ Himself: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? (I Cor. XV, 54, 55).

Keats staked all on the human heart’s affections, But all they told him at the end was that his name was writ in water. St. Paul staked all on Christ, and at the end of his life he knew on the contrary that the just Lord would render him a crown of justice, however, “not only to me, but to them also that love his coming” (II Tim. IV, 8).

Should then Catholics renounce literature and the arts, and all their pomps and all their works? Not at all. Firstly, if pagan or non-Catholic artists or poets are famous, it is because of gifts of imagination, or affection, or expression, all of which come from God and all of which by being rightfully imitated can be made to serve Him – St. Jerome, translator of the Latin Bible, was soaked in Cicero. For, secondly, a stairway built downwards can always be climbed upwards. If the audio-tapes on not necessarily Catholic literature of, for instance, a Dr. David White, are so popular with traditional Catholics, is it not because they use even non-Catholic materials to build a firm bridge from our non-Catholic world back to the Faith? For these tapes (wonderful Christmas presents) call (816) 531-2448.

Remember still the men’s Catholic Family Conference being held here from December 26 to 31, which promises to be interesting – a Catholic line on social problems. And the Seminary has available as usual Christmas cards (same as last year) which for a token donation to the Seminary can be sent to friends with the promise that their intentions will be included in a Novena of Masses to be said at the Seminary for nine days starting on Christmas Day.

And let us pray in what remains of November for all the souls in Purgatory, poor by their suffering yet rich in salvation and in power to pray for ourselves.

Sincerely yours in Christ,