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  • Stephen Altman


I'm embarrassed, I must say, to have forgotten any mention of cats in a story set, in large part, in the Non-Catholic Cemetery and on the streets of Rome. Rome's got cats galore. There are an estimated 120,000 free-roaming Roman felines. Here in the States some people might think of them as mere alley cats. But in Rome, cats are beloved. They are legally protected and have rights to live where they feel like it. Good for Rome. I am a fan of cats.

Rome's even got designated cat sanctuaries--they call them colonies--where felines can wander in and live the life of leisure, generally under the benign and watchful eye of gattare, or cat ladies. Rome's most famous cat colony, in the heart of the city at Largo Argentina, is on the site where Julius Caesar was assassinated. (Only in Rome, right?) Maybe the next most famous colony is at the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, a Roman magistrate who, a bit more than 2,000 years ago, had a 120-foot-tall pyramid erected to himself to serve as his final resting place. Turned out that pyramid made quite a backdrop for the final resting place of the poet John Keats. The oldest part of the cemetery, the part where Keats was buried 200 years ago, lies virtually in the shadow of the pyramid.

Today the old Roman magistrate's empty tomb gleams in the sun. On the site opposite the cemetery, cars and motorbikes roar past. Its immediate grounds are home to a cat colony, complete with kind-hearted gattare and other volunteers. Meanwhile the feline residents, when they're so inclined, wander over to the cemetery where the remains of John Keats and some 4,500 other humans are interred. Spend time there, as I have, and you'll find yourself snapping cell-phone pictures of cats on tombstones, cats on vaults, cats on the statuary. You won't have to wait very long till one shows up.

So it's Keats and cats, so to speak. As it happens, the poet himself--very much alive in early 1818 and only 22--wrote a mock-heroic sonnet to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds' mother's dozing old tomcat. Here you go:

Cat! who hast pass'd thy grand climacteric,

How many mice and rats hast in thy days

Destroy'd? - How many tit bits stolen? Gaze

With those bright languid segments green, and prick

Those velvet ears - but pr'ythee do not stick

Thy latent talons in me - and upraise

Thy gentle mew - and tell me all thy frays

Of fish and mice, and rats and tender chick.

Nay, look not down, nor lick thy dainty wrists -

For all the wheezy asthma, - and for all

Thy tail's tip is nick'd off - and though the fists

Of many a maid have given thee many a mail,

Still is that fur as soft as when the lists

In youth thou enter'dst on glass bottled wall.


The image above is one of the innumerable snapshots I've taken of felines living the good life in and around the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome. This one dates from the fall of 2012.

And here is a (mercifully brief) analysis of "Sonnet to Mrs. Reynolds' Cat," which might be useful if you're reading or teaching the poem.

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