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  • Stephen Altman

Curious about Blues for the Muse? Here Are the Opening Sonnets

BFTM is a story made of 202 sonnets. It begins in the Non-Catholic Cemetery (which used to be known as the Protestant Cemetery) in the Roman neighborhood called Testaccio. When Keats was buried there in February 1821, sheep and goats still grazed among the graves. But this is today . . .


The cemetery in Testaccio!

No sweeter place to lie when you are dead,

Though not to merely lie and rot; instead,

To live eternally where pomegranates grow,

And flowers in profusion—sun aglow

On lemon trees, cypress spires overhead.

Here Beauty’s Truth, as the poet said,

And all the marble nymphs carved long ago

Are watching still, like figures on an urn,

The graves arrayed like truffles in a box.

They sing the spirit in your bones’ debris.

Attend, and you who fear your end will learn

That it’s impossible to mourn the clock’s

Advance: It’s chiming immortality.


Immortality! Gracious! thought Tom Jerome,

That’s kinda highfalutin’ for a kid from Queens.

He wore a leather jacket and designer jeans,

And Ray-Bans for that famous Roman sun. His home

These days was Hollywood; he wore

Those Ray-Bans on the Sunset Strip at night,

A tad too old, it could be argued, for

Some comely starlet. Still, Jerome just might

Run into one who liked the whole gestalt:

The movie patter, poetry, the old-guy charm.

And if it worked for him, well, who could fault

Him his success? It surely did no harm

To her or him—or any girl and boy—

To share an evening’s fantasy, some scrap of joy.


Of course, that’s “Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips

Bidding adieu”: a scrap of sorrow from John Keats,

Who walked a winter on the Roman streets

Before the life fell from his fingertips.

Not only Joy, but Youth, Love, Life: each slips

Away. (The roll of my ex-wives completes

The list, Jerome would say.) A notion beats

The dark despair: If time, that chiseler, chips

Away our joys—indeed, leaves none intact—

Still, time makes precious, time gives savor, so

We revel in the rising ocean wave

Because it’s breaking, not despite the fact.

For this consoling thought, thought Tom Jerome, I owe

The kid, and went to tell him at his grave.


A helpful sign inside the gate advised:

Go left for Keats. But now, though near the boy,

Jerome turned right. His toiling heart apprised

Him of the burden of his strenuous joy.

He took his time, and climbed the terraced slope,

And found himself a bench on which he sat

And brooded sweetly on, but did not mope

About, his death. You wouldn’t have expected that:

He had a cemetery temperament,

The melancholy muse inside his head

That made of every moment some huge event

In this, The Life of Tom Jerome. He had no dread

Of anything but ordinariness.

And then he saw the woman in the azure dress.


Intrigued but not quite sold? I wouldn't usually plug Amazon, but if you follow this link and then click on the "Look inside" tag atop the photo of the cover, Amazon will show you the first 16 sonnets! That ought to be enough to earn us a verdict.

The snapshot is one I took of the cemetery. For a look at the older part--il parte antica--where Keats is buried, check out this past Monday's post.


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