Anthony Burgess, John Keats, and Lucretius

James S. Ruebel, CAMWS 2004

In 1977, Anthony Burgess wrote a short novel (ABBA ABBA) about the last few months of the life of John Keats. In February 1821, Keats died of “consumption” in a little room above the Spanish Steps in Rome. Burgess was also interested in the vernacular poet, Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli. In his previous book, Beard’s Roman Women, Burgess presented several poems by Belli in translation, and wrote in a main character, Paola Belli, as an obscure descendant of the poet. Belli (1791-1863) was in fact alive and in Rome at the time of Keats’ death. There is no other evidence that they met, or could have met. In ABBA ABBA, Burgess creates a fictional meeting between Keats and Belli, arranged by a mutual acquaintance. Since Keats did not know Italian, and Belli did not know English, the conversation is a failure and they interact only tangentially in the novel.

During the course of the book, however, Keats and his other friends also catch sight often of Pauline Bonaparte, sister of the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte and – since 1803 – the Principessa Borghese. In a chance street encounter, Keats is walking with his friend Isaac Marmaduke Elton and they greet the passing Pauline. She responds surprisingly, without preamble, and what seems to be randomly, by quoting Lucretius in Latin (p. 27): “alma Venus, caeli subter labentia signa, quae mare navigerum, quae terras frugiferentes concelebras –”

Recovering from their astonishment, the fictional Keats explains the reference and interprets her response for his bewildered friend thus: “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.”

Anthony Burgess, however, also knew that the Mars-Venus tableau was a popular artistic motif of the time, both direct and indirect; he also knew that Antonio Canova (1757-1822) not only sculpted Pauline Bonaparte as Venere Vindice (Venus the Conqueror), and Napoleon Bonaparte as Mars the Pacifier, but also painted a version of the Mars-Venus tableau. 

I plan to discuss ABBA ABBA and explore this complex – and interesting – series of “intertextual” references.

Some bibliography:

Antony Burgess (with an introduction by A.S. Bayatt), ABBA ABBA. Vintage Books. 2000 (1977).

John J. Stinson, Antony Burgess Revisited. Twayne Publishers. 1991

TIME REQUESTED: 15 minutes

There will be some illustrations but I will deal with these via handouts, so that no A/V equipment is required.

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