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Thursday, 1 October 2009

Decoys (November 1820)


Traveling on their interminable stagecoach through the bleak wastelands of the Campagna, the bone-weary Englishmen saw scabrous herdsmen poking at the skulls of dead horses, starved dogs scavenging in broken-down drainage canals, and rotting body parts of bandits impaled on poles. Fetid swamp air and vapors wreathed the countryside in suffocating morning mists which suddenly gave way to a high noon of brutal, relentless sun.

The towns were malaria-infected: Keats' hacking cough echoed through a flyblown trattoria where a crone in a black shawl served them a cadaverous duck. Severn tasted shot in it; Keats contended it was a decoy. The cardinal hunting with a gun on the road to Rome -- they met him late that afternoon, just as Keats began to be unable to differentiate the objects of his vision from purely subjective phenomena -- had an owl with a mirror fastened to its breast feathers. The owl was tied to a long stick, which the red-cloaked cardinal had set up to attract passing songbirds. Seeing their own images, the birds approached, and the cardinal fired errantly at them. Severn felt pity for the owl, which had by far the best chance of being shot, and Keats a curious sense of identification.

View of the Campagna: Claude Lorrain, n.d. (British Museum, London)
Campagna landscape: Arnold Böcklin, 1857-8 (Nationalgalerie, Berlin)
Stormy Weather over the Roman Campagna: Karl Blecher, 1829 (Nationalgalerie, Berlin)

from TC: Junkets on a Sad Planet: Scenes from the Life of John Keats

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