by Ian Reynolds
John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five on February 23rd, 1821 and is buried at the Cemitero Acattolico—the so-called Protestant Cemetery in Rome (1). Two years later, in the early spring of 1823 his gravestone with epitaph was finally laid at his burial site. (2) Much has been documented about Keats’s final days in Rome. The romantic view is that on his death bed, he declared to his friend and carer Joseph Severn, his dying wishes. These were then recorded in letters sent from Rome by Severn.
This discussion seeks to explore the evidence to determine what Keats’s declared dying wishes actually were in relation to the epitaph on his gravestone. The commonly accepted view is that he wanted the following; his name not to appear on the gravestone; and the sole inscription to read: “HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER”
The actual gravestone text reads:
“This grave contains all that was mortal, of a young English poet, who, on his death bed, in the bitterness of his heart, at the malicious power of his enemies, desired these words to be engraven on his tomb stone
“HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER.”’
Friends of Keats who were responsible for the epitaph, are principally Charles Armitage Brown (3) and Joseph Severn (4). Years later both were to admit regret for the epitaph. Severn wrote on July 13th, 1836 “…the present gravestone with its inscription is an eyesore to me and more…” (5), while Brown referred to it as “…a sort of profanation…” (6) . These belated pangs of regret help to establish the view that the epitaph was not what Keats wanted.
For the purpose of this discussion, dying wishes are defined as what is stated by the deceased and what is recorded before death. It logically follows that it is not possible to have a dying wish post-mortem (after death)—it must be made by the deceased whilst they are still living—ante-mortem (before death).
We have to look to correspondence from the period to support the common perception of what Keats’s dying wishes were. The most influential source material that many biographers and historians cite from is William Sharp, Life and Letters of Joseph Severn (7) first published in 1892 (hereafter referred to as “Sharp,1892”). Sharp wrote the biography based on “a great mass of letters, journals, reminiscences, and fragmentary records” (8) which Severn’s son Walter had provided. The biography of Severn’s long and varied life was initially planned to be in two volumes, such was the amount of information. But the publisher baulked at this and insisted that Sharp produce it in one volume only—so the book was somewhat squeezed, with voids of missing years, and a narrow focus on the Keats years either side of 1821.
The result is a sanitised version of Severn’s life—the negative played down, or airbrushed out completely, and rough non-complimentary edges smoothed. Whilst it is still an important record (in the absence of anything else) it cannot be entirely relied upon. Sharp had a habit of ‘stitching in’ to sections of the book snippets and paragraphs initially written by Severn, but edited and substantively revised by Sharp. Even for the careful reader, it is very easy to misinterpret—on one page you may have an apparently contemporaneous letter, interlaced with a much later “Recollection” or “Reminiscence” which has been extracted from a Severn memoir, edited or reassembled by Sharp to present a relevant and highly readable anecdote within the narrative. Additionally, Severn habitually added many postscripts to his letters, and it is very easy for the reader to confuse an actual postscript to a letter, with a Sharp “recollection”, based on a Severn “Reminiscence” written many years later.(9) It can become very confusing.
Much of the source material (the Severn papers) included in Sharp,1892 were presumed lost after Sharp completed his book.(10) The Sharp biography thus became the primary reference text in lieu of the original material. Amy Lowell (1925), Sheila Birkenhead (1944 & 1965), Aileen Ward (1963), Walter Jackson Bate (1963), Robert Gittings, et al, all rely heavily on Sharp,1892. The Severn papers eventually surfaced in March 1972 when they were donated to the Houghton Library at Harvard. (11)
Scholars who had access to the Severn papers began to notice discrepancies in Sharp’s interpretation of the material. As far as facts go, we have Severn’s almost contemporaneous letters—particularly those written before Keats’s death—these are relevant, as they are the only record of what Keats’s declared dying wishes were, if any. The significance of this is that Sharp developed the narrative about Keats’s last final days, by interlacing from the “great mass of letters, journals, reminiscences, and fragmentary records” provided to him in the late 1880s.
According to Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs (Ed. Grant F Scott, hereafter referred to as Scott, 2005), Severn’s memoir My Tedious Life was the main source for Sharp from which he developed the narrative for Keats final months in Rome. It was written in 1873—six years before Severn’s death and fifty-two years after Keats’s death. (12)
Consider a fact recorded about Keats’s dying wishes. In Sharp, Severn writes a long letter to Mrs Brawne (the mother of Keats’s fiancée Fanny Brawne) dated February 12th, 1821. This letter records that:
“…Among the many things he has requested to me to-night this is the principal, that on his grave shall be this “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”’ (13)
According to the Life of John Keats by Charles Armitage Brown, this letter is actually dated February 8th, 1821 and is addressed to Brown himself. Sharp confused both the date, and Brawne with Brown, but the substance of it does remain relevant, as primary source evidence—in that before death John Keats had declared that he wanted these words on his grave: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”.
There is another source of potential confusion in a letter written by Severn to William Haslam on February 22nd, 1821.(14) This is the day before Keats died. Sharp records this letter as does Scott. However, Sharp continues on from the letter and quotes “a memorable passage” from Severn’s unpublished memoirs, included a commentary presented as if contemporaneous to the Haslam letter:
“…From time to time he gave me all his directions as to what he wanted done after his death. It was in the same sad hour when he told me with greater agitation than he had shown on any other subject, to put the letter which had just come from Miss Brawne (which he was unable to bring himself to read, or even to open), with any other that should arrive too late to reach him in life, inside his winding-sheet on his heart–it was then, also, that he asked that I should see cut upon his gravestone as sole inscription, not his name,(15) but simply, ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’” (16)
Here in Sharp, we have a much later recollection by Severn, edited and enhanced by Sharp for readability, almost seamlessly stitched into the narrative.
As Keats makes no reference to “sole inscription” and “not his name” in any correspondence, the question remains as to where these ‘wishes’ emanate from. The root source can be traced to six months after Keats’s death. In August 1821, his friend and publisher John Taylor, writes to Severn: (17)
“…I find by your letter to Mr. Haslam that you have designed a tomb in the form of a Grecian altar, with a lyre, &c. This is said to be executing, I think, by some English sculptor, but you want an inscription. I can conceive none better than our poor friend’s melancholy sentiment, ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ It is very simple and affecting, and tells so much of the story that none need be told. Neither name nor date is requisite. These will be given in his life by his biographer. So, unless something else is determined on, let this line stand alone. (18) I foresee that it will be as clear an indication to posterity as the plainest, every-day inscription that one may find in Westminster Abbey…”
The aforementioned was proposed perhaps for reasons of dramatic gravitas. In Taylor’s opinion, Keats’s name was not necessary, and that “Here lies one whose name was writ on water” should be the sole inscription. Severn and Brown both picked up on this. The Taylor suggestion was to be later transmuted into a ‘dying wish’ of Keats, although it originated some six months after he had died.
To conclude, before Keats’s death we have confirmation in the Severn letter to Brown dated February 8th, 1821 that Keats wanted: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. This was the single declared dying wish of John Keats in relation to his epitaph. The idea of the “sole inscription” and “not his name” was instigated posthumously by John Taylor in his August 1821 letter to Severn, and later executed by Joseph Severn. The evidence would strongly suggest that Keats’s dying wishes (such as they were) were duly fulfilled. Keats wanted “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. He got this, and more. Everything else that appears on the gravestone epitaph was created posthumously by others—and not by John Keats.
I am indebted to Grant F Scott, Professor of English at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, for taking the time out of his busy schedule to point me in the right direction on some dates to letters and events cited in this paper. For me the most important reference source was his Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs (2005) which was a huge help and inspiration.
I am also grateful for access to Romantic Circles electronic edition. This is a scholarly resource which features New Letters from Charles Brown to Joseph Severn, Editors: Grant F Scott & Sue Brown ( 2007: Revised 2010).
I will be following this post with another on John Keats’ gravestone itself, looking particularly at the text ‘Who, on his death bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart, at the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired…’
1. John Keats is located in Tomb no. 159, Gravestone S31, (Zone A, Plot 51) of the Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners in Testaccio, Rome. For further information see http://www.cemeteryrome.it
2. No exact date. Joseph Severn to William Haslam, June 1st 1823 “I have just put up the Tomb to poor Keats—it has cost me £16” p242 ed. Scott, Grant F, Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs (2005), Aldershot/Burlington VT: Ashgate.
3. Charles Armitage Brown. Born Lambeth, London 1787, died New Zealand 1842. Met Keats 1817. Walking tour of Lake District of England, Northern part of Ireland, & Scotland with Keats in early summer 1818. Keats lodged with Brown at Wentworth Place, Hampstead from December 1818. For further information on Brown see Richardson, Joanna, Keats and his Circle, (1980), London:Cassell pp 25-27. See also Grant F Scott & Sue Brown, New Letters from Charles Brown to Joseph Severn: Character of Charles Brown 15-18; https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/brownsevern/intro.html
4. Joseph Severn. Born Hoxton, London 1793, died London 1879. Buried Rome Tomb no. 173, Gravestone S32, (Zone A, Plot 65) of the Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners. Painter and diplomat. Met Keats 1816. Travelled with Keats to Rome September 1820. See Richardson pp104-107. For character see also Scott, 2005 ‘The Eternal I’ pp 8-15 & letter 19, p149-151 & letter 48, p246 (underlined text).
5. November 26th, 1836. Sharp, William The Life and Letters of Joseph Severn, (1892), London: Sampson Low, Marston and Co: p165.
6. New letters of CAB,Letter 42 https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/brownsevern/letters/26nov1836.html
7. Sharp, 1892
8. Sharp, 1892 preface p v (opening sentence)
9. For further information with illuminating commentary on Wm Sharp’s process of writing the book see Scott, Grant F, ‘Writing Keats’s Last Days: Severn, Sharp and Romantic Biography’, Studies in Romanticism, Vol 42, No1 (Spring, 2003), pp 3-26
10. Scott, 2005 p563
11. See Harvard Library Bulletin 21 (October 1973): 449
12. Scott, 2005 p567. Note: My Tedious Life included in its entirety in Scott, 2005 pp 625-664
13. Sharp, 1892 pp 89-90 & Life of John Keats by Charles Armitage Brown (1937) Oxford: OUP pp83-88 [letter dated February 8th, 1821], and Rollins (1965, no 166, 2:91 (essentially same as Sharp, 1892 pp 89-90)
14. Sharp, 1892 pp 92-93 – see also Scott, 2005 pp 135-136
15. Bold added to “as sole inscription” & “not his name” by this author
16. Sharp, 1892 p93
17. Sharp, 1892 p107
18. Bold added by this author
Ian Reynolds is a retired mechanical engineer who lives in Oxfordshire. He has a personal interest in those associated with the Keats-Shelley Circle, and poets of the Romantic period, especially John Keats. He is unaffiliated. Ian’s other interests include reading, listening to music, particularly rock and jazz, road cycling and wine.