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by Ian Reynolds

John Keats died in Rome on February 23rd 1821 and is buried at the Cemitero Acattolico, what was then called Protestant Cemetery, and his gravestone was erected in the spring of 1823. In my previous post, Romancing the Stone, I discussed what Keats wanted in respect of an epitaph, and considered if his alleged dying wishes, as recorded by his friend and carer Joseph Severn, were duly fulfilled. In this post I look at the now-famous inscription ‘Writ in Water’. This was not a well-known phrase in the nineteenth century until it made an appearance on John Keats’s gravestone:

‘Here Lies One Whose Name was writ in Water’

This discussion looks at the evidence on how the epitaph came into being, its origins, and its possible meaning.

Keats himself never wrote it down or recorded it. In his final days, in the room where he lay at 26 Piazza de Spagna, he did have visitors: his physician Dr James Clark, who resided just across the Piazza, was said to have visited Keats up to four or five times a day; an English nurse was in attendance, and others visited towards the end. We rely solely on Severn’s word that this is what Keats wanted. Some days before Keats’s death Severn recorded ‘Writ in Water’ in a long journal letter to Keats’s friend Charles Armitage Brown:

Feb 14th — Little or no change has taken place, accepting this beautiful one, that his mind is growing to great quietness and peace. I find this change has to do with the increasing weakness of his body, but to me it seems like a delightful sleep; I have been beating about in the tempest of his mind so long. Tonight he has talked very much, but so cosily, that he fell at last into a pleasant sleep. He seems to have happy dreams. This will bring on some change — it cannot be worse — it may be better. Among the many things he has requested of me to-night, this is the principal — that on his grave-stone shall be this inscription:

‘HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER.’

You will understand this so well that I need not say a word about it.

Brown did reply to Severn’s letter but did not elucidate what it was that he was alleged to understand so well about the inscription, so this remains a mystery. Severn’s original letter does not now exist and is presumed lost, though transcripts of the letter were made by Brown and others. Before departing for a new life in New Zealand in 1841, Brown passed his notes, including a transcript of the letter, to Richard Monckton Milnes for his Life, Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats published in 1848, and later the letter was included in William Sharp’s The Life and Letters of Joseph Severn (1892). It is subsequently referred to in many biographies of Keats, including Brown’s own Life of Keats published in 1937, and in H. E. Rollins’s The Keats Circle (1948), et al. There are certain differences in these versions, caused possibly by transcription errors, but ‘Writ in Water’, as an epitaph, remains consistent throughout all variants of the letter save for upper or lower case text. If we assume that Severn correctly interpreted Keats’s request for the epitaph there can be little doubt of its provenance.

Before going on to discuss the epitaph’s possible meaning it might be of benefit to look at possible sources of ‘Writ in Water’. It was not an expression used widely in the nineteenth century, but with Keats’s death the phrase took on a new lease of life, with many regarding it as synonymous with the poet’s death. The phrase—literally meaning written in water—was much more prevalent in literature of the sixteenth and seventeen centuries, while Latin and Greek versions of it date back to antiquity. It is a proverb—perhaps the diametrical opposite to ‘carved in stone’, which suggests permanence, versus ‘Writ in Water’ suggesting impermanence, or matters of a transient nature. Depending on the context, the expression can also be used so that words written or spoken in water are meaningless, or have no value: “You should write the oaths of wicked men in water” (Sophocles (496-466 BCE). Gaius Valerius Catullus (84-54 BCE), the Roman poet, probably borrowed from Sophocles. In a fragment, he writes: “but what a woman says to her desirous lover it is best to write it in the wind and in swiftly flowing water “. The suggestion here is of transience, fleeting moments and the inability of words to substantiate commitments.

Erasmus of Rotterdam, by Hans Holbein the Younger, National Gallery

In 1500, the polymath Erasmus (1469-1536), published his magnum opus Adagia, an annotated collection of Greek and Latin proverbs ,which included ‘In aqua scribes’. Erasmus interpreted this as ‘you write on water’. He quotes an example from the Greek satirist Lucian: “Are you joking, Charon, or as they say, writing on water?”  A more modern take on the same idea is that a cheque, agreement, promise or undertaking written with water is worthless. Erasmus’s Adagia ran to many editions and the proverb was subsequently widely circulated in English Renaissance writing.

Examples of usage from the period include the dramatist George Chapman (1559-1634): “Words writ on water have more lasting essence than our determinations (Revenge for Honour). Interestingly, Chapman was highly revered by Keats. The sonnet, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ was written after he and his friend and mentor Charles Cowden Clarke had stayed up all night reading Chapman’s translation of Homer. However, ‘Writ in Water’ does not feature in that poem. The phrase was also used by Francis Bacon (1561-1626): “Who then to frail mortality shall trust/But limns the water, or but writes in dust” (‘Poem on Life’); and John Donne (1572-1631): “Are vows so cheap with women, or the matter/Whereof they’re made, that they are writ in water/And blown away with wind?” (Elegy XVI).

Many critics have suggested that Keats’s most likely source for the phrase is Beaumont and Fletcher’s 1620 tragicomedy Philaster or Love lies a bleeding. In Act V, scene 3 the King has sentenced Philaster and his daughter Arethusa to death. Philaster pleads with the King to save Arethusa: “As you are living; all your better deeds shall be in water writ, but this in marble.”Likewise in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII , a collaboration with John Fletcher first performed in 1613, we have the phrase “Men’s evil manners live in brass; their virtues we write in water” (Act IV Scene 2).  Keats owned both the complete works of Shakespeare and the four-volume Dramatic Works of Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher (London, 1811) given as a present from his brother George. Philaster is found in volume II. If we assume that Keats would have read both Henry VIII and Philaster he might have recalled the expression from either of these sources, but there is no firm evidence to support this rather tenuous hypothesis. The Beaumont and Fletcher volumes remained in England when Keats left for Italy. A few months after his death Brown, as joint executor of his estate, made a list of the books that Keats owned for distribution to his friends which included these volumes.

There is also some confusion as to the Shakespeare Keats took to Italy. Biographers Andrew Motion (1997) and Nicholas Roe (2012) state that he had Shakespeare’s Works with him on the Maria Crowther, whereas both Amy Lowell (1925) and Robert Gittings (1968) have this as being a volume of Shakespeare’s Poems. Severn reports that Keats also had a few cantos of Byron’s Don Juan—perhaps not ideal reading material for a perilous sea voyage. Shortly after their arrival in Rome, Severn records that Keats purchased a copy of works by the Italian dramatist Vittorio Alfieri (1749-1803), but that he could read no further than the second page. He was allegedly extremely affected by the melancholy words in scene 1 of Filippo, when Isabella laments: “Misera me! sollievo a me non resta/ Altro che il pianto; ed il pianto è delitto” (Miserable me! relief [does not] remain for me other than crying; and crying is a crime). At the very end Severn procured copies of Holy Living and Holy Dying, works of Christian devotion by Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667). Severn states that he read to Keats from these works without much interaction or discussion.

We may never know the exact source of Keats’s ‘Writ in Water’—most probably it is derived from multiple sources. Or it may simply be that as Keats lay dying in his coffin-like room in the Piazza de Spagna, he drew some comfort from the gentle sound of Bernini’s Barcaccia fountain at the foot of the Spanish Steps, staring up at the floral scene painted on the ceiling during those long dark nights, hearing only the soothing sound of moving water from below. As for its meaning and context, my conjecture is that it is to do with ephemerality; the concept of all things being transitory, as in the transient nature of human existence—we are all just passing through on the journey of life; the perception being that some will leave an indelible mark, and others will not. Despite what Keats may have feared at the end, he did leave behind a legacy which was indeed ‘carved in stone’.

 

Acknowledgements

I was encouraged to write this discussion by Philip Shaw, Professor of Romantic Studies at the School of Arts, University of Leicester; the inspiration coming from attendance at two conferences ‘Wordsworth, Water, Writing’ and ‘After Wordsworth: Water, Writing’, in relation to Wordsworth2020—further information can be found at https://le.ac.uk/wordsworth-2020

 

 

Ian Reynolds is a retired mechanical engineer who lives in Oxfordshire. He has an 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.

 

 

 

 

References

Brown, Charles Armitage, Life of John Keats, (Oxford: OUP, 1937)

Doyle, Charles Clay, ““In Aqua Scribere”: The Evolution of a Current Proverb.” In What Goes Around Comes Around, edited by Lau Kimberly J, Tokofsky Peter, and Winick Stephen, University Press of Colorado, (2004)

Lowell, Amy, John Keats, 2 Vols. (London: Jonathan Cape, 1925)

Motion, Andrew, Keats (London: Faber and Faber, 1997)

Milnes, Richard M, Life, Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats (London: Edward Moxon, 1848)

Roe, Nicholas, John Keats: A New Life (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012)

Rollins, Hyder E, The Keats Circle: Letters and Papers, and More Letters and Poems of the Keats Circle (Cambridge MA: HUP, 2nd Ed 1965)

Sharp, William, The Life and Letters of Joseph Severn, (London: Sampson Low, Marston and Co, 1892)

3 Comments

  • David Teems says:

    Thank you for this piece. Well done. If anything, poets are peculiar about their words. None are wasted. Each one counts. Each one the product of an intense rigor by the poet, as well as something undefinable, known, or felt by the poet his or herself. That said, what has always bothered me about Keats’s tombstone engraving is that the dying poet was not truly granted this particular last request, and, most egregiously, by his closest friends. The preamble, written by Brown, dominates the thing, making the stone itself rather top-heavy. Perhaps it was intentional, perhaps not, but “This grave contains all that was mortal of a young English poet . . . blah blah blah” spoils the poet’s intent (or what appears to be his intent), his last attempt at a lyric. Keats died not knowing he would become “John Keats,” as we have come to know him. His request was, therefore, an honest one, and from a poet, who thought and perceived like a poet, who arranged his words like a poet, even unto his own death, considering how that would live and read beyond him, a thing I am convinced a guy like Brown could never understand, adding that Keats “…died in the bitterness of his heart…” more blah blah blah. Brown got in his two pence worth, his association with greatness, and clumsily, not realizing he deflowered a beautiful epitaph—nameless, invisible, as the Poet desired, the period that was important to him. “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” is Keats’s own line, the image he cast of his departure. We are glad the tomb was marked, certainly (This is the burial place of Keats), but as a writer myself, with all the obsessions and strangeness that implies, it is painful to read the entire inscription for what it took from Keats. Keats remains a height above those who conceived it, certainly, Brown included. But it is hard to believe the ghost of Keats could rest at all with such a affront to his craft. The stone should simply read, and by a justice that was important to the poet, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Keats is (present tense intentional) beautiful. Again, thank you.

  • Parkman Howe says:

    I happened upon this website when I was searching to see if Herman Melville was familiar with John Keats. Melville was familiar with the Romantics, especially The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which he mention in Moby-Dick. But Melville also mentions “the proverbial evanescence of a thing writ in water” in Chapter 134 of Ishmael’s might book, “The Chase — Second Day.” Thank you, Mr. Reynolds, for providing more background and context for Keats’s epitaph.

  • Anthony says:

    I enjoyed this piece very much. People often misquote ‘writ in water’ as ‘writ on water’, just as some say ‘stuff that dreams are made of’ rather than ‘on’, and I wonder how far such errors are more felicitous than calamitous, as if our communal subconscious was somehow critical and corrective.

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