Utter this phrase to just about any English Lit major and chances are they will know whom you are talking about. So why the nebulous expression and what body of water is the author referring to?
In many literary circles water can indicate a cleansing and certainly Shakespeare's The Tempest is awash with it. Water in Genesis is a means of destroying the wicked and in Matthew as a way of remitting sins. It can also symbolize the river of life or the extinguishing of baptism by fire and re birth.
Calling it his "posthumous life" in 1820 John Keats dutifully headed to the warmer climes of sunny Italy after being diagnosed with an almost certain death sentence, tuberculosis. After declining Percy Bysshe Shelley's invitation to join him at Pisa, Keats went to Rome with his friend, the painter Joseph Severn where they lived in the Piazza of the Spanish Steps. Not far from the bottom of the steps is the Fontana della Barcaccia (1627) or "leaky old boat" created by Pietro Bernini, the son of Giovanni.
In a city famed for its fountains, this one stands out from the rest. Pope Urban VIII commissioned the Fontana della Barcaccia and even reopened an ancient aqueduct from the 17th century to provide water to the arid region. Instead of spouting grandeur with the magnificence of great crashing torrents, the streams flow with gentle murmurs. Carved in the shape of a half sunken ship with water overflowing its bows, researchers differ on what it is a tribute to. Some say that its mild mannered form was simply a necessity in a part of the city with such low water pressure, while others conjecture that it is symbolic of the Catholic Church ceaselessly afloat in the face of unfeasible odds. Another theory suggests that the fountain is a reminder that the Tiber River which frequently flooded this area of Rome. Still many like to imagine this is the where Domitian, a Roman emperor, held splendid sea battles in his great water stadium.
Keats could hear the sound of the water flowing soothingly from his deathbed and perhaps the marble carving echoed Charon's leaky boat upon the river Styx. He said it reminded him of the lines from the 17th century play Philaster Or: Love Lies A-bleeding (1611) by playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher. They often portrayed stories about the loyal devotion of both men and women to king, lover, or friend and Philaster is one of their best. The tragedy is about a Sicilian king whose kingdom was taken by the father of the woman he loves. It is a romance and tragicomedy about forgiveness. Thinking he is about to be put to death King Philaster observes:
- Sir, let me speak next,
And let my dying words be better with you
Than my dull living actions; if you aime
At the dear life of this sweet Innocent,
Y'are a Tyrant and a savage Monster;
Your memory shall be as soul behind you
As you are living, Shall be in water writ"
all your better deeds
Shall be in water writ, but this in Marble:
No Chronicle shall speak you, though your own,
But for the shame of men.
Philaster. Act v. Sc. 3.
In the fourth act Queen Katherine is being divorce from Henry VIII and discovers Cardinal Wolsey has schemed against her for political reasons. Angry, she swears him as her enemy. The Cardinal is put to death for his plans and hearing of his demise Katherine speaks out against him again and her attendant Griffith observes:
- Men's evil manners live in brass; their virtues
We write in water.
The lower class son of a livery stable owner John was apprenticed to a surgeon only to discard a medical career in pursuit of a passion for poetry. By the fall of 1816 two of his sonnets, O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell and On First Looking into Chapman's Homer were published in the Examiner, a literary magazine edited by journalist and poet Leigh Hunt. Hunt introduced Keats to an upper class circle of literary men including poet Percy Shelly Blythe. With the support of this group Keats was able to get his first volume of verse Poems by John Keats published in 1817. His thesis was a justification of Romantic poetry and it main beliefs as publicized by Hunt and the assailing of the practice of Romanticism as represented by Lord Byron.
Two years later a follow up volume by Keats was published, Endymion. It was brutally criticized by the Quarterly Review and in particular Blackwood's Magazine who called it "nonsense" recommending Keats abandon poetry altogether. One biographer writes:
- Keats's second book, the woefully ambitious Endymion (1818), was savaged by the Tory press. Blackwood's sneered: "It is a better and wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr. John." Undeterred, Keats entered a period of rapid intellectual and poetic development, beautifully charted in his remarkable and moving letters. With astonishing speed, supreme confidence, and the greatest artistic mastery, Keats wrote virtually all his major poetry between January and September of 1819.
Dying in a small room in Rome Keats realized that his accolades on the publication of the volume Lamia, Isabella would be the end of his career as a poet. Keats told Joseph Severn that he wanted no dedications on his gravestone not even his name, but simply the words: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."
After Keats death Severn deliberated on a variety of combination of Keats' words that would explain his choice was from the poet's sense of disregard by his peers. Nevertheless he kept his word for the time being and although the common sentiment towards the remembrance of Keats between English residents and visitors were for the most part considerate, there were a few insolent jeers, -"his name was writ in water"; yes, and his poetry in milk and water.' Even so his friend Shelley nobly defied Keats vague phrase in his own poem Adonais with," He lives, he wakes - 'tis Death is dead, not he."
Over the years Joseph Severn eagerly looked for any signs of growing admiration of his friend's poetry, or of change in attitude from the scoffers, but reprints of Keats's poems weren't published until nearly a decade later, "and then only by the Paris house of Galignani, who printed for the continental market, in a single tall volume with double columns, a collective edition of the poems of Shelley, Coleridge, and Keats."
Severn felt regret at agreeing to such an insignificant tombstone and after much deliberation among his group of friends that included several proposals of change Keats tombstone was carefully re-cut more than half a century later. A design of a lyre with only two strings attached was added perhaps as a symbolic metaphor for lyricists life cut tragically short. Today Keats's tombstone rests upon a green, sunny slope in the Rome's Protestant Cemetery. In addition to the lyre is the inscription:
- This Grave
contains all that was Mortal
YOUNG ENGLISH POET
on his death bed
in the Bitterness of his Heart
at the Malicious Power of his Enemies
these Words to be engraved on His Tomb Stone
"Here Lies One
Whose Name was writ in Water"
Feb 24 1821
When John Keats died it had only been a handful of years after he had begun to write and the value of his legacy was only evident to his friends. There was a deep desire to ensure that Keats' brief work became well known, and it soon attained great popularity. Not only is it a reminder to many that the poet was a victim to the malice of his enemies, but that he was also capable of forgiveness. And like Shakespeare's plays about court rivalries and the ripples they cause across time, the simple epitaph has had its own far-ranging consequences of infighting among the poetical elites because today Keats' odes are to be found in almost every anthology of English poetry.