Writ in Water
February 23, 2016 | by Michelle Stacey
The enduring mystery of Keats’s last words.
Yet do I sometimes feel a languishment
For skies Italian ...
—John Keats, “Happy is England! I Could Be Content,” 1817
Among the dozens of fountains in Rome, the Trevi may be the most famous, but the Barcaccia in the Piazza di Spagna arguably has a lock on the most poignant. Commissioned in 1629, it sits at the foot of the Scalinata, or Spanish Steps, swarmed by hordes of tourists in high season. Boat shaped to commemorate the spot where, in the historic flood of 1598, the Tiber River reached its highest level and improbably deposited a river barque in the square, the Barcaccia now seems a light-hearted way station, an oasis on a hot Latin day.
But nearly two centuries ago, the fountain played a far different role for one particular admirer, a transplant from England who roomed in an apartment above the steps and listened incessantly to the murmurings of its waters. To this visitor, the Barcaccia was a temporary lifeline during a few dark winter months at the turn of 1821, as he coughed and spluttered his way to a tragically early death. That doomed young man, as devotees of English Romantic poetry know, was John Keats, and the apartment where the poet, barely twenty-five, breathed his last from tuberculosis, on February 23, 1821, is now the Keats-Shelley House, a meticulously kept museum and scholarly library founded in 1909. It’s there, in the room where Keats died, that you will find the key to a misapprehension—one could almost say a lie—about his life and death that has been promulgated, literally written in stone, since 1823.
To understand that falsehood, one must retrace Keats’s steps back to England, where he was born and lived for most of his life. There is a Keats House museum in his native land as well, in another of his former homes—in Hampstead Heath, on the north side of London—where he wrote virtually all of his greatest works, and which conveys an almost visceral sense of his life.
The front parlor contains a copy of a three-dimensional life mask of Keats’s face—a popular offshoot of portraiture in the nineteenth century—with a sign inviting PLEASE TOUCH. To do so is uncanny: feeling his sculpted cheekbones, straight nose, and generous mouth feels shockingly intimate and immediate, as if you were a blind person reading his face. A nearby bust of Keats, situated on a pedestal at his actual height, demonstrates that he stood a mere five-foot-one, a delicate man even in those smaller-boned days.
In the back parlor, two chairs have been placed in a perpendicular position, just as the poet liked to do when reading (and as he is pictured doing, in that very room, in a portrait by his friend Joseph Severn). The front yard still holds a descendant of the plum tree beneath which Keats sat listening to the song of a nightingale, a song that triggered poignant thoughts about mortality, which have enthralled readers ever since. His handwritten manuscript of “Ode to a Nightingale,” complete with words scratched out and written over, sits framed in the parlor.
Keats’s near obsession with death—“youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies”; “many a time I have been half in love with easeful death”; “now more than ever seems it rich to die”—becomes a palpable entity in this house. A cabinet displays the barbarous-looking instruments he used as a medical student, before he turned to poetry; a portrait depicts his younger brother, Tom, whom Keats nursed until he died of consumption, and from whom Keats almost surely caught the disease that would kill him as well. In the early nineteenth century, the disease killed one in three Londoners, but it was also something of a family curse: Keats had nursed his mother as she died eight years before Tom, and his older brother, George, who had emigrated to America in 1818, would die of it as well, in 1841.
Upstairs, the echoes of mortality reach a crescendo. In the back bedroom, a placard on the bed describes a night in early February 1820, a year before his death, when Keats returned home after catching a bad chill and staggered upstairs in a fit of coughing. A few minutes later, he called to his housemate Charles Brown to bring him a candle, and used it to illuminate a stain on the sheets: blood he had coughed up. “I know the colour of that blood,” Keats said to him. “It is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that colour—that drop of blood is my death warrant—I must die.” In the hallway outside the bedroom, a copy of Keats’s life mask sits beside one of his death mask, and the difference is stark. By 1821, his face had narrowed, his cheeks sunk; he had withered away as his lungs corroded.
There’s no doubt that Keats foresaw his death with brutal clarity. The question that begins in the London Keats House and continues in Rome—both at the Keats-Shelley House and at Keats’s gravesite—is how exactly he felt about that. Surely heartbroken, frightened, frustrated, despairing. But the words that he asked his friends to have carved into his gravestone—only these words, not his name—conjure an enigma: “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”
Is this epitaph an angry protest against the unfairness of a fate that appeared to have deprived him of a chance of immortality, or an almost zen-like statement of resignation and of the impermanence of all existence? In support of the former, friends told of Keats’s fears, long before he became ill, that he would die young, before he’d had time to construct a great poetic legacy. One of his best-known sonnets begins: “When I have fears that I may cease to be / Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain, / Before high-piled books, in charactery, / Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain … ” The fear is specific; it is not simply a dread of dying, but an artist’s dread of dying without achieving his creative destiny. But Keats also famously wrote to his brother George in an 1818 letter, “I think I shall be among the English poets after my death.” And that statement came just a few months after scathing reviews appeared of his first epic poem, “Endymion.”
There are further clues to Keats’s philosophy in other letters late in his life. He wrote to George of his belief that man’s time on earth is a “vale of soul-making” in which “souls are schooled in ‘a world of pains and troubles,’ ” evoking (consciously or not) the Buddhist concepts of karma and reincarnation, in which the soul gains wisdom as it passes through the trials of consecutive “lives.” To a friend, James Rice, he echoed Buddhist ideas about impermanence, writing from his sofa in 1820, “How astonishingly does the chance of leaving the world impress a sense of its natural beauties on us … I muse with the greatest affection on every flower I have known from my infancy … ”
As Keats grew sicker, his psychological pain focused more on his love for his Hampstead neighbor, Fanny Brawne, and his despair at leaving her, and less on his poetic legacy. “I cannot exist without you,” he wrote to Fanny. “I could be martyr’d for my Religion—Love is my religion—I could die for that—I could die for you.” Even when he wrote to her of his literary legacy, he sounded more resigned than bitter: “I have left no immortal work behind me—nothing to make my friends proud of my memory—but I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d.”
If Keats’s friends had followed his wishes and inscribed only that one sentence on his gravestone, the questions about his meaning would end here. Instead, led by Keats’s heartbroken former housemate Charles Brown and championed by Percy Bysshe Shelley—who wrote an impassioned elegy to Keats two months after his death, “Adonais”—the poet’s friends carved a starkly angry inscription of their own composition above Keats’s chosen words. To this day, his gravestone 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. 24 February 1821. [sic—Keats actually died on February 23.]
That epitaph—along with claims by Shelley and Keat’s editor Leigh Hunt that his decline had been hastened by bad reviews—tethered Keats’s death to his literary disappointments. Lord Byron, in his narrative poem “Don Juan,” alluded to the same idea when he wrote, “‘Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle / Should let itself be snuffed out by an article.”
Keats’s reputation began to rise soon after his death, along with his image as a sensitive genius mortally wounded by criticism. That’s the tale still told today by tour guides at his grave, in a quiet corner of the Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners in Testaccio, Rome, near that of Joseph Severn, the deathbed companion who nursed him in the apartment in Rome and whose letters are an invaluable documentation of Keats’s last days. Nearby also is the grave of Shelley, drowned at age twenty-nine, a mere seventeen months after Keats’s death, his body found with a copy of Keats’s 1820 volume of poetry in his breast pocket.
But that is not the tale told in either of the Keats House museums, and it is directly refuted by documents in the bedroom where he breathed his last, within earshot of his beloved Barcaccia. Aside from requesting the “writ in water” epitaph, Keats did not lament his coming end or curse his enemies on his deathbed. If anything, he lamented his continued life. He wrote to a friend of “leading a posthumous existence,” and complained in the same terms to Severn, who wrote that Keats would sometimes weep when he awoke and found himself still living.
When Keats was calmer, he would speak to Severn of the “quiet grave” that awaited him, which Severn described to him. Keats pictured it strewn with daisies and violets (which it still is) and looking up to the apartment’s ceiling—still, as it was then, patterned with white and yellow flowers on a sky-blue background—reflected that he could already feel them growing over him.
In that room today, a case holds the letter Severn wrote after Keats’s death, containing a description of the moment of expiration: “He is gone—he died with the most perfect ease … the approaches of death came on—Severn—S—lift me up for I am dying—I shall die easy—dont be frightened—thank God it has come.” It is impossible to stand in that room, gazing through the windows at the steps and fountain below, and not feel some fleeting essence of the young man who faced his fate so bravely.
What you don’t sense is the “bitterness of his heart at the malicious power of his enemies” claimed by his friends, and which is refuted in yet another document framed in this room: an 1850s letter by Severn proposing a new monument to replace “the present one, so unjust & disrespectful to his memory & painfull to my feelings” and to correct “the sad errors of poor Brown”—while also celebrating Keats’s rise to the highest echelons of English poetry. His suggested text:
This grave contains the mortal remains of John Keats, a young English poet who died at Rome Feb. 20 1820 [sic—again an incorrect date] aged 25 years. This short life was so imbittered [sic] by discouragement & sickness that he desired these words to mark his grave: ‘Here lies one whose name is writ in water.’ Time having reversed this sentence his friends and admirers now inscribe his name in marble.
But the original wording endures.
Keats’s presentiment of his words flowing unremarked into oblivion has been spectacularly disproven for most of the nearly two centuries since his death. Even his grave itself became by the late nineteenth century a destination for literary pilgrims. One of the most famous of these was Oscar Wilde, who on a visit in 1877 prostrated himself upon Keats’s grave and proclaimed it “the holiest place in Rome.” He then dedicated a sonnet to it, titled simply “The Grave of Keats,” the scrawled, original manuscript of which now sits under glass in the sitting room of the Keats-Shelley House. “Thy name was writ in water—it shall stand,” Wilde wrote, “And tears like mine will keep thy memory green.”
Michelle Stacey has written for The New Yorker, Harper’s, Smithsonian, and many other magazines.