WRITTEN IN WATER

Spanish steps Tuesday 2nd July 2013  - by Kyl Chhatwal

—Come away!

Haste, while the vault of blue Italian day

Is yet his fitting charnel-roof

So wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley in Adonais, his eulogy of the poet John Keats. Today, Keats is considered one of the finest English poets to have ever lived, despite the fact that he only wrote poetry for six years before his untimely death at 25.

Keats died of consumption (tuberculosis) in a house along the Spanish Steps in Rome, on February 21, 1821. He'd left England the previous September on the recommendation of his doctors, who believed the Italian climate would help cure him of his disease. Due to rough seas, however, and his boat being quarantined, Keats and his friend Joseph Severn didn't arrive in Rome until November 14, when the climate was not necessarily at its most restorative, nor the "vault of blue Italian day" at its bluest.

Over the years, Keats's death has become a sort of legend, thanks to the fact that Severn, who barely left Keats's side during those final months, detailed the poet's slow and painful decline in his charcoal sketches and letters home to England. "Severn—I—lift me up, for I am dying. I shall die easy. Don't be frightened! Thank God it has come," Severn records as the final words of John Keats. One of his last requests was that his headstone contain no names or dates, but only the epitaph: "Here is one whose name was writ in water," betraying the tragic fact that John Keats died believing he was a failure. Four years earlier he had already written (in what would become one of his most famous sonnets):

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;

clearly showing that premature death, and unfulfilled artistic potential, were powerful and perennial anxieties for Keats.

Before Keats was buried, Severn and another friend, Charles Brown, argued over whether to add anything to the poet's sad and poignant epitaph, and finally decided upon the following, which visitors to Keats's grave in Rome can still see today: 

This Grave contains all that was Mortal

of a 

YOUNG ENGLISH POET

Who 

on his Death Bead, in the Bitterness of his Hearth

at the Malicious Power of his Enemies

Desired

this Words to be

engraven on his Tomb Stone:

Here lies One

Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 Februray 1821" 

"Malicious Power of his Enemies" is a reference to all the English reviewers who lamb-basted Keat's poetry when it was first published, and thus, according to the poet's friends, drove him to his early grave. 

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