If you’ve spent your life celebrating the power of the written word, it’s reasonable to hope your death will be marked with eloquence and style.
Some writers however clearly felt their epitaph was far too significant to be left to chance. So they left precise instructions about the wording and imagery to be used on their headstone.
As he lay dying of tubercolosis, the English Romantic poet John Keats gave directions about his headstone. He wanted it inscribed with just one phrase:
Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water
The two friends who had nursed him in his dying days decided that short phrase didn’t do justice to a young poet whose talent they believed had never been sufficiently recognised. And so, two years after John Keats died, Joseph Severn and Charles Brown added their own angry inscription:
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.
The epitaph created a mystery that has fascinated scholars as well as the thousands of ‘people who visit the grave in the Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners in Testaccio, Rome.
Questions abounded: Why was Keats bitter? Who were those ‘enemies’? Why was there no name or date on the headstone? What did John Keats mean by his ‘name writ in water’?
For centuries the accepted view has been that the lack of name or dates was a reflection of Keats’s own desire. And the “Name Writ in Water” wording was a reflection of his despair that he had failed to make a mark on the world. That he had, as he wrote to his fiancee Fanny Brawne the year before his, death, “left no immortal work behind me.”
John Keats’ epitaph: Fact Or Fiction?
It’s a good story but it seems it’s just part of the romanticised myth of the “doomed poet” that has developed around Keats. The myth of a young talented man “half in love with easeful death” who foretells his own premature death “youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies”. And then we have that image of the frail figure in his apartment near the Spanish Steps in Rome, where he had gone on doctors’ orders.
Little of this is true.
An article on the Wordsworth Museum blog reveals that the young poet never gave any directions about name or dates. The only wish he ever expressed was for the phrase Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water. All the rest was the posthumous “invention” by his two friends and aided by Shelley and Keats’ editor Leigh Hunt who were convinced that his decline had been hastened by bad reviews.
Also manufactured was the idea of the melancholy poet in despair about his imminent mortality. Keats was conscious about death but he was just as conscious about life and its beauty. And his letters to Fanny are more about his sadness at the prospect of leaving her behind in England, than about his legacy.
My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you – I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again – my Life seems to stop there – I see no further. You have absorb’d me. – I should be exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you. I should be afraid to separate myself far from you.
Joseph Severn and Charles Brown had the best of intentions when they composed the wording for Keats’ headstone. They had witnessed their friend’s decline and nursed him in his final days. They wanted the world to know that it had lost a great talent. But they came to regret their actions, recognising it as “a sort of profanation…”, that gave the wrong impression of their friend.
There is a wealth of material online about the final days of John Keats, interpretations of the meaning of his epitaph and transcripts of his letters.
Take a look at
Andrew Motion on how the reality of Keats’ work has been distorted over the centuries