Writ in water
Goethe, ‘Am Flusse’ –
Ihr wart ins Wasser eingeschrieben;
So fließt denn auch mit ihm davon.
You were engraved upon the water;
and flow, too, with the water away.
Keats’s epitaph, in the Protestant cemetery, at Rome:1
Here lies one whose name was writ in water.
Keats died 23 February 1821. Goethe’s son, Julius, who died in 1830, is also buried in the Protestant cemetery. Cf. Antal Szerb, Journey by Moonlight (1937):
… for at that moment he was walking in the little Protestant cemetery behind the pyramid of Cestius, beside the city wall. Here lay his fellows, dead men from the North, drawn here by nameless nostalgias, and here overtaken by death. This fine cemetery, with its shady wall, had always lured souls from the North with the illusion that here oblivion would be sweeter. At the end of one of Goethe’s Roman elegies there stands, as a memento: Die Pyramide vorbei, leise zum Orcus hinab. ‘From the tomb of Cestius, the way leads gently down to Hell.’ Shelley, in a wonderful letter, wrote that he would like to lie here in death, and so he does, or at least his heart is there, beneath the inscription: Cor Cordium
Mihály was on the point of leaving when he noticed a small cluster of tombs standing apart in one corner of the cemetery. He went over and perused the inscriptions on the plain Empire-stones. One of them read simply, in English: ‘Here lies one whose name is writ in water’. On the second a longer text declared that there lay Severn, the painter, the best friend and faithful nurse on his death-bed of John Keats, the great English poet, who had insisted that his name should not be inscribed on the neighbouring stone, under which he lay.
Mihály’s eyes filled with tears. So here lay Keats, the greatest poet since the world began … though such emotion was somewhat irrational, given that the body had been lying there for a very long time, and the spirit was preserved by his verses more faithfully than by any grave-pit. But so wonderful, so truly English, was the manner of this gentle compromise, this innocent sophistry, that perfectly respected his last wishes but nonetheless announced without ambiguity that it was indeed Keats who lay beneath the stone. (139f.)