Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water

I am delighted and honoured to be one of a number of people taking part in a reading of Keats’ poetry to coincide with the completion of a statue of the poet due to be placed in Eastgate Square in Chichester. The event takes place on St Agnes’ Eve, a poem Keats composed in that very city. I remember the first time I discovered Keats’ connection to Chichester and I was thrilled to discover that one of my heroes had visited my hometown.

I have written before about the sense of urgency in Keats’ work and the beauty of that alone is enough to elevate him as one of my favourite poets. However, it is his life that lifts him to heroic status in my eyes. It is not just that he achieved so much in his short life, but that he lived very much on his own terms. Keats did not belong in the luxurious high society of the other Romantic Poets and often felt uncomfortable in their presence. He did not have the same education, connections or leisure as other writers of his time. Despite the beauty and delicacy of his work, Keats knew about the realities of life and the pain it can bring. He studied medicine at Guy’s Hospital and worked as a dresser – dressing wounds, setting bones and assisting in surgery – prior to deciding that he must become a writer. He did not receive positive reviews when his first book was published and, outside of a small liberal circle of writers, was heavily criticised by the literary establishment. John Wilson Croker said his work consisted of “the most incongruous ideas in the most uncouth language,” and John Gibson Lockhart called him a “vulgar Cockney poetaster”. I almost want to raise them both from the dead for an evening just so they can hear his work still being read and see the statue in his honour.

Keats is my hero because he defied all the snobbery and prejudice and stayed true to his own convictions and artistic vision. He wasn’t rich and didn’t belong in Society; the literary establishment didn’t want him and tried to tear him down as soon as he began writing. In short, there was nothing in Keats’ life to suggest he should become a poet and he did it anyway. His clear-eyed passion for writing allowed him to put aside the frustration of being considered an upstart and create work that is timeless and continues to move and inspire people.

It used to make me feel very sad that Keats died believing he was a failure and that his epitaph: Here lies One / whose Name was writ in Water betrayed a certain amount of bitterness. On reflection, though, I think of the lines in Catullus LXX – sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti / in vento et rapida scriber oportet aqua, which means, “but what a woman says to a passionate lover should be written in the wind and the running water,” – and I think that perhaps, once again, Keats showed immense vision in seeing his work, and his name, as something both ephemeral and eternal, like love. 

I hope to see many rebellious-minded writers and artists there - I think Keats would like that.