Writ on Water

When Shelley drowned off the Viareggio coast his body, half eaten by hungry fish, was mainly recognised by a volume of Keats’ poems in one of his coat pockets.

Since Shelley is irrevocably associated with Italy and, in particular, with the place where I have lived now for ten years, Bagni di Lucca, what was exactly the relationship between the two greatest early romantic poets who are invariably named together, who have a house in Rome named after them and who are buried close to each other in the eternal city’s protestant cemetery?

I return to our Hampstead trip before entering mini-Hungary (see my previous post) for that is the place where Shelley was introduced to Keats by their common friend, Leigh Hunt: he who would pester Shelley for money and whose influence on Keats’ poetry was not positive. The “cockney school of poetry” it was termed. Leigh Hunt is also, of course, caricatured in Dickens’ “Bleak House” as that leech, Mr Skimpole.

Keats, in one of his letters, talks about Leigh Hunt’s ability to spoil a Mozart sonata for him. That’s really immoral for I consider Keats as the verbal equivalent of Mozart. He is a poet I adore, know much by heart and consider him the most utterly sensuous craftsman of the English language who ever graced this planet.

To return to the relationship. Keats had reservation about Shelley’s amoralism but Shelley had the greatest affection for Keats stating that he “will far surpass me”.

The first book token I ever received was spent on a volume of Keats and I admit that he is probably my favourite poet. To enter into his house at Wentworth place after many years was, therefore, an intensely moving experience. I was surprised at how small the house was – it had actually been two dwellings and the large dining room was only added rather later by a Mrs Chester. Keats had just two rooms in it but to breathe the air of the room where he wrote his greatest verse was perhaps the most inspirational moment I spent on this recent visit to London.

I am so glad that the house is looking in good condition for last time I was there it was in danger of falling down! Fortunately, the realisation that it would have soon been the two hundredth anniversary of Keats’ birth pulled out a few monied stops in time and the place where Keats wrote his finest verse and loved his intensest was in wonderful shape and beautifully presented. Even the kitchen and “bathroom” have been restored.

The garden with the mulberry tree Keats knew well and the plum tree where he wrote that supreme verdict on the affliction of the life that is thrust without choice on all of us, helped by an immortal bird which I can hear at the moment on my warm, twilit terrace here in Longoio, is still there to be enjoyed by young and old alike. Families were relishing the beautiful afternoon and our guide was most welcoming.

How terrible, however, it was for someone who’d studied to become a surgeon at Guy’s hospital before suddenly turning to verse – by reading Chapman’s translation of Homer it seems – to realise that his death warrant”, as he called it, was upon him when he spat his first drop of blood. TB was the big killer in the nineteenth century and shows signs again of returning to us today. I have to confess that I was tubercolotic in my early teens and was only saved by daily takings of some purple granules called Inapasade which tasted horrible!

Thanks to more recent research, and Jane Campion’s marvellous film on their love relationship, Fanny Brawne (a bit like Mozart’s Constanze) has turned out not to be such a butterfly at all but a deeply loving and caring fiancée to her next-door neighbour and one who was equally infected with the love of books and poetry.

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(Ambrotype of Fanny taken in the 1840’s)

One of the most heart-rending items on show is the engagement ring John gave Fanny which she kept until the end of her life.


Furthermore, Fanny felt that it wasn’t such a good idea for Keats go with his mate and artist Joseph Severn to Rome  “in that wretched country” to seek a cure, in November of all months when Rome is beginningn to suffer from icy blasts from the Balkans! Morocco might have been the better prescription, as it was for George Orwell, but he too fell a victim to the tubercule. Fanny felt that if (or when, to put it more exactly) Keats had to die he should die among friend instead of being alone in a foreign place.

Shelley did invite Keats to stay with him in Italy and we might have had both of them living at Bagni di Lucca perhaps, but Keats preferred to go with Severn to Rome. Shelley did, however, write one of his greatest poems, “Adonais”, an elegy for Keats and a poem he described as the least imperfect of his works.

Here’s a fragment Shelley wrote about Keats:

Here lieth One whose name was writ on water.

But, ere the breath that could erase it blew,

Death, in remorse for that fell slaughter,

Death, the immortalizing winter, flew

Athwart the stream,–and time’s printless torrent grew               _5

A scroll of crystal, blazoning the name

Of Adonais!


I’ve visited the Keats-Shelley memorial house in Rome which is near the Spanish steps with a friend some years ago and there’s the bed where the poet, who prophetically said “I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death”, breathed his last.

When I managed to get a school prize for something or other I chose Shelley’s poems much to the chagrin of my English master who was a true Keatsian but frankly I return to Keats with much greater frequency and his lines shall be for ever imprinted in my consciousness as long as I live.

Together with my visit to Mozart’s birth house my visit to Wentworth place remains a sacred memory to one of the greats who fully realise that “a thing of beauty is a joy for ever.”

That’s why these people are too precious to stay with the rest of mouldering humanity for long. Like Mozart, Keats died young, younger even, aged just twenty five.

To quote a sonnet I wrote about another person who died too young:

My friend, you are not here to feed, wide-eyed,

upon this scene that floats in summer air,

and yet you still walk with me by my side –

a spirit of these hills, so clear and fair.


For I can sense that you, again, are here;

as the forest birds which have heard your voice,

as the earth which has felt your step so near,

as the enduring soul which has made its choice,


and, best of all, that hand, which so disdained

its skill to see and recollect, has penned

these views in truest form, so self-contained,

and so sincere and bright, my truest friend!


For though you died too young your joyful face

will, ever fresh, be present in this place.






7 thoughts on “Writ on Water

  1. From Danny Ayers:

    So glad my good friend & near neighbour Francis has taken up blogging. Like a duck to water, a natural. Interesting material and I love his style, maybe call it kinda informal old school. Broad range of knowledge & interest, but notably takes the trouble to get well-informed. Always with a kind of charming, honest enthusiasm for whatever he’s writing about. Strongly recommended.

  2. I simply adore the Keats Museum it is so well presented clean crisp hands on museum with a variety of items to please and enthuse the visitor it even houses a jokey stuffed toy nightingale which emits the actual nightingale song sounds when squeezed and you can listen to the whole poem Ode to a Nightingale performed by unnamed actors as well as several other poems by Keats by the way I wonder how many of us are fortunate enough to actually still hear this wonderful bird song live and not just recorded! The furniture is not Keats own but it is contemporary with his time also in the upper rooms there was even a dressing up costume box to indicate the dress of that period again a hands on experience wig included! There are also dotted around the property facsimile books of Shakespeare Wordsworth and Keats works too again a hands on experience very welcome. I spoke too soon at my delight of not seeing writing on the wall as in the below stairs kitchen area there are indeed verses on the wall but welcome and not overwhelming I especially enjoyed the one about the cat there was indeed a cat basket maybe for the cat in residence who knows! The short film gave a delightful potted history of the life and times of this grand poet Keats but the best idea was how cleverly some curator placed Keats bust on a plinth at the actual height of the poet who measured only circa 5 feet in height maybe small in stature but a great Romantic Poet who only achieved fame and recognition posthumously.

  3. Pingback: A Sea Change | From London to Longoio (and Lucca and Beyond) Part Two

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