Here lies One Whose name was writ in water

John Keats

Marco Montagnin

I weep for Adonais—he is dead!

Oh, weep for Adonais! though our tears

Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head! And thou, sad Hour, selected from all years

To mourn our loss, rouse thy obscure compeers, And teach them thine own sorrow, say: “With me Died Adonais; till the Future dares

Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be An echo and a light unto eternity!”[1]

At dawn on 23 February 1821 John Keats passed away in the arms of his friend after a slow agony that had lasted his entire life or, according to medicine, seven hours. It was he who had courted death, who had almost worshipped it and had certainly foretold it on the night of 3 February 1820 (Arterial Blood. I cannot be deceived in that colour; that drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die.) and long yearned for it despite the relentless struggle fought with Love, death prevailed at the words I shall die easy, a never more false prophecy.

The illness that had been incubated for so long and was never diagnosed, the continuous bloodlettings to eliminate the infected blood, the strict diet to which he was subjected by the doctors that led him to hunger and delirium, the compassion of his friend and convict Charon who stayed by his side until the very end, who followed every doctor’s order, who lifted him up whenever Keats felt suffocated and finally laid him down for the last time; the friend who betrayed him by preventing him from committing suicide months earlier, but consented to every dying request. Lastly, love is never abandoned but cut short without a real goodbye; a lock of his beloved’s hair and her last letter never intentionally opened, which rests forever – together with the lock and a purse given to him by his sister -, sealed, above his heart buried with him in the shadows of the pyramid of Caius Cestius.

It is dawn on 26th February when the ceremony ends, before the sun rises the body must be buried since the non-Catholic dead cannot be buried in broad daylight, and on the tomb, along with the famous inscription, is engraved a lyre with four broken strings, the seal of the gem that his beloved had given him years before turns into the cold stone symbol of an extraordinary life cut too soon. And so, Death and Love meet for the last time within the poet; for both, it is forever.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time

I have been half in love with easeful Death,

Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme, To take into the air my quiet breath;

Now more than ever seems it rich to die, To cease upon the midnight with no pain,

While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad In such an ecstasy!

Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain— To thy high requiem become a sod.[1]

Keats was born in London, in 1795, to a commoner but well-off family. On account of his lineage he was called a cockney poet, an attribute that inflicted him during his lifetime and that also stuck after his death. It was the cult of a commoner poet with which the era of vernacular poetry began.

In 1804 his father died falling from his horse, and soon after his mother disappeared with his baby sister only to reappear two months later with a new husband.


O, that this too too solid flesh would melt Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!

Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d

His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God! How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,

That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature Possess it merely. That it should come to this!

But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:

So excellent a king; that was, to this, Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother That he might not beteem the winds of heaven Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!

Must I remember? why, she would hang on him, As if increase of appetite had grown

By what it fed on: and yet, within a month–

Let me not think on’t–Frailty, thy name is woman!– A little month, or ere those shoes were old

With which she follow’d my poor father’s body, Like Niobe, all tears:–why she, even she–

O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason, Would have mourn’d longer–married with my uncle, My father’s brother, but no more like my father Than I to Hercules: within a month:

Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears Had left the flushing in her galled eyes, She married. O, most wicked speed, to post With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!

It is not nor it cannot come to good:

But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.[1]


Subsequently, in only a few years, his grandfather, uncle, mother (whom despite her betrayal Keats cared for until her death) and grandmother died, leaving Keats, his two brothers and sister in the care of a guardian who poorly administered the children’s inheritance, leading the poet to live in anguish and poverty.

Keats went on studying medicine without ever abandoning literature. He passed the state examination, being the only one of his peers who passed it, and was thus able to practise as an apothecary, a profession he never practised, gnawed by doubts as to which path to follow. It was by meeting Leigh Hunt and subsequently an article of his in which he stated that there was a new school of poetry – which included the names of Keats and

P.B. Shelley – that drove him to pursue poetry, seize it and engrave it in a language unknown to most: poetry intertwined with music and medical-botanical studies, making him the most nature-conscious Romantic poet. His desire to become a poet broke his ties with his tutor who, after reading his first book of poems, later declared that it was difficult to understand and that once one had understood it, one would have found that it amounted to nothing.

Similarly, critics were never lenient with Keats in life, and it was only by July 1820, when he was already a dead man who happened to still be walking among the living, that he was finally praised.

Shelley’s recognition was perhaps the most important: he invited him to Italy several times to nurse his body and mind, to teach him Greek and Spanish, fully aware that Keats would outshine him; but the poet never accepted the invitation, probably due to feelings of lower class and fear of abandoning his beloved. It was one of the great missed poetic encounters of the 19th century, if not the greatest, a meeting that would certainly have elevated the poetry of both.

On the 1st December 1818, Keats’ most beloved brother died; the one who admired and understood him more than anyone else had left him alone, dying a slow, painful death that seemed a curse on his family. Hence, his uncle had died, his mother, his grandmother, and later on first Keats and then his other brother: all died of that consumption which Shelley would describe as a disease afflicting the writer of verse. It was not until 1882 that the bacterium was discovered and the disease given a name: tuberculosis.


From the image of his dying brother the poet composed one of his most beautiful poems. His dead brother takes on the likeness, later shared by the poet, of the alone and palely knight-in-arms who might probably be recalled in v.32, With kisses four.

The poem expresses the ambivalence of the poet’s feelings towards his beloved, as he himself wrote to her:

‘Hamlet’s heart was full of such Misery as mine is when he said to Ophelia “Go to a Nunnery, go, go’!”


O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, Alone and palely loitering?

The sedge has withered from the lake, And no birds sing.


O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, So haggard and so woe-begone?

The squirrel’s granary is full, And the harvest’s done.


I see a lily on thy brow,

With anguish moist and fever-dew, And on thy cheeks a fading rose

Fast withereth too.


I met a lady in the meads,

Full beautiful—a faery’s child, Her hair was long, her foot was light,

And her eyes were wild.


I made a garland for her head,

And bracelets too, and fragrant zone; She looked at me as she did love,

And made sweet moan


I set her on my pacing steed,

And nothing else saw all day long, For sidelong would she bend, and sing

A faery’s song.


She found me roots of relish sweet,

And honey wild, and manna-dew,

And sure in language strange she said— ‘I love thee true’.


She took me to her Elfin grot,

And there she wept and sighed full sore, And there I shut her wild wild eyes

With kisses four.


And there she lullèd me asleep,

And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!— The latest dream I ever dreamt

On the cold hill side.


I saw pale kings and princes too,

Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci

Thee hath in thrall!’


I saw their starved lips in the gloam, With horrid warning gapèd wide,

And I awoke and found me here, On the cold hill’s side.


And this is why I sojourn here, Alone and palely loitering,

Though the sedge is withered from the lake, And no birds sing.[2]


Romantic love, tragic, but never fulfilled – not even a kiss due to the fear of his illness was given -, the secret engagement, the approval of her parents that was never granted due to the poet’s financial and health conditions if not only before the trip to Italy with the promise that when he returned, fully recovered, he would be able to marry their daughter; thus the epistolary relationship opened up a Keats that unlike the other two great poets of his generation turned him into the symbol of the romantic poet.


It is perhaps with Ode on a Grecian Urn that the poet reaches one of the many peaks of his career, a career of which he himself said: “I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.” If in the Odes he followed a metrical scheme in which a Shakespearean quatrain (abab) was followed by a Petrarchan sestet (cdecde), in this poem we see two variations: the sestets of the first and fifth stanza are cdedce and that of the second cdeced.

The use of what the poet calls Negative Capability in the first and fourth stanzas occurs naturally, having already been assimilated into Keats’s mind.



several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.


The senses that prevail are those of sight and hearing, the latter supported by both the second stanza and the musicality of the text in which there are many figures of sound including assonance and alliteration.

However, the last two verses of this composition are what will make it immortal, in which the poet grasps the Truth from Greek: kalòs kài agathòs.


Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,

Thou foster-child of silence and slow time, Sylvan historian, who canst thus express

A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme: What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape

Of deities or mortals, or of both,

In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?

What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?

What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?


Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,

Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;

She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!


Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;

And, happy melodist, unwearied,

For ever piping songs for ever new; More happy love! more happy, happy love!

For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,

For ever panting, and for ever young; All breathing human passion far above,

That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.


Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

To what green altar, O mysterious priest, Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,

And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?

What little town by river or sea shore,

Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,

Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?

And, little town, thy streets for evermore Will silent be; and not a soul to tell

Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.


O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede

Of marble men and maidens overwrought, With forest branches and the trodden weed;

Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!

When old age shall this generation waste, Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”[3]


Fanny was the feminine name that accompanied Keats throughout his life, from his birth to his death: it was the name of the woman who gave birth to him, the name of the sister who the poet always tried to protect, the name of his beloved whose memory kept him alive longer, compelling him to fight, causing him to suffer longer, and finally the name of hist beloved’s mother who, despite not allowing him to marry her daughter, was certainly quite condescending towards the poet given the customs of the time.

During his last days alive, he asked his friend to survey the place where he would have been buried and to describe it to him. The poet was satisfied, the pyramid, the grass, the shepherds with sheep, the violets so dear to him; the same cemetery in which his friend would be buried more than half a century later, by his side, both of them left alone, far from the other’s grave. Shelley, too, was buried in Rome, a few steps away from Keats: he died a year later, drowned in the poets’ gulf, dying a similar, breathless death. And so, the two Wunderkinders finally met, at a different time, unknown to us, the same time in which one cannot speak, a time that prevents writing.

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


[1] P.B.Shelley, Opere Poetiche, Mondadori, pp.916

[2] J.Keats, Opere, Mondadori, pp.696

[3] W.Shakespeare, Amleto, Mondadori, pp.30-32

[4] J.Keats, Opere, Mondadori, pp.664-668

[5] J.Keats, Opere, Mondadori, pp.688-692

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