‘Writ in Water’, a Stella Gibbons manuscript now on display at the Keats-Shelley House.

October 23, 2013

Stella Gibbons (1902 – 1989), an acclaimed British author, poet and journalist, was among a long list of modern admirers of John Keats. Gibbons received huge success with Cold Comfort Farm (1932), a satirical parody of the gloomily provincial and then hugely popular ‘love and loam’ stories of writers such as Thomas Hardy. Her clarity of wit and incisive tongue made the book an instant hit and was often cited as her masterpiece.  Throughout her long career that included an impressive thirty-two books, Keats’s words were to haunt and inspire Gibbons. Taken from a letter of Keats’s to Benjamin Bayley in 1817, Gibbons echoed his eternal words in the opening of her second novel Bassett (1933): ‘I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections.’

Later Keats’s words would again stir Gibbons to pay homage, this time with an original autograph poem entitled ‘Writ in Water’ (1980). The inspiration was taken from Keats’s ambiguous and sometimes controversial epitaph: ‘Here Lies One Who’s Name was writ in water’, requested by Keats for his tombstone in the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome. The piece was published only once in an anthology entitled Occasional Poets, edited by Peter Adams in 1986.

This rare artefact has now come to call the Keats-Shelley House home and stands as witness to the enormous influence that Keats’s works have produced in modern writers. ‘Writ on Water’, acquired for the House in 2013, has pride of place next to the manuscript of renowned Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. Borges was another twentieth-century writer fascinated by Keats and on display are his intricate notes made on the famous piece, ‘Ode To A Nightingale’. Also on display are manuscripts and books from the nineteenth century which give further evidence of how Keats influenced writers after his death (including Shelley, Oscar Wilde, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning and Walt Whitman). In ‘Writ on Water’, one of the last pieces written before her death, Gibbons has taken on the theme of the mysterious, ancient and life-giving elements of water, mirroring Keats’ own unending obsession with the subject.