Over a year ago, I wrote a short post about the grave inscription of John Keats–“Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water”–and its connection to Catullus 70.
But the metaphor goes back further. Though it is frequently obscured in translation, we find it in Plato, Phaedrus 276c, where Socrates argues that nothing serious should be committed to writing.
τὸν δὲ δικαίων τε καὶ καλῶν καὶ ἀγαθῶν ἐπιστήμας ἔχοντα τοῦ γεωργοῦ φῶμεν ἧττον νοῦν ἔχειν εἰς τὰ ἑαυτοῦ σπέρματα;
οὐκ ἄρα σπουδῇ αὐτὰ ἐν ὕδατι γράψει μέλανι σπείρων διὰ καλάμου μετὰ λόγων ἀδυνάτων μὲν αὑτοῖς λόγῳ βοηθεῖν, ἀδυνάτων δὲ ἱκανῶς τἀληθῆ διδάξαι.
οὔκουν δὴ τό γ᾽ εἰκός.
But the one who has understanding of the just and the noble and the good–are we to say he has less understanding than the farmer with respect to his seeds?
Consequently, he will not seriously write them in black water, sowing them through his pen with words that are unable, on the one hand, to help themselves with speech, and unable, on the other, to teach the truth sufficiently.
Fuhgeddaboudit.The translation is my own.