Names Writ in Water

The grave of John Keats in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome famously reads, “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”

While doing some prep for a class this fall, I chanced to read Catullus 70 and was reminded of Keats’s grave:

Nulli se dicit mulier mea nubere malle
     quam mihi, non si se Iuppiter ipse petat.
dicit: sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti,
     in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua.

It turns out that Wikipedia notes the echo. There is no footnote, and I have no idea whether this has been written on anywhere; it probably has.

The poem has been translated into English several times, including by Sir Philip Sidney, and his rendering is closest to that on the tombstone (other translations use “stream” [George Lamb] or “streams” [Richard Lovelace] instead of “water” for aqua, where Sidney uses both; another uses “water,” but removes the idea of “writing” [William James Linton]).

Here is Sidney’s version:

Unto no body my woman saith she had rather a wife be,

Than to my selfe, not though Jove grew a suter of hers.

These be her words, but a woman’s words to a love that is eager,

In wind or water streame do require to be writ.

All the English versions mentioned can be read in Julia Haig Gaisser’s collection Catullus in English.


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