Monday, 22 February 2021

'ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER'

 The poet John Keats died 200 years ago in Rome on 23 February 1821.  His unnamed gravestone is inscribed, as he had instructed, with the enigmatic sentence, Here lies one whose name was writ in water.

The river Gade rises in the Chilterns, flows through Hertfordshire, joins the river Colne and flows on into the Thames.  In the early nineteenth century John Dickinson set up two water-powered paper mills on the Gade using former corn mills.  He was an innovative paper-maker who in 1809 patented a mechanised process to produce a continuous flow of paper.  Paper-making became quicker and cheaper.

For taxation purposes all paper carried a water-mark to identify the printer and the date.  Keats' first volume Poems 1817 was printed on paper marked 'John Dickinson 1813'.  I've not been able to find out about the paper used in his two later publications but I think it's likely to be Dickinson's paper.  I like the fact that the paper was made in a former corn mill.  I think of 'To Autumn' with the corn harvest personified

     '... sitting careless on a granary floor
        Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind,
     Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep.'

My favourite edition of the poems of Keats is my ancient (1915) Oxford edition of Keats' Poetical Works, which I bought some years ago in a second hand bookshop behind the Parade in Cheltenham.  The introduction has a list of Keats' publications with 'The measurements of a single leaf in an uncut copy' beginnng with

     Poems 1817        6 7/8 x 4 1/8 inches

I think it is safe to assume that 'uncut' here refers to what book specialists call 'unopened'.  When I was a student I remember borrowing obscure tomes from the university library and having to slit the folds with a kitchen knife before I could read them.  Occasionally today a faulty book may slip through with a few folded pages that have escaped the mechanical trimmer at the printers.

To make a book large sheets of paper were printed and then folded to make the individual pages.  A folio format was folded in half once, a quarto was folded twice (in half, then half again - the fold at the top) and octavo was folded three times (the folds at the side and the top).  I've tried the foldings with a sheet of paper - it's much easier to understand in practice.  In the past books were sold unopened and a paper knife was essential for readers to slit the pages.

One of the gifts Fanny Brawne gave Keats before he left England for Rome in September 1820 was a paper knife.  Keats was seriously ill and his doctor had advised him that another English winter would kill him.  Did Fanny's gift symbolise her hope against hope that he would read many more books, that he would return to her in the spring and perhaps have another publication of his own?

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I re-read Moya Cannon's poem 'Keats lives on the Amtrak', the title poem of her 2015 collection Keats Lives (it was one of my 2016 'Keep up' recommendations).

     'Today on the clunking, hissing silver train
      between Philly and New York,
      the African-American conductor squeezes himself
      into the dining car seat opposite.'

He observes that her book is full of page markers and she explains that she's teaching it.  He tells her he's going to get a 't-shirt with Keats lives on it' because of Keats' words

     'A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,
      Its loveliness increases, it will never
      Pass into nothingness, but still will keep
      A bower of quiet for us.'

She says that twenty years ago a Dublin taxi driver told her that Keats' only certainties were 'the holiness of the heart's affections / and the truth of the imagination.'  The conductor says

      'That is a bombshell ...
       I'm going to give it to my little girl tonight -
      Oh light winged dryad.'

The conductor says at 'this time of year' when trees are 'blurring into bud' and 'everything starts coming green again' he thinks of Keats.  

In Moya Cannon's poem people in very different times and places respond to the poetry of John Keats, 'one whose name was writ in water.'


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