‘Writ in Water’ – Shelley, Byron, Keats and the Italian Sea
Did sea define the land or land the sea?
This is the question Seamus Heaney asked himself back in the Sixties while standing on the wild, sea-tormented coasts of the Aran Islands, which have challenged proudly the Atlantic Ocean and its endless waves from time immemorial.
I always think of this line by Heaney when going back in mind to the Golfo dei Poeti, that is, the Poets’ Gulf, in Liguria, Italy. Liguria is very famous for its gulfs but the Poets’ Gulf is possibly the most closed and the most embracing of all, seeming in its smallness almost a lake – if not for a little break right where the two ends should meet. Was it the land that stretched endlessly towards the sea and managed to impose itself on it? Or was it the sea that broke the land and took partial possession of it?
This incredible environment, contended by land and sea, was once the inspirational background for two great English poets: Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. Somehow this Ligurian scenario is emblematic of their Romantic attitude. However, the two poets were extremely different in their relationship with nature. An episode in Shelley and Byron’s life together in Switzerland exemplifies this: on the 22nd June 1816, during a tempest at sea, Shelley didn’t even try to save himself and his boat, and waited for death to come. Byron, on the other hand, did all he could to save himself, Shelley and the boat: he was successful. This is indicative of a certain tendency to surrender on Shelley’s part (which actually will lead him to death in 1822) and of a determined restlessness on Byron’s. Still, what bound these two authors indissolubly together and to the other great English poet of the period, John Keats, seems to be water.
Shelley couldn’t swim but was irresistibly attracted by water. Both in Switzerland and in Italy he owned a house by water (Lake Geneva in Switzerland and Ligurian Sea in Italy) and consequently boats, too.
Byron was an amazing swimmer, as the legend says, and swimming for him was his own way to show the world (especially the female world, we should perhaps add) his great strength. A grotto in Portovenere (Poets’ Gulf, Liguria) was named after him, “the immortal poet who as a daring swimmer defied the waves of the sea from Portovenere to Lerici” as the epigraph says. Apparently, what most astonished the poor Ligurian fishermen of that time was that Byron, that whimsical Englishman who says he is a poet, was actually a strong, extraordinary and almost unrivalled swimmer.
Keats, after his exhausting voyage to Naples, decided to use a sea image for his epitaph: the famous line “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water”. If water for Shelley is almost a force, an entity (“the blue Mediterranean”) to which he decides to surrender, and conversely a source of energy for Byron, then for Keats water is almost the symbol of his vanishing hope to become a great poet.
Writing in water is, we all know, rather a nonsensical activity, as nothing that we shall write there will remain to our posterity. Still, if we throw something into water, be it sea, ocean, or lake, we know that what we have just thrown away might come up again on another shore, in another country, in another time. Keats’ hopeless last line seems less hopeless in this way. He thought his poetry would be soon lost and forgotten, but perhaps somewhere in his heart he had the feeble hope that his poetry would be one day regained, though when or where he could not know.
John Keats came to Italy in 1820, with the fleeting hope that the milder Italian climate should cure him. But all he found was a deathbed. He had longed for a journey to Italy for some time, and always had a great love for the Italian language and culture. He was unfortunately unable to express this fully when he was there, unlike Byron and Shelley. Their stay in Italy decidedly influenced them and their work: Italy is actually the background of many of their poems, including Shelley’s “Baiae’s bay” in Ode to the West Wind with all its “Italianness”.
I often have asked myself, why Italy? Why of all places? Italy was very fashionable at the time because of the “Grand Tour”, of course, and it was certainly a beautiful place to visit or live. But why Italy and not France, Spain, or Greece? They too house incredible monuments of ancient cultures, but do not seem to have held the same fascination for the poets. Italy, either with its presence or its absence, has charmed an incredible number of poets, Shakespeare, Milton and Ezra Pound to name a few others. Italy has charmed them with its refined poetry, its magnificent past and with its wildness and chaos: inglese italianato, diavolo incarnato, John Donne used to say. He seems to mean that Italy, with its powerful contradictions, manages to make the prissy Englishmen express their true identity – a little devilish. To use Nietzsche’s words, Italy seems to embody the Dionysian spirit: wild, enraptured and enrapturing, whereas England captures a more Apollonian element, which is completed only by its most rebellious opposites. Shelley and Byron came to Italy for more or less political reasons, and they may have found that they could express themselves better as foreigners, away from their native element. Perhaps the magnificent shores of Liguria helped them to give voice to their most passionate, and sometimes most hidden, natures.