These are the words etched on John Keats’ tombstone. Keats, an English Romantic poet, died at the young age of twenty-five with a keen understanding of life’s transience. But did he choose these words because he was aware of his mortality or because he feared it?
Experiencing the death of both his parents before eighteen, Keats obviously understood the nature of life’s unpredictability and impermanence, providing him with a grasp of his own mortality early in his life. However, I don’t believe that he feared mortality because he feared death but rather because he feared not being remembered.
It is apparent from Keats’ own words that he believed that he made no mark in his lifetime. While dying, Keats’ penned a letter to Fanny Brawne, stating, “I have left no immortal work behind me…and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d.”
Perhaps because Keats understood that one’s life and one’s death are merely a fleeting moment of minute significance within a grander scheme, he wanted his work to provide the immortality that eludes our physical bodies. And isn’t that only achieved by other’s memories of us and the perpetuation of those memories?
Unfortunately for Keats, his work was savagely criticized during his lifetime and only posthumously did he become one of the most beloved English poets. Although it was unknown to him, he and his poetry are remembered and celebrated. He achieved, through his work, immortality. And isn’t that what each of us strive to do in our own way?
There is a point in most people’s lives when they recognize their own mortality, a realization, which isn’t contingent on age but often experience. It is this awareness that incites many to try to discover a way to remain even after death. And one’s belief in the soul’s destination doesn’t seem to preclude most from trying to attain some means of immortality on this earthly plane.
For some it is having children, someone to carry on your name, your beliefs, and your hopes and maybe realize your dreams. I remember my mother always told me that my brothers and I were her legacy. It’s a beautiful sentiment and now that I have children, I understand. But I was a writer before I was a mother and for me it has always been my words that I wished to immortalize me.
Perhaps it is why most writers write. Of course we write to have our words read but perhaps what we truly want is our words and, through them, ourselves remembered.
I write because I love stories. I love to hear them and to tell them. I write because I want to make some small change. Mostly, I write because I want my mark on this earthly plane to be more than a footprint in the water.
After all, what is it we most fear?
We fear that our existence will mean nothing, or worse, not even be remembered.
In every sentence, in every page and in every book, I am trying to construct a bit of immortality. But as Keats wisely knew, eventually everything is swallowed by the inexorable passage of time—erased like words written in water.
Of course, it is almost two hundred years later and we still know his name, his work, and his life. So perhaps I’m doing more than writing my words, and my name, in water.
Perhaps I am creating my own immortality.
Thank you for reading. I look forward to your comments.