“Writ in Water”
In memory of John Keats
What stronger rune to be written in?
Seething, or locked in arcane permafrost.
Sans water, man would shrunken be, and lost.
His very substance is of water made,
Of water, and of dust.
Whither its cloudy depth, secret and warm,
Shapeless and colourless, his primal shade,
A pulsing jelly, burgeoned into form.
Three days he can exist without the thin
Life-making flow. And music, in full streams,
Pours down all hills, giving voice to dreams.
Sweet boy, bright star eclipsed at twenty-five,
Your genius erred in thinking water humble -
Rivers shall run while Earth herself’s alive;
Iron rust, stone crumble.
Stella Gibbons. 12.1.80
Stella Gibbons is best known for her 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm, a strange, very funny send-up of so-called rural fiction, not to mention Romantic doom, gloom and purple prose. Poetry was Gibbons’ first and possibly last love: despite her success as a comic novelist, she saw herself as a poet until the end of her life.
Proof can be seen in several poems written when Gibbons was approaching her 80th birthday for Occasional Poets, an anthology edited by Richard Adams, author of Watership Down. One of these was ‘Writ in Water’, composed so the manuscript tells us on 12th December 1980 ‘In memory of John Keats’. Gibbons would have been 78.
Even in old age, Gibbons’ had reasons to feel strong associations with the ‘Sweet boy, bright star, eclipsed at twenty-five’. A north-west Londoner born and bred, she was living in Oakshott Avenue, on the other side of Hampstead Heath from Keats House, when she wrote ‘Writ in Water’.
There were deeper reasons for her affinity. Like Keats, she lost both her parents in quick succession at an early age: in Gibbons’ case in the single year of 1926. Suddenly the principal carer for younger siblings, she moved to the Vale of Health, where she began her writing career - initially as a poet and journalist, before beginning work on Cold Comfort Farm.
Read more about 2021’s Keats-Shelley Prize here.
For 2021’s Young Romantics Prize, click here.