Ritual Writ in Water: Remembering John Keats and My Friend Susan
And then there is the date that we don’t yet know. The last date—a meaningless number on a calendar until it isn’t.
Two hundred years ago, the young Romantic poet John Keats died in Rome, clutching the hand of his friend, the artist Joseph Severn. His dreams of becoming a famous writer had turned into dreams of dying. The pain of tuberculosis combined with the bloodletting and starvation of his medical care had become so agonizing that, when he awoke, he would cry to find himself alive.
On the morning of February 23, 1821, he woke for the last time. “Thank God it has come,” he said. Keats was twenty-five years old.
Today, John Keats is buried in Rome, in a relatively undeveloped part of the Cimitero Acattolico, surrounded by headstones, stray cats, and scattered trees. His stone is marked, not with his name, but the famous epigraph: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
Before Keats died, Joseph Severn visited this site, returning to his friend’s sickbed with a detailed description of this place where Keats could choose to be buried. It is now surrounded by the rushing city, but in 1821, grass and wildflowers grew there untended, except for the munching of sheep and goats. To Keats, it sounded like the perfect place. Severn reported in one of his letters that he “already seemed to feel the flowers growing over him.”
It is an interesting mental exercise to think of birth and death as people passing in a hallway. As you enter, who heads out? Whose death shares the date of your birth, even years, decades, centuries apart? I was born February 23, 1977. In this way, Keats and I passed each other—just as I passed John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, and countless other people lost to history and memory.
Maybe years of thinking this way set me up to feel a jolt when I first encountered the date of Keats’s death by chance while wandering through the constrained rooms of the Keats-Shelley House in Rome. It is because he died there that the flat is preserved. Any curious visitor can look out his window and see the busy square at the base of the Spanish Steps that was the last outdoor view the nature-loving Keats took in.
We all have these dates in our lives. Days for birthdays and anniversaries; dates on the calendar that seem lit from behind. And then there is the date that we don’t yet know. The last date. For Keats, this was February 23, a meaningless number on a calendar until it wasn’t.
“Severn, lift me up,” the poet said, “I am dying. I shall die easy. Don’t be frightened.”
I wonder if, for Joseph Severn, February 23 could ever be just another day.
For me, May 3, 2017, is such a date: After a day spent teaching volunteers about sea turtle conservation at Hunting Island State Park in South Carolina, my inventive and disarming friend Susan Shaffer got in her car to meet her husband Mark for happy hour. She didn’t make it. Her tiny white sedan was crushed by a careening metal trailer that tumbled from the truck that was pulling it. That morning, she was in the world she had chosen, teaching, preserving nature, and paddleboarding. By the late afternoon, her forty-year life was over.
I have yet to find a way to accept that she is gone. I think this is in part because, when she died, I was living on the other side of the country in Seattle. But I think it’s also because Susan was the most irrepressibly alive person I knew.
Both she and John Keats were sparked by sea, and grass, and wind. Keats tried to capture this beauty in poetry. Susan had a unique way of slowing everything around her so that she could observe the tiniest elements of the natural world—a contemplative nature that mixed with an almost-teenaged energy, the kind of person who photobombs her own pictures.
Add to that an unforgettable voice, which her friend Margaret once described as “molasses spiked with bourbon, poured over coarse sea salt.” With a voice like that, it’s no wonder I first met her in a bar, cocktail-waitressing side by side while pursuing our grander ambitions through college and internships.
We always talked about big ideas, but never the Romantic poets. And yet, in my mind, Susan and Keats are linked. Both could delight in a bird. Both died too young. Both knew that beauty and meaning lay in the exquisite details of nature. And it’s those details that make the rapid violence of the crash that killed her as haphazard and thoughtless as stepping on a spider. Here we take a thing of complex design and purpose, and just smash it and move on.
Those of us who loved her, who loved her body and her face, and her presence in our lives, can never see the date May 3 again without thinking of all that we have lost.
And then there is the date that we don’t yet know. The last date.
Her husband Mark was waiting at the bar when he received Susan’s last text, swearing she’d be there in fifteen minutes. The coroner called instead.
“She kissed me goodbye that morning,” Mark says, pausing, losing his speech at the thought, “and I never saw her again.”
A year later, I went to South Carolina to see Mark, and, I suppose, to find out if being in my friend’s favorite town, in her house, could help me come to terms with her death. Mark and I sat together shaded by a Low Country back porch, blue paint peeling, feet up on the railing, looking out at an inlet Susan liked to paddle. We kept our sunglasses on but the tears kept making their way past them and over our cheeks.
Susan died on her first day teaching about turtles. It was a volunteer she met that morning who made the initial donation to her funeral fund. Even in their short encounter on the beach, he found her unforgettable. For as long as I’d known Susan, she’d been collecting knowledge and ideas, trying to merge her passion for nature and religious philosophy into meaningful work. To hear Mark tell it, she finally had a clear notion.
“She was right on the cusp,” he told me. “Within a couple weeks, she would’ve been fully into her next exciting chapter.”
“We don’t have to talk about this,” I said.
“Yes, we do,” he answered. “It’s why you came.”
Of course, there is no good or right way to lose someone. The slow or the quick, the long, drawn-out, lonely and painful death or the random yanking from the world—both are tragic in their way. Death ends one person’s story and forever alters many others.
The death of John Keats in 1821 becomes romantic only through the passage of years. We imagine him at peace beneath sun-turned violets and grazing sheep, while a shepherd uses his tomb as a pillow. His poetry is more precious for the lack of it, his output limited by the twenty-five short years he lived.
But for his friends, the loss was more than his work, more than the potential erased, the poems not written. They felt the hole of his not being. They felt the interrupted life, one that would have reveled in the daffodils beginning to bloom every spring.
Keats was buried three days after his death. Joseph Severn was joined graveside by the handful of others in Rome who knew the young poet. After the gravediggers filled the hole, they planted daisies on the grave. Mournfully, Severn said, “This would be poor Keats’s wish, could he but know it.”
In 1861, Keats’s younger sister, Fanny, found herself in Rome. Forty years earlier, her brother had asked to be buried with the letters she wrote him. His letters were precious to her as well. Keats wrote her regularly so “I may not only . . . love you as my only sister, but confide in you as my dearest friend.”
While in Rome, Fanny visited the little flat in Piazza di Spagna where her brother suffered his final days, sweating and wishing for the pain to end. There was little left of him there but the room itself. All his furnishings and possessions had been burned for fear of the tuberculosis spreading. But while there—just by chance—she met Severn, the man who’d witnessed those last minutes.
“For a long time, we remained without being able to speak,” Severn later remembered of his encounter with Fanny. “Twas like a brother and sister who had parted in early life meeting after forty years. How singular that we should meet in the very place where Keats died.”
Severn lived to eighty-five, seeing 21,900 mornings that his friend Keats missed. Fanny saw 24,766 as the daisies grew across her brother’s grave.
How many mornings will I have that Susan won’t? Without her eyes keeping watch, what has been left unseen?
Already I’ve noticed birds under eaves and been soaked by sideways rain. And I’m living through a pandemic she knows nothing about. Now, every day, thousands of people are dying. Each day is someone’s last—the date they couldn’t predict, the date that closes their life, a date like Keats’s February 23. Every day, thousands of people are getting phone calls that stop their hopeful prayers—calls that create cracks and unfillable holes, the kind Susan left behind.
In measuring a life that is cut short, should we count the days that were lived, or those that weren’t?
In 1821, the death of Keats began to heighten interest in his poetry. Two hundred years later, we are still interested. His tragic, romanticized death—of coughed blood and unrealized desire, of pain and love and letting go—still captivates us almost as much as his work. If you visit Keats’s grave in Rome today, you will find Joseph Severn buried beside him.
But had you been there in the summer of 1821, after that hard, sad winter, you might have found Severn standing above him, staring at Keats’s headstone. It was a place he found inspiration and meaning—“one of the most lovely retired spots in Rome”—and he was happy to find the gravediggers’ daisies growing freely there.
Severn later wrote, “I visit it with a delicious melancholy which relieves my sadness.”
I share his melancholy and my own unrelieved sadness whenever I visit Beaufort, South Carolina, the place Susan loved most. The Carolina Low Country is dominated by the water she built her life around, mud flats and beaches teeming with tiny creatures.
How many mornings will I have that Susan won’t? Without her eyes keeping watch, what has been left unseen?
On July 19, 2017, in her honor, two rehabilitated juvenile sea turtles were returned to the ocean, one carried there by her husband Mark. I later wrote him wanting to know what he was thinking as the turtle squirmed in his hands.
He answered, “I’m not sure what I was thinking, but I know what he felt like: Life. There was so much urgent energy in that elegant little creature. And he was ready to get on with it.”
We all live in that swirl now—the desire for life, the craving for the world, the wanting to get on with it. But instead, we wait in the dread of death and the anxiety of love. Adult children are crying when their parents are vaccinated; how heavy the worry has been. We’ve all woken to a truth we too often denied. Our precious people can be lost in a breath. One routine kiss in the morning can be the last.
“Susan never knew her worth,” Mark told me on that Low Country porch, flip-flops on the railing, tears under sunglasses. “But she was like the tides. A force of nature. How much her friends are still grieving—that’s a testament to her.”
Today in Rome, stray cats lounge on deteriorating tombstones alongside a smattering of locals who have come to see the grave containing “all that was mortal of a young English poet.” And today in Beaufort, a smooth reddish-brown box labeled “Susan Shaffer” rests on a table where the once-mortal woman regularly threw her mail.
We carry a lot through this world. Our ambitions and jealousies. Our judgments, our posturing, our pain. And then it is gone. What then? Do we survive in the people we once loved? Or do we all gradually dissolve into a jumble of dates and genealogical markers as time moves on without us? Susan never got to see another dolphin, Keats another sunrise. What of them—what of us—lives on?
Keats, at least, considered it. “I have left no immortal work behind me,” he wrote once in a letter, “nothing to make my friends proud of my memory—but I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remembered.”