Writ In Water: A Novel of John Keats
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘T is not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
The book Writ in Water: A Novel of John Keats by James Sulzer begins with his perhaps most well-known poem, “Ode to a Nightingale,” which is important to the book for a number of reasons. Poetry is at the heart of this novel and breathes life into it throughout; the nightingale plays an important role in this story; and the reader gets an idea and a sense for the writer behind the poem, with his word choice, his rhyme scheme, and his sense of imagery, which again all play a very intentional part in the book that was carefully crafted by Sulzer to reflect this.
Writ in Water is a fictional story of John Keats’s life told in a most unique and wonderful way that makes perfect and perhaps even obvious sense once the reader understands what’s going on here. While the book is divided into chapters, we also have sections within those chapters subtitled either “N” or “J.” It is not a hard code to crack: “N” stands for nightingale and “J” for John. We have parts of the story told from the viewpoint of, yes, the nightingale, a bird; told through unique and colorful prose, giving it a very different sense to prose from a human character. We see it in the careful word choice and in the poetical nature of the writing:
“A young woman, clothed in the color of leaves, flickered up to the dripping young man and perched near him. Her face was long and smooth, and her mouth was the red of berries.”
“Summer. A fat, round word like a juicy beetle, full of warmth and goodness. Fever. A skinny and troubled word, as worrisome as a hawk circling overhead.”
There is a little getting used to the language and point-of-view at first, but once understood, the reader gets fully pulled into the story with this unusual and unique character, as well as getting an ongoing story from John Keats’s point of view, the emotions he was feeling at the time, and the life he chose to lead, with those he cared for deeply, and those not so much.
While the book is prose, it really feels like an extensive work of poetry. Sulzer has worked hard at choosing certain words and phrasings, researching the life and works of Keats, and making the whole book a very special journey, as we live through the highs and lows of Keats’s life and ultimately his sad death, with the words etched upon his gravestone at the poet’s request: “Here lies one whose name is writ in water.”
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