Verba volant, scripta manent, said the ancients. But as they knew well how little scripta are worth if they are not backed by the gold cover of the intentions striving to realize them, therefore what we call “word cried in the wilderness” they linked, with an elegant oxymoron, to the very writing: in aqua scribere, “to write on water”.
Erasmus also knew this when he included the proverb In aqua scribis (1.4.56) among the ancient adagia on useless things – Aethiopem lavas, whitewashing the black man, Ferrum natare doces, teaching the iron to swim, Cribro aquam haurire, drawing water with a sieve, Parieti loqueris, speaking to the wall, and so on – which fill out more than half of Centuria 1.4 of his Adagia, and were translated with one collective phrase in the Hungarian Adagia of 1598 by János Baranyai Decsi: Haszontalan dolgot czeleködni – Doing idle things.
Erasmus illustrated this adage mostly from Greek sources. In Lucian’s Tyrant (21) Hermes warns Charon, the ferryman of the underworld: You are kidding or, as they say, writing on water if you hope any obulus from Micyllus, and Plato in Phaidros (276c) says about “the expert of truth, beauty and goodness” that he will not write with his pen on black water. What is more, Erasmus quotes a verse from the commentary of Aristophanes’ comedy The Wasps as a separate proverb: Ἀνδρῶν δὲ φαύλων ὄρκον εἰς ὕδωρ γράφε - The oath of an evil man should be written on water. He also quotes Latin authors, primarily Catullus (70,2-3):
|…Mulier cupido quod dicit amanti|
In vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua.
…Whatever a woman says to her yearning lover
it shall be written in the wind and on rapid water.
We have already seen that condemnatory ancient proverbs often got a positive tone precisely in Erasmus’ century. This happened to the metaphor of “writing on water” as well. Erasmus himself had no small part in this, as he stressed that our Lord Christ was mentioned to write only one single time, and even then – in the dust. In John 8:3-11, the story of the adulterous woman – read in the Mass exactly today – the Pharisees ask Jesus whether they should stone the woman as Moses had commanded.
“Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them: If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her. Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her: Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? No one, sir, she said. Then neither do I condemn you, Jesus declared. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Photis Kontoglou: Christ writing in the dust, 1924
Renaissance humanists filled whole volumes with their conjectures about what Jesus wrote there in the dust. Several exegets pointed out that this scene contains a reference to Jeremiah 17:13: “Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust, because they have forsaken the LORD, the spring of living water.” But all of them agreed that whatever Jesus wrote, it was certainly no idle thing. On the contrary, it is also included in the statement in Mt 24:25: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
The metaphor of the word written on transient material but lasting forever thus became a favorite image in literature. Rudolf Wittkower describes in detail in his Born under Saturn how the idea of the “divinely inspired” artist, the artifex and poeta divus developed since the beginning of the 16th century, also incorporating several elements of sacrality which earlier had been reserved to God only. These included the above motif as well, which was used by the new poets – oh, vanity! – to symbolize the eternity of their own works. The new metaphor can be found expanded in Sonnet 75 by Edmund Spenser (1552-1599):
|One day I wrote her name upon the strand,|
But came the waves and washed it away:
Agayne I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tyde, and made my paynes his pray.
“Vayne man,” sayd she, “that doest in vaine assay.
A mortall thing so to immortalize,
For I my selve shall lyke to this decay,
and eek my name bee wyped out lykewize.”
“Not so,” quod I, “let baser things devize,
To dy in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens wryte your glorious name.
Where whenas death shall all the world subdew,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.”
With the spreading of the metaphor – and especially in and after Romanticism – it was already enough to quote the first half of the full image, the text written on a transient or unfathomable material, and this already evoked the idea of eternity just as naturally as it had evoked that of vanity for the ancients. “Write on the sky if everything is broken!”, wrote in the lager Radnóti, concentrating in one single phrase both elements of the motif.
However, the best example of the adage’s new interpretation is Keats’ epitaph in the Protestant cemetery in Rome. This bitter epitaph announces that the young poet, embittered by his evil enemies, only wanted to have written on his tomb: Here lies one whose name was writ in water.
“This Grave contains all that was Mortal, of a Young English Poet, Who, on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart, at the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone: Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”
English history of literature holds that this saying can be reduced to a verse in Beaumont and Fletcher’s Philaster (1611) – All your better deeds Shall be in water writ – and alludes to the vanity of all noble efforts. However, if we also take into account the complete history of the adage from classical times through Erasmus to Spenser, then the inscription suggests just the contrary: the eternity of the poet’s oeuvre, triumphing over everything transitory and evil in this world.