A Conversation with Keats

Poet Stanley Plumly’s book on the legendary John Keats transcends biography.

By Eric Ormsby
Poetry Media Service

Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography, by Stanley Plumly. Norton, $27.95.

Poets who die young often have surprisingly lively posthumous careers. John Keats (1795-1821) provides the most celebrated example: Almost immediately after his death in Rome, at the age of 25, he entered the realm of legend. Though his poetry wasn’t much read at the time, he himself was quickly transformed into a figure of myth. For Shelley–who drowned with a copy of Keats’s last book in his pocket–he was “like a pale flower by some sad maiden cherished,” as he put it in “Adonais,” his elegy for the poet. At the opposite extreme, Shelley’s good friend Lord Byron detested Keats and snubbed him, referring to him in one letter as “a dirty little blackguard.” For the aristocratic Byron, Keats was a “Cockney” upstart–more a rank weed than a pale lily. But for Keats’s admirers, his humble origins only enhanced the pathos of his fate. For William Butler Yeats, Keats was both the “coarse-bred son of a livery-stable keeper” and a woebegone schoolboy “with face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window,” the very epitome of sensuousness unsatisfied.

In Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography, the poet Stanley Plumly draws on these multiple, and often conflicting, images to create a subtle portrait of an elusive figure. Keats has been well-served by his biographers–most particularly, in the last century alone, by Walter Jackson Bate and Aileen Ward, both of whom wrote superb and compelling accounts of his short but rich life. Though Mr. Plumly uses these, and other sources, in his own account–and seems to have read virtually everything written about Keats from the early 19th century onward–his book is less a biography in the usual sense than an extended meditation.

Each of his chapters deals with a significant event in Keats’s life, and yet the effect is anything but episodic. Whether he is describing Keats’s grim medical training as a “dresser” (a surgical nurse who tended the survivors of operations) or exploring his passionate love affair with the enigmatic and flirtatious Fanny Brawne or recounting his terrible lingering final illness and death, Mr. Plumly knows how to piece the fragmentary evidence–from letters, memoirs, official documents, and, of course, the poetry itself–so seamlessly together as to bring each scene before the reader’s eyes with great dramatic force. At the same time, by rejecting what he calls “linearity,” he is able to proceed in a circular fashion, swerving and doubling back to give fresh emphasis or new nuance to a point made earlier. The effect is curiously musical, with each of his chosen themes followed by ever more intricate variations.

In this respect, Mr. Plumly’s unusual method, which does take some getting used to, succeeds brilliantly. In part it works so well because it is perfectly suited to the “personal biography” of his subtitle. For while the book is a scrupulously factual account both of Keats’s life and of his literary afterlife, it is also a sort of secret conversation carried on between two poets over a distance of almost 200 years. And this sense–not only of love for Keats’s poetry, but of profound engagement with it–informs Mr. Plumly’s discussion throughout. Unlike previous biographers, he has a subtle ear for the verbal harmonies which make the great odes in particular so memorable. When he quotes the opening lines of the ode “To Autumn,” “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,” and compares them to these lines from the “Ode to a Nightingale,” “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, / Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,” he notes that the interlacing patterns of sound in these two quite different poems both create “a hearing just beautifully ahead of knowing.” This is part of what Mr. Plumly elsewhere describes, quite aptly, as Keats’s “plush playfulness.” The poems play upon our ears before they engage our minds; their sounds are the very music of the imagination.

In a way, Keats anticipated his own afterlife. His most fervent wish was one day to “be counted among the English poets.” During his lifetime that wish seemed improbable.

Though he was admired early in America, it wasn’t until the 1850s–some 30 years after his death–that English readers began to appreciate his distinctive genius. Byron scoffed at Keats’s phrase “music unheard” but it was Byron, along with many of his contemporaries, who couldn’t catch the tune. As Keats lay dying miserably of tuberculosis, tended only by his friend, the painter Joseph Severn, he asked his physician how much longer “this posthumous life of mine” would last. It has lasted now for almost two centuries, and it seems likely to continue forever.

Eric Ormsby’s work regularly appears in The Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, The Paris Review, and other publications. This article first appeared in The New York Sun, where he writes the weekly “Readings” column. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about John Keats, and his poetry, at http://www.poetryfoundation.org.

© 2008 by Eric Ormsby. All rights reserved.

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~ by ericedits on November 20, 2008.

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