Posthumous Keats, by Stanley Plumly, W. W. Norton, 392 pp., $27.95
In a central scene in Stanley Plumly’s new biography, John Keats and Joseph Severn, the young artist who will eventually be at Keats’s bedside when he dies, are traveling from Naples to Rome in a vettura, a small covered carriage. The ancient Roman road is so bumpy that Severn decides to walk alongside, picking wildflowers and passing them through to his ailing friend. It is Keats’s last voyage anywhere—in less than four months he will be dead from tuberculosis. Wasted, pale, surrounded by flowers, the poet becomes the centerpiece of a darkly symbolic tableau that “graduates to something more ominous than delight and begins to resemble death in his funeral carriage.”
Ever since Charles Brown wrote his memoir of Keats in 1841, 20 years after the poet’s death, the biographies have piled up thick and fast. Walter Jackson Bate’s John Keats, published in 1963, is widely regarded as the Keats biography, and no attempts before or since, from Amy Lowell’s two-volume work to Andrew Motion’s loudly trumpeted 650-page Keats, have succeeded in dislodging it.
To his credit, Plumly doesn’t seem all that interested in dislodging anything. He is a well-established poet himself, having published nine books of verse over the past 40 years, and Posthumous Keats often reads less like a biography than like a 400-page exercise in poeticizing narrative. As he states in the preface, the book’s structure is “circular rather than linear.” But it might be more apt to say the structure is cinematic, since each chapter orbits a single visual motif—Keats’s portraits, his headstone, his sickroom in Rome—from multiple angles. The result is that crucial images (such as Keats in the vettura) are periodically revisited.
Secure in this arrangement, and buttressed by 20 years of research, Plumly happily throws chronology to the wind. His writing is loose and associative, cutting back and forth between the years, following Keats from Rome to London to Edinburgh and back again with no apparent compass other than curiosity. Figures like Shelley and Leigh Hunt, who merit sustained bursts of attention in the longer biographies, flit through the pages like shadows. At times the book appears to be directing itself. But the direction is confident, and most readers won’t mind the author plucking them from March 1821 and setting them down in, say, November 1816, as long as they’re given something interesting to look at along the way.
Posthumous Keats also offers up an argument—though here, admittedly, Plumly is well preceded by Motion and Bate. In the opening chapters, he hacks away at our totemic notion of Keats-as-doomed-oracle, cut down in the bloom of youth by forces beyond his control (or by “the harsh winds of enemy criticism,” as Plumly puts it). Keats’s own friends are largely to blame: after his death, Shelley wrote of “the wound his sensitive spirit had received from the criticism of Endymion,” and Brown and Severn somewhat precipitously decided that the best place to mount an assault on the philistine reviewers would be his headstone:
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.”
Plumly adds that most portraits of Keats, especially those painted in the masturbatory afterglow of the Pre-Raphaelites, are guilty of promoting his “beautification” (and his beatification as the patron saint of self-styled genius).
Watching a scholar’s hackles rise at literary mythmaking is a familiar spectacle. To some extent, Keats’s name will always evoke visions of the tragic poet scrawling masterworks with one hand while weakly coughing blood into the other, and one wonders whether those invested enough to read this biography will need to hear his entire argument. On the other hand, it is refreshing to see England’s best-beloved Romantic poet writing to Shelley that “an artist must serve Mammon—he must have ‘self-concentration’ selfishness perhaps,” or to read of him in Rome, weeks away from death, spiritedly hurling a plateful of mediocre food out the second-floor window because he wants “a decent dinner.”
But Posthumous Keats is most powerful, and most enjoyable, when it sets aside its agenda and lingers on moments that easily could have been swallowed in a new “definitive” biography. Given the book’s length, Plumly is generous in his choice of letters, printing many of them in full. Thus Keats’s pathetic summary of his doctors’ advice, in a letter to Fanny Brawne: “I am recommended not even to read poetry much less write it. I wish I had even a little hope.” More moving is Leigh Hunt’s prescient letter to Severn in Rome, written just days after Keats’s death, before Hunt has heard the news: “Tell him he is only before us on the road, as he was in everything else . . . and add, that we shall never forget that he was so, and that we are coming after him.”