Sunday, August 03, 2014

Horizon Archives: Jane Holland reviews Plumly on Keats

A Touch of Irony:
Jane Holland on Stanley Plumly’s creative biography of Keats.

Part of the Horizon Review Archive Project

Stanley Plumly, Posthumous Keats (Norton, 2008) £16.99

Almost compulsively, it seems, each age must reinvent the great poets for themselves, with fresh biographies and critical studies to trump their antecedents. Stanley Plumly’s latest work, ‘Posthumous Keats’, is among the newest examples of this compulsion and one which amply demonstrates the possibilities and limitations inherent in a work of critical biography. His book - or ‘meditation’ as one critic has it - on the quintessential English Romantic poet, John Keats, takes its inspiration from Plumly’s own response to the tragic young poet’s life and work. From that personal foundation, ‘Posthumous Keats’ radiates out into a creative and often highly imaginative reconstruction of Keats’ last years of life, including the so-called ‘Living Year’ of 1818-19 in which he wrote some of his best-loved poems.

Plumly is not only a lecturer at the University of Maryland but also an experienced poet and writer himself, and his expertise at creative non-fiction is one of the hallmarks of this biography. The early life, that fateful last trip to Rome, the deathbed scenes, and especially the aftermath of Keats’ early death at the age of 25 - all these are imagined with such keen novelistic instinct that Plumly puts himself almost in the position of secret observer rather than scholarly biographer. So in the following, densely-written passage, Plumly conjures up for us the pungent atmosphere of Keats’ daily environs as a young medical student in London:
It is a busy, dark, Dickensian part of town, exposed as much to sewage and garbage as to the prison life of the Clink and the new Marshalsea network of jails, and within hailing distance of the infamous Mint. There is an etching of the borough from 1820 that, in artistic perspective, makes it look like nineteenth-century southern Manhattan along the East River, rather like Whitman’s ideal picture of it in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”.

Nor does Plumly dwell solely on Keats. His account of the later drowning of Shelley and his two unfortunate companions in the Gulf of Spezia is beautifully and sparingly achieved through a combination of official documents and letters, and some artful supposition. Much is made of Keats’ final volume of poems, given to Shelley by Leigh Hunt and found in the drowned poet’s inner pocket after his body is washed up on the beach. The grimly prophetic line ‘I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar ‘ of Shelley’s from the close of his Adonais is recalled. We are reminded, with a touch of irony, that Keats had turned down an invitation to stay with the Shelleys in their Italian coastal villa, perhaps not wishing to die in the other poet’s arms but to remain out of sight for his last few weeks.

The artist Severn’s death and burial - the close friend who famously sketched Keats on his deathbed - is described in no less careful detail. Fanny Brawne’s dying admission of love for Keats is also discussed, and her covert stash of memorabilia - hidden from her husband and children for forty-odd years - is opened and explored for the secrets it may reveal about their relationship. An air of fateful and sinister oppression hangs over these scenes, as it does over the book as a whole, which is at times redolent of an Agatha Christie murder mystery - where all the suspects must gather after the body has been discovered, to be interviewed in turn.

But when there is no mystery, no whodunit to be solved, just a set of unfortunate circumstances that led to somebody’s death, what is to be gained from these meticulous reconstructions of poets’ lives, often many centuries after they have shuffled off this mortal coil?

This is a difficult question to answer without addressing the issue of prurience. But one thing it demonstrates, at least, is that the cult of celebrity was no twentieth-century invention, as this diary entry from a Mrs. Gisborne, encountering the young poet at Leigh Hunt’s home shortly before his best - and final - collection of poems was to be published, confirms:

Mr. Keats was introduced to us the same evening; he had lately been ill also, and spoke but little; the Endymion was not mentioned, this person might not be its author; but on observing his countenance and his eyes I persuaded myself that he was the very person.

Celebrity aside, there is also the important consideration that the significant moments of a great poet’s life - however painfully short - ought to be documented, to be borne witness to, both by those who were there at the time and those who would continue to build on the legend that is The Famous Poet. For somewhere in amongst those lovingly reconstructed details we may find vital clues to our own creative development - clues to how a poet grows into his or her identity and inheritance. As Lawrence Lipking writes in
The Life of the Poet: Beginning and Ending Poetic Careers (Chicago, 1981):

Keats seems to hold the key to everything we would like to know about how one becomes a poet. At twenty he was no more promising than any number of other would-be authors; suddenly, just short of his twenty-first birthday, he left all the rest behind. What happened?

Plumly himself addresses the problematic issues of prurience and celebrity in various oblique asides during the course of this biography. ‘What is the accumulative, acquiring power, forty years on, of a ring, a lock of hair, a miniature of vague likeness?’ he demands, contemplating the way Keats’ inner circle, many of them nonentities in themselves, have stepped into literary history alongside him. So Keats himself, Plumly ironically claims, ‘becomes their biographer’.

But a famous poet’s life - personal in the present, at the point of first contact - has a way of becoming impersonal with time, of passing into new hands, none of whom will have known the person under scrutiny and for whom that life must become - like The Waste Land, which Plumly references here - a heap of broken images rather than an organic whole:

Bric-a-brac, relics, memorabilia, items around which has congregated an aura of light of the most personal depth and value. But what if that value becomes, on its own, not just personal, but universal? Who owns that memory then? These fragments I have shored against my ruins. The pieces and parts of Keats that each of his friends felt proprietary toward fragmented any chance of a coherent sense of his character and career in the living moment after his death.

Keats himself, resigned to his approaching death, may have sensed how such fragments would be all that remained of his life. Breaking away from his friends and from the woman he wanted to marry - but now never would - he retreated to Rome to die a lonely death, burningly aware of the poems he had failed to write. Thus his last letter, addressed to his friend Brown: 
I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence. God knows how it would have been - but it appears to me - however, I will not speak of that subject.
As a practitioner himself, Plumly is also acutely aware of the despair Keats felt at his own premature death. There can be few things more poignant, after all, for a poet of Keats’ ability, than to die with the knowledge of great poems unwritten. Plumly’s response - a deeply personal one, as he acknowledges elsewhere - is to comfort and reassure the dead poet even in the impersonal, forensic act of reconstructing his ‘posthumous existence’.

So here Plumly pauses to reprise Keats’ last letter, examining it with such thoughtfulness and intensity that it becomes almost a last poem in his hands:

“It runs in my head we shall die young” - George, yes, but perhaps you too, Brown, and maybe Keats’s sister, maybe Fanny Brawne herself, and all of you back there in life. Can we correct our mistakes? Yet if we die before they can be corrected, they will be forgiven. Death is forgiving. “I can scarcely bid you good bye.” Keats’s exit line, “I always made an awkward bow,” is not unlike his desired epitaph: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Both make a gesture, a memorable gesture; both, thus, are poetry; both close without closure; both elevate the moment; and both speak in the past tense, the posthumous tense.

You can buy this book from Amazon UK, Amazon US, or the publisher's website, Norton.

 This article first appeared in HORIZON REVIEW
and has been archived at Raw Light
as part of the Horizon Review Archive Project.

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