Reviewed by Ted Genoways
Sunday, April 20, 2008
By Stanley Plumly
Norton. 379 pp. $25.95
At the end of November 1820, after more than a year of nursing an ailing stomach and succumbing to the ravages of consumption, John Keats wrote his friend Charles Brown, "I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence." It was not the first time that Keats had described this sensation in his letters, but it was the last. Less than three months later, the little-known and lowly regarded poet was dead. Feeling that he had failed to make a name for himself in his brief 25 years, he insisted that his grave be left anonymous and that his epitaph read only, "Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water."
Of course, his friends and future readers allowed Keats no such erasure, but the poet could never have known this. And this bitter conundrum -- the poet's ardent wish to glimpse his death while still alive and his friends' equal desire to keep something of the poet alive after his death -- is the subject of Stanley Plumly's obsessive, intricate, intimate and brilliant new book, Posthumous Keats, forthcoming in May.
If the mark of true genius is the effortless creation of something wholly new that, once seen, becomes self-evident -- as Plumly regards Keats's odes -- then it's apt that Plumly himself should have to mint a new genre to reckon with the young poet. Plumly calls his new form a "personal biography" and explains in the preface that he spent multiple drafts and many years shuttling between the third-person voice of a biographer and the first person of a poet or essayist. "I had to find a middle way," he concludes. "The voice needed to be convicted in its opinions and thoughtful in its musings. In the end, this is a book of reflection, contemplation, mediation." And, as promised, the narrative moves in circles rather than a straight line, spinning out past the end of Keats's life and back, across seven chapters, each constructed in seven sections. But this intricate structure is not about carefully subdividing a life -- or afterlife -- but rather allowing multiple takes on the same subject matter, doubling back to reconsider or reinforce what we have seen before.
If the result sounds maddening, it isn't, partly because the book mimics the ebb and flow of memory, partly because Plumly's prose is a model of readability. He navigates expertly between the pauses of poetic meditation and the necessary forward momentum of a compelling story. Each section begins with a kind of authorial gambit, tests it against Keats's life and poems, then emerges with a new insight. One section, for example, begins: "The place in his poetry that Keats has come to, in his final days as a writer, is a practice of form in which the eye and ear are indistinguishable." Plumly elucidates by giving a biographically driven close reading of "To Autumn," but slowly builds to ever larger assertions before closing this section: "To see as a poet, a true dreamer, is to see as a healer and a knower."
For such statements to come off as anything but overblown is a testament to the bravura of Plumly's performance. What contemporary critic would dare make such sweeping assertions or venture so deeply into the mind of his subject? What poet would engage in such exhaustive research or craft such an exacting portrait? Plumly shows us how bloodless and cold criticism has become in the last half-century by demonstrating how passionately engaged he is -- with the life he is writing, the poems he is explicating, the era he is recreating. The effect, at times, is like watching a resurrection -- not only of Keats, but of the cadaverous genre of literary criticism.
To be sure, Plumly traffics somewhat in supposition and interpolation, but his imagination is fed by facts and by a deep and abiding empathy. In the very opening pages of the narrative, we see Keats attempting to escape the heat of Kentish Town by taking the coach to see his sister in Walthamstow. But, at the coach stop, "Keats could feel a small issue of blood start to move from his lungs up into his throat," so he returned home, where he "lay there on the floor of the second story in the heat, with the rust taste of blood in his mouth." Plumly's source is a line from one of Keats's letters in which he tells his sister only that he stayed home because "a slight spitting of blood came on which returned rather more copiously at night." Keats does not mention the taste of blood in his mouth, but how could it not have been there? That radical identification with Keats and the bravery to weave such insights seamlessly into his narrative are what makes Plumly's book more than just another dispassionate biography. His is a book worthy of Keats -- full of feeling and drama and those fleeting moments we call genius. ·
Ted Genoways's second book of poetry, "Anna, washing," will be published in September. He is the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review.