on Posthumous Keats, a “personal biography” by Stanley Plumly (Norton)

“Every modern poet is obliged to have a view of Keats, as if he were part of the competition,” Clive James proclaims. Although he doesn't give us a clear reason why this is so, the assessment sticks. Wordsworth and Coleridge may have done most of the trenchwork for the Romantic poets, making radically new connections between the revision of poetic materials and diction, and the power of the imagination to create reality. “Even a poem as tonally somber as, say, ‘Tintern Abbey’ is doing something surprising and excessive,” writes Seamus Heaney in The Redress of Poetry, “getting further back and deeper in than the poet knew it would, the poet being nevertheless still ready to go with it.” But Keats is the poet of the inner life as we think of it today: conflicted, threatened, provisional, authentic, expansive, claustrophobic, sacred, profane.

There’s something too assured and prescriptive about Wordsworth’s grasp of memory, even transformed by his imagination. But Keats’ “negative capability” suggests that being startled and captivated by one’s own doubts, dread, confusion, and indecisiveness may feed an entire poetic career and engross a like-minded audience. Thanks to Keats, now every poet has an inner life. Through negative capability, “Keats was advising himself to be patient in the quest for definitiveness. It is the counsel of patience of the imagination,” as W. S. Di Piero put it in Memory and Enthusiasm. Patience comes packaged with modern lifespan expectancies, if one cares to employ it. In Keats’ case, patience was an heroic attribute.

keats.jpgStanley Plumly so keenly feels an obligation to provide a slant on Keats that he has come up with his own biographical technique, called “personal biography.” In the preface of Posthumous Keats, he writes “that certain connections and crossovers in the John Keats story had not fit the profile of strict biographical narrative … The problem, as I saw it, was point of view: Who, in what voice, would speak what I wished to say? … I had to find a middle way of discovering and articulating Keats in his possible and potential afterlife, not only his life … For Keats, in his final year and a half – his 'posthumous existence,' as he sometimes called it – mortality was total … In the end, this is a book of reflection, contemplation, mediation … I wanted to process how, in the exemplary instance of Keats, the mystery of immortality becomes manifest.”

What begins as a rumination on how Keats’ friends and acquaintances shaped his posthumous image becomes a vortical, desperate story about the forces at work on the inner life of the poet: orphanhood, musings on progress and suffering, penury and dependency on others, anxious love, waywardness of profession, worries about poetic posterity, death of a mother and brother, med school experiences and medical “knowledge,” unmistakable signs of fatal illness, disappearance of creative power. Those forces and Keats’ foreknowledge of death converge most profoundly in “To Autumn.” Here, too, is Plumly at his feverish best, as he steps away from the recitation of fact and to the obsessing voice of “a middle way of discovering and articulating” his sense of Keats’ situation and poem:

“ ‘To Autumn,’ the perfection of Keats’s mode of disappearance into the text, is not only his last great lyric; it is what we could call the ‘apotheosis’ of elemental conversion – of the earth harvest, yes; of the ending fire of the sun; of the arcing anticipation of spring rain; but mostly of the separating veil, the mist, the angular vision, the airy archetype, the symbolist voice. But be careful what you wish for. Disappearance as a figure is one thing; disappearance as a fact is another. Keats’s true disappearance as a poet and a man begins here, a full year and a half before he dies. It is a death by increments, of course, and it will test the community around him. Disappearance will come to mean posthumous, a slow wearing away, the wasting of body and, at times, it seems, of soul, a true consumption, a conversion into air, into breath, in the nothing that is poetry. No wonder the doctors were confused as to what was ailing Keats: in a way it was neither this nor that but everything, manna as well as matter. And it starts with his most perfect poem, as if an open circle had been drawn to close. That is to say, the recognition of what has been true and fated for years arrives like a vision, and that vision is ‘To Autumn,’ whose emotional and spiritual realities represent both a full cup and an exhaustion, their sequence and consequence.”

Posthumous Keats may have given up on biographical linearity, but it imposes its own form on Keats’ story. There are seven chapters, each divided into seven sections. Each chapter takes up a facet of the poet’s final years. Plumly’s episodic treatments are best described as a long loop of switchbacks, otherwise known as redundancy. When Plumly wants us to understand the grief of abandonment Keats may have felt due to Charles Brown’s alleged failure to care for him in Italy, he simply repeats certain facts. “Keats’s two anxious letters to Brown at the end of the summer of 1820 never reach Brown in time. Both letters pointedly ask Brown to accompany Keats to Italy … When the letters finally reach him and he can make his way south by boat, it is too late: Keats and Severn have already started their journey and are, in fact, lying off Gravesend for the night before they sail out to sea. Remember: Brown’s Dundee smack is also, lying off Gravesend for the night, at shouting distance.” Remember? How can we forget? Here, on page 289, we’re told about it for the third time, with no additional information or insight. The repetitiveness throughout, tugging at one’s sleeve to recall what may have hurt or preoccupied Keats, risks a padded-out sense to the whole venture.

plumly.jpgPlumly began by maintaining that “certain connections and crossovers” in Keats’ life had not been clarified by his biographers. But clarification isn’t his mission in Posthumous Keats. By musing non-stop about various angles on the poet’s death, Plumly hopes to glimpse how “the mystery of immortality becomes manifest.” But in my reading of this book, Plumly’s inventive technique succeeds without achieving his objectives. In other words, his inspired chatter on Keats’ public and private deaths doesn’t actually make any mystery manifest. Plumly dwells rather than discovers; the narrative is a kind of chant. However, the mysterious connections and crossovers I long to perceive – the turbulent transit in the poet’s mind of tragic, worldly imagery and premonitions of the strange nature of selfhood – begin to suggest themselves. The shape of Posthumous Keats -- confined by an unconventional, tremulous returning to what haunts a mind (Keats’ mind, and perhaps Plumly’s, too) -– generates the feel of the stifling excitability of a creative self.

keats2.jpgAs Plumly makes heartbreakingly clear, in his final years Keats was more or less an orphan of the world – broke, homeless, family-less, hopeless. His final caregiver, Joseph Severn, wasn’t a close friend. I hear the voice of Posthumous Keats as the sound of fidelity, unfailing connection, a more constant empathy. The voice of a more devoted companion than, for instance, Charles Brown, whom Plumly evidently despises. In the world of this book, the taking of sides and a sidling into self-interest occur all around the disinterested Keats, who will be neither liberal journalist, nor hatter, nor apothecary.

In Keats, A Biography (1997), which does as good a job as any linear Keats on the nature of his inner life, Andrew Motion writes about the final poems: “In order to fulfill himself as a beauty-loving and truth-telling poet, Keats must remain faithful to the world of experience, and suffer the historical process which constantly threatens to extinguish his ideal, rather than opt for a world of substitutes and abstractions.” The killing world provoked Keats, who responded desperately to the most dire proddings. In a letter to his friend John Reynolds, Keats wrote, “In my walk today, I stoop’d under a rail way that lay across my path and ask’d myself ‘Why I did not get over’ ‘Because,’ answered I, ‘no one wanted to force you under.’ ” (In a late letter to his brother George, Keats claimed, “Quieter in my pulse, improved in my digestion; exerting myself against vexing speculations – scarcely content to write the best verses for the fever they leave behind. I want to compose without this fever.” This professed desire, impossible to fulfill and not terribly desirable, sounds familiar to us. Here is Keats trying to come to terms with the inner self he has just discovered/invented for us.)

Historical processes, hopes for progress and the diminishment of suffering in the world, the intuition that humans create the world they perceive – these were some of the elements of liberal politics and philosophy embraced by Keats, just as they are today. Perhaps Keats intuited that none of this has much to do with the inner self. (Or as Motion puts the question, “Could the inward-delving imagination be reconciled with a wish to speak on ‘the Liberal side of the Question?’ ”) In the final long, more philosophical poem, a figure of imaginative power such as Lamia, a “shape-shifter,” is “bound to be vulnerable because she is continually threatened with discovery,” as Motion notes. Conflicted sensibilities disrupt the flow of conventional life; flaring up and controlled in great art, they make the familiar strange.

As the ultimate provocation, death – the slow dying, then the drowning collapse – scandalized Keats with total discovery. This, I believe, is why Plumly has chosen to circle around the story of Keats’ posthumous death – to get as close as possible to the hidden connections and crossovers that resulted in the final great poems. I’m not at all certain he gets any closer than Motion does, though that is a long way. And that may be the point of this wish to uncover the mysteries: We can circle above the story, but we cannot land, because it is all in a mist below, as Keats himself described his life to George. So perhaps because of Plumly’s poignant redundancies, there are several facts and impressions I may never forget.

[Published May 26, 2008, 392 pp., $$27.95 hardcover]