Rome, November 30, 1820. John Keats, who at the age of twenty-five has less than three months to live, is writing to his friend Charles Brown in England:
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.
The word that rotates, “but,” is rounded upon, in its turn, by the word “however.” Keats, with a courage that is something better than unflinching (for the unflinching may be not so much courageous as foolhardy), declines to speculate on what might have been his prospects in love and in art, and on what those prospects now are, here and hereafter. He makes deeply real, within real life, a line of thought that has become the shallowest of modern injunctions: Let’s not go there. His unwavering decision, painful and pained, is to treat his friend with the utmost, the uttermost, decorum.
He was leading a posthumous existence as he lay dying of consumption. It was proving to be “a long day’s dying to augment our pain” (Adam’s vision in Paradise Lost of what lay in store for mankind after the Fall). Our pain as well as his. A posthumous existence was a paradoxical thought at the time that Keats voiced it; it would soon (not, given his agony, all too soon) become no longer a paradox but a plain truth, when he entered upon the only kind of afterlife that he could continue to believe in. His belief contained an acknowledgment of the dark doubts about art’s worth that many great artists have found themselves suffering.
Moreover, for Keats, his had long been a hope at once firm and tentative: “I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death.” For it is I think that gives the asseveration such grace and dignity, so that a small but not insignificant wrong is done when (on a couple of occasions in Posthumous Keats) his precisely guarded hope is indurated into “his statement to his brother George, in 1818, that he would be among the English poets after his death,” within “a future that meant to place him ‘among the English poets.’”
Stanley Plumly’s profoundly humane evocation of Keats’s life and his immediate afterlife is better than magisterial, for it is masterly. Characteristic of the attentive powers is his pausing upon Keats’s word past: “my real life having past.” The last word does double duty and more than duty, this having passed into the past. The book is supremely well informed, by means not only of sheer information but of the larger—the Keatsian—sense of what it is to inform. Here is imaginative realization, with width as well as depth of sympathies. Even while Plumly knows that there is no substitute for knowledge, he knows that this is because there is no substitute for anything: for, say, conviction, sensibility, intelligence, honesty, curiosity such as does not kill but gives life, and love. While this “personal biography” never relinquishes its confidence that there are crucial assurances that can be both given and taken, it succeeds in holding such assurances in respectful balance with Keats’s complementary concept and precept, ” Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”
Plumly’s is a generous book, avowedly grateful to what he calls “the great 1960s biographies” of Keats, that by Walter Jackson Bate, which I’d characterize as the most cognitive; by Aileen Ward, the most touching; and by Robert Gittings, the most practical. Plumly pays justified tribute to the fine editors, too, notably Hyder Edward Rollins, for Keats’s letters as well as all the papers of the Keats circle, and John Barnard, for the poems. These debts are honored; for his architectonics, Plumly is in debt to no one. Thanks to acts of arbitration that are not simply arbitrary, he is able to exercise to the full his own shaping spirit of imagination, and to have each chapter be “formed from a single image, theme, or object relative to Keats’s vulnerabilities as an individual and his strengths as an artist.” The happy result, sensitive to the darkest unhappinesses, is a work that is markedly personal, while never becoming self-conscious, idiosyncratic, or eccentric.
At the center of Posthumous Keats is the journey deathward. A threefold image is constituted of how Keats was pictured, of how he was treated medically (the art that was practiced both upon him and by him when younger), and of how he loved and was loved. In illuminating all of these for us, Plumly is acute in what he notices and in how he notes it down. He writes with lucid tact and with apt implication. Here is Keats in the summer of 1820, at his rooms in Kentish Town:
He lay there on the floor of the second story in the heat, with the rust taste of blood in his mouth, for most of the rest of the day, late afternoon and the closeness of the humidity and the weight of the ceiling pressing down on him.
There is nothing ostentatious about this, but Plumly’s being a poet animates his prose. Not rusty but rust, as more brutal of sense and as more tellingly continuous of sound: rust taste… most… rest (the turning of rust to rest), with closeness as both atmosphere and proximity, and then with ceiling pressing as giving the noun ceiling the weight of a further participle.
This is a style that is alive to undercurrents, as when “Here lies one whose name was writ in water” moves a little later into “Keats’s undercurrent of guilt about leaving his brother.” There is deft evocation, whether of a portrait (“Keats’s firm fist anchored at the cheek”), of a benign transition (Keats, having spoken of “a cold hill,” soon “warms to the sight”), of a shudder at the weather (“the chilblain climate of coastal Scotland”), of cautiously precarious physical movement (“the loose gravel” that is “making traction to the unwary tricky”), of a horrible fluency (“coughing blood consistently—that is, phlegm flecked with blood”), or even of a simple preposition— into —and how it can bring home a haunting pun (“he has pored his eyes into books”). Of the Eternal City, where Keats entered into eternity, Plumly writes with lapidary power: “The eternal is history, piled, or plied, against time. It is not ethereal, but stone, whatever form it has fallen to.”
This excellent prose is yet more evidence, if more were needed, that Plumly has read Keats to very good effect, has been appreciative of Keats’s effects. Here is wording to trust, not least in the way in which it is willing to risk being misunderstood in the service of such courage as Keats himself could evince in confronting what he had to endure. Charles Brown averted his eyes and his mind from the medical horror (with what Plumly sympathetically calls “an understatement of hope in the face of fact”) when he reported Keats as having “a slight inflammation in the throat.” Plumly is right to catch this, in a figure of speech that could have been corporeally maladroit, as “both stiff upper lip and dangerous denial.” The biographer’s suggestive vigilance attends to the same quality in Keats, as when Plumly draws out the double sense of the word before (place and time) in Keats’s scorn of poetasters in “The Fall of Hyperion”:
Though I breathe death with them it will be life
To see them sprawl before me into graves.
The biographer is at one with his subject in all such fine fidelity of phrasing. So it was that Keats made serious play with give up, when he moved from announcing that he had “given up Hyperion“—the first version, which he abandoned—to “I wish to give myself up to other sensations.” The poet in Keats informs his being a prose writer of genius, as when he delights in the word vale (which appears in the opening line of Hyperion):
There is a cool pleasure in the very sound of vale. The English word is of the happiest chance. Milton has put vales in heaven and hell with the very utter affection and yearning of a great Poet.
This is not half-formed poetry, it is fully formed prose, finding a cool pleasure not only in the one word and in Milton’s surprising us (“Milton has put vales in heaven and hell “) but in the rhythm of Milton, the English heroic line that is audible in Keats’s cadence, “The English word is of the happiest chance.” Plumly has an eye and an ear for words and their curiosity. After quoting a description of Keats as an invalid, he adds: “Curious word that ‘invalid,’ because it refers not only to the disabled but to the non-valid as well,” given a poet “whose name deserves to be disappeared.”
The manner of the whole book is one that can accommodate the tentativeness that is so Keatsian: “To night I am all in a mist; I scarcely know what’s what.” Plumly remarks of the great odes, with tenderness, that they are “poems that scarcely know what is what, and that thrive in that ‘scarcely.’” Braced against such delicacy is a Keatsian counter-quality, robustness. As when Plumly immediately follows Hyder Edward Rollins’s description of Keats’s friend Charles Brown with a straightfaced laconicism: “‘Brown was a strange mixture of coarseness, kindliness, cold-bloodedness, and calculation.’ He was a Scot, and…”
The tragic medical story has always been told with great feeling. To this honorable tradition Posthumous Keats contributes a saddened acumen. That Keats’s Hampstead was known as “the lungs of London.” That when Keats writes of the ill health of his friend James Rice, he is thinking of his brother Tom—not ignoring Rice and thinking only of Tom but thinking of Tom too. That though bloodletting is now known to be a misguided treatment, Keats himself had been a practitioner of it. That it was not until the 1840s that “consumption and the symptoms of tuberculosis became synonymous, though the tubercle bacillus itself was not identified until 1882.” And that Keats’s friends and his doctors, all of them, clung to the belief that it was not his lungs but his stomach or his mind that was at the root of his illness, and that this belief was clung to even by Keats himself, against his better knowledge of how much worse his condition was, how fatal. (It is an admirably level epithet for the medical men that Plumly comes up with: “however much he wanted to believe his deficient doctors.”)
It was as late as March 1820 that Brown believed that he could offer an assurance, even offer it twice within the one letter: “Keats is so well as to be out of danger”; “I consider him perfectly out of danger, & no pulmonary affection, no organic defect whatsoever,—the disease is on his mind….” The pincer jaws converge, the two possibilities that are equally but differently excruciating: the tragic if only, and the no less tragic conviction that there had never been any hope.