Keats’s Afterlife

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 …

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