Keats’s Afterlife

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National Portrait Gallery, London/SuperStock
The poet John Keats, in a painting by his friend Joseph Severn, who nursed him in Rome until his death from tuberculosis in February 1821. Severn said of this portrait, ‘This was the time he first fell ill & had written the Ode to the Nightingale on the morning of my visit to Hampstead. I found him sitting with the two chairs as I have painted him & was struck with the first real symptoms of sadness in Keats so finely expressed in that poem.’

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 …

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