Susan J. Wolfson
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” That may be, as Keats’s ironizing odist insists, all we know on earth, and all we need to know, but the tautology is as enigmatic as it is alluring. And so the dust jacket of Stanley Plumly’s extraordinary biography reads, in small print at the top, a personal biography, then, more largely declared, Posthumous Keats. But the title page within inverts the order: Posthumous Keats, a personal biography. Which came first, the personalizing of a biography that, by generic agreement, is supposed to be about the other person, the biographized? Or Posthumous Keats, an epithet that feels like a personal biography, even though the poet-biographer outlives poet-Keats, who dies not even a third of the way into his twenty-sixth year, by decades–more than twice and half Keats’s mortal span?
What is “personal” about this? Is it the persona of “Keats”—the mask for thinking as Keats in camelion sympathy? Is it “personal” in the sense of relating to or being affected as a Plumly-private individual, in the persona of a public biographer? Is it a reciprocal relationship, a personal interviewing? Is it an intense engagement in one’s person, belonging to oneself, and self-directed? A personal biography plays in all these registers, with a Keatsian flexibility of imagination. To reverse Michael Corleone, writing Posthumous Keats was not business, it was personal, so Plumly-personal that the impulse seems simultaneous with wanting to think hard about what it was to be Keats, who in his mortal body of less than 10,000 days on earth had a lifetime of mortal experience: the death of both parents, a beloved brother, the loss of another brother to America; the heartbreak of a romance that was everything and nothing, all absorbing and fated to go nowhere; the heartbreak of an adored friend whose limitations couldn’t help but betray Keats in his last half year of life, abandoning him to a foreign clime and a bewildered acquaintance.
Just a month into his twenty-sixth year, on 30 November 1820, with less than three months left of life, Keats writes to this fugitive friend, Charles Brown:
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.1
This letter, the muse of Plumly’s project, is a formation in striking syntax, its “having past” tensing the expected “passed” into a pained epitaphic sigh (what Plumly terms a “posthumous tense” ), in relay with the persistent, even insistent, present tense “I am leading” and that “I have an habitual feeling”–as if always on the pulse, and all sensations summed in that present absence, absent presence of the stunning oxymoron, “posthumous existence.” It’s a diminishing existence instead of a life, at once agonized by a prospect, now only hypothetical, of “how it would have been,” and pained into a tenacious sensation of presence–“it appears to me”–a relay into this life turned a ghost of itself, then an insistent speaking of what the will says it won’t do: “I will not speak of that subject.” Like patience, to prevent that murmur, “posthumous Keats” is oxymoron turned into expressive syntax–Keats’s own poetic forte of unheard melodies and cold pastoral. Keats writes in both a refusal to pain himself and Brown, and a refusal to decline to speak the refusal. Pain is never done. And so he ends his letter, wrenchingly:
Write to George as soon as you receive this, and tell him how I am, as far as you can guess; and also a note to my sister–who walks about my imagination like a ghost–she is so like Tom. I can scarcely bid you good-bye, even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.
God bless you!
George, Tom, sister (Fanny), Brown: all were, in effect, ghosts by this point of existence, and so the posthumous past tense in the antonym of eulogy: “I always made an awkward bow”–what Christopher Ricks has termed the least awkward bow ever made. Even the tense is curious. Rollins gives it as this past-reflective (Keats Circle 2: 86), and so does Milnes (2: 84), but one reader of the manuscript thinks the verb is still present, and not posthumous: “I always make an awkward bow” (KC 2: 86n). The ambiguity is the perfect oxymoron, hovering, as Coleridge would say, between possibilities, between, even, plausibilities. Keats performs to an audience that is only imagination, in a formality that feels like a gracious haunting, a leave-taking of something already left, and slightly, poignantly self-parodic, another Keatsian performative forté.