Stanley Plumly, Posthumous Keats

Printer-friendly versionSend by email
Stanley Plumly, Posthumous Keats. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. Hdbk, $27.95 (ISBN-10: 0393065731); Ppbk, 2009, $17.95 (ISBN-10: 0393337723).

Reviewed by
Susan J. Wolfson
Princeton University

“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” [294]), 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.

Just a month prior, Keats had written to Brown (when both were more proximate than either knew):

I wish for death every day and night to deliver me from these pains, and then I wish death away, for death would destroy even those pains which are better than nothing. Land and Sea, weakness and decline are great seperators, but death is the great divorcer for ever . . . I seldom think of my Brother and Sister--in america. The thought of leaving Miss Brawne is beyond every thing horrible-- the sense of darkness coming over me-- I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing. Some of the phrases she was in the habit of using at Wentworth-place ring in my ears-- Is there another Life? Shall I awake and find all this a dream?

This is “The night-Mair-LIFE-IN-DEATH” that haunts the days and chills the dreaming nights, eternal in its for-ever-vanishing. Plumly quotes these sentences, with this finely arresting prelude: “To be dead and alive at once requires a negative capability that Keats up until now has only dreamed of” (253).

The idea of “negative capability” came to Keats the winter before George’s departure for America, before Tom’s doom was undeniable. He was writing to these dear brothers late in December 1817, after a stimulating holiday-season week of theater-going (Edmund Kean’s return to the stage, after his own illness, in Richard III), of the wicked thrill of radical journalist William Hone’s acquittal on charges of blasphemous libel, of viewing the sensation at the Royal Academy, Benjamin West’s Death on a Pale Horse, of briskly animated conversation, walking with Charles Brown and his neighbor Charles Dilke, about the nature of Shakespeare’s achievement, “& at once it struck me what quality went to form” this achievement (writes Keats): “I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is Capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”2 He means both that positive capability, and its inevitable, contrary reaching (how can a thinking being such as Keats not be drawn to fact and reason?), but no overwrought reaching to irritable extremes and absolutes. In the genius of literary imagination anyway, Keats will reach and then flex against that opposite capability--being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts: the antonym, the opacity, the double-mindedness.

With a poet’s sympathy, Plumly’s Posthumous Keats gives us, I’m willing to say with no uncertainty or doubt, the first “camelion” biography of Keats--a series of fully formed, fully informed, imaginations of what it is like to be Keats: a poet who thinks in and through poetry (as a reader and a writer), a thinker for whom poetry is the most vital, most concentrated, most responsive medium of thinking. Keats, again musing on Shakespeare, described this self-fancied “Presider” and himself in the genre of “camelion Poet” (27 October 1818)--a negative capability of self, able to produce another subjectivity, to so create that subjectivity in language that a reader may be captivated: what is it like to be an Iago or an Imogen? Or for Plumly: what is it like to be Keats? Keats’s “camelion” poet is defined in opposition to the “Poet” as the identity, with a self-promoting capital P, that “the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime” cultivates with such assiduity that Keats had been, a few months back (3 February 1818), provoked to coin a verb for its performance: Wordsworth will “brood and peacock over his speculations till he makes a false coinage of them.” Keats’s proposal is that his sort of “a poet” (“if I am any thing”) is “the most unpoetical of any thing in existence because he has no Identity--he is continually in for--and filling some other Body.” Keats writes “in for--” as two (or one and a half) words, at the bottom of the page, and then turns it over, and forgets even the identity of his syntax, and with an extraordinarily “poetic” (small p) payoff: “in for--and filling some other body”--in for it, with a vengeance, and inhabiting it, too, with full sympathetic power. Inhabiting this identity in a full imagination of the circumstantial details, in a free indirect style of thinking as this body, of feeling its tempers and moods, of understanding the body in its physical and mortal existence and decay, its space of habitation, and, comprehensively, in imagining the imagination of some other body: in other words, the warm grasp of Stanley Plumley’s personal biography of Keats.

Like Keats, Plumly is a poet who lives in words: as events, as ideas, as sensations. The camelion biographer brings fine, compelling attention to Keats’s words, especially their formation by irresistibly contrary pressures. Take that now well known epitaph that Keats (in bitterness of heart said Brown, doing his own problematic grief-work): “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”--this to take the place of a name, or to be the last naming of the self. Bitter? Perhaps. But here’s how Plumly reads it, with more careful negative capability: this phrasing “does not mean that the unnamed name will always be so written”:

Was is the operative verb. And the fact that Keats did not want his name to appear on the tombstone adds only interest to the mystery of who might be buried anonymously. The unnamed is, after all, written in stone, not water. (68-69)

And that is not all ye need to know on earth, Plumly in effect says, continuing: “If the epitaph resides somewhere between pathos and tragicus, it is also poetry” (69). It takes a poet (a Poet Laureate perhaps) to grasp these cagey epitaphics, with the temporalizing of “was” implying a future that might be otherwise. “Trust the writing,” says Plumly (69)--and we do, because of Plumly’s trustworthy writing.

Still in the imagination of mortality, Plumly turns us to the richly loaded preposition before in the young dreaming poet’s protest to his dominatrix interrogator, goddess Moneta, in The Fall of Hyperion. Sure, says this poet, if I’m just one of the “mock lyrists, and large self-worshippers / And careless hectorers in proud bad verse,” toss me in the dustheap of history with the rest of them: “Though I breathe death with them it will be life / To see them sprawl before me into graves” (Canto I: 207-10). “‘Before’ is a rich ambiguity here,” says Plumly, “because, as an adverb it can refer at once to place and time--time, above all, being the qualifier now. . . This is a painful, revealing moment” (180).

It’s the sort of devastating, exquisitely painful before that Wordsworth sounds, in the last stanza of his Elegiac Stanzas, Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle, in a Storm, painted by Sir George Beaumont. This is a picture in which a shipwreck-in-the-making (to use a phrase of Keats) “swells into reality,” evoking the channel storm that killed the captain of The Earl of Abergavenny, Wordsworth’s younger, adored brother John. It’s a poem of unbearable fraternal, then existential, grief. With the painting of the ship in the storm inspiring “frequent sights of what is to be borne” in the life to come, Wordsworth ends with the recognition that he will be contending with “Such sights, or worse, as are before me here.--”: prepositionally before his gaze in Beaumont’s horrifically sublime picture, but also temporally before him on long prospect, awaiting to be born, in the depletions guaranteed across the fullness of time.

And so Plumly helps us see feelingly the whole drama of recognition, fear, and denial that turns upon, and around, the word “slight” in Brown’s report in his Life of Keats: “For some time he had been annoyed by a slight inflammation in the throat.” “Slight,” says Plumly, is “both stiff upper lip and dangerous denial, and denial will become, as it has for Tom, the hallmark of diagnosis” (148). And so we read with sharper attention, the slight bounding of Keats’s letters to friends and family: a “slight sore throat” reported to already desperately ill Tom in the summer of 1818, “a slight return of the sore throat” mentioned to George’s mother-in-law Mrs. Wylie in December, and the assurances to Fanny Keats, in 1820, of “a slight return of fever last night, which terminated favourably,” and then onward into the summer of “slight” blood-spitting, all slighted to save others pain and concern, and by that fiction to fortify the self with courage.

There is no more brilliant moment of this kind of generative attention than Plumly’s turns on another one of those hedgers, “almost”--hovering between all ye need to know, most of what can be known, and something held off or held back from fully knowing--a contradiction in the very yoking together of the syllables all and most. Plumly’s text is Joseph Severn (Keats’s conscripted companion in Rome), writing to Brown about their shared charge of concern:

our poor Keats is at his worst.--a most unlooked for relapse has confined him to his bed--with every chance against him:--it has been so sudden upon what I almost thought convalescence.

“The ‘almost’ is important here,” says Plumly, “because Severn, as the singular witness to Keats’s decline, is at once reliable and unreliable, depending on his own emotional state and on his blind hopes for a recovery” (283). Plumly asks to imagine Severn, in his singular situation, alone and unprepared, unparalleled--in negative cognition, without the resources of the poet’s aesthetics of negative capability.

A few pages on, Plumly plumbs the resources of “almost” for his own speculations about Brown, “the most complex figure of those comprising the intimate circle” (284), with Keats’s unappeasable mortality before him, demanding recognition, and pricking anxious denial. From this “most”--the “most complex figure”--Brown moves across Plumly’s syntax into the epithet “Keats’s best friend by almost all accounts” (284). We know from that relay of most to almost to almost all that Plumly is on the cusp of a penetratingly shrewd story. This is the climax, capped by another devastating almost:

If character cuts its own allegorical figure, Brown’s dilemma regarding Keats demonstrates the human limitation to do good. Even more, it reveals to us especially and specifically what those limitations are, however limited our response. 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; both are forwarded just behind Brown’s footsteps as he treks through the Highlands and eastern Scotland. 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 is also lying off Gravesend for the night, at shouting distance, before it docks in the morning. And days later the same ironic proximity occurs on land. [Keats’s ship] The Maria Crowther has been driven back to shore by Channel storms, and Keats and Severn have gone inland to visit friends in Hampshire, where they discover that Brown has just passed through on his way back to London. These near meetings are what we might call almost accidents; they feel more fated than chanced. (289)

Almost says it all: two twists of fate, wound by Brown’s dilemma into something like an unspeakable wish, one that recoils into guilt and haunting.

In all these ways, Posthumous Keats is more than accidentally informed--in-formed not just by its information of the material world, but also in the severe temper of what Keats writes to Brown from Rome: “the knowledge of contrast, feeling for light and shade, all that information (primitive sense) necessary for a poem,” but “great enemies to the recovery of the stomach” (30 November 1820). And so each chapter of Posthumous Keats is “formed from a single image, theme, or object relative to Keats’s vulnerabilities as an individual and his strengths as an artist” (17-18).

Severn’s deathbed portrait (January 1821) exercises Plumly’s camelion imagination to a brilliant evocation of light and shade, primitive sense:

It is not immediately clear whether Keats is sleeping or in fact has passed. The ambiguity, by Severn’s own testimony, serves the power of the moment. Keats is certainly dying, but the event of it has been extended in time, through months and months of fever and recovery . . . relapses into indolence and resolutions to live, confused diagnosis and clear manifestation.

The event of his death has been so long in coming, as if it had been postponed as a test, that here at the last, in what seems the final, incremental hour, it feels wholly internal, invisible, mysterious, like a state between life and death. The intimacy, the silence, the imperceptibility of the corporeal crossover, the secrecy with which the breath, the spirit, escapes the body--all of this unspoken and unspeakable quality enters into Severn’s deathbed portrait. And it is as graphic as it is lyric--the night sweats, the dampness of the bedding, the way Keats’s dark hair drapes his forehead. Although he does not say so, Severn must have made the drawing in part because he did not know what else to do that night and in part because art was his first--for better or worse--language. He claims he drew the picture in order “to keep me awake.” The source of light in the cell-like bedroom is of course a candle off to the left, leaving the artist in shadow, like a witness. The peace on Keats’s face is both fatal exhaustion and acceptance. And though death, on February 23, is still three weeks away, he looks, after his terrible literal and figurative journey, to have arrived, even disappeared into arrival. The artist in Severn creates a large black sun to relieve the face against in order to emphasize the angle of the resting, lifted three-quarters profile. This circular backdrop is massive in its animation, dramatic in its contrast. Sleeping or dead, Keats seems to be dreaming. (33-34)

This language passes the lily and the snow into an aching vision for which the poet’s rivalrous genre “ekphrasis” is most inadequate. Plumly’s writing is so sympathetically in for and feeling of Severn’s consciousness as to create the entire scene before and for us--of the iconic Posthumous Keats, an artistry of words worthy of Keats’s own poetry of mortality deathwards progressing to no death.

In 2008, the year that Posthumous Keats, a Personal Biography is published, Plumly’s Personal Keats makes another appearance, not between Norton hardcovers, but instead, the soft folding covers of The New Yorker.

The Crows at 3 A.M.
by Stanley Plumly June 2, 2008

The online version cues us to a whimsical poetry of “keywords”:

The politically correct, perfect snow of Vermont;
Mt. Mansfield;

Somehow, in this literal bathos, the keyworder missed “Keats” and “negative capability,” first in Plumly’s imagination, and personalized from “when man is capable” (the quality) to “when a man is capable” (Plumly’s conversion to a singular instance, his instance, on the tracks of the first editor, Milnes’s emendation):

The politically correct, perfect snow of Vermont
undulant under the lightly bruised, moonlit-backed-
becoming-storm-clouds slowing then speeding just above
the line of blue spruce on Mt. Mansfield here in
what I’m told is the state’s “cloudiest county,”
vaguely an analogy for the plate tectonics of the blankets
constantly shifting from the left to the right side
of my body, pulling the heart, until by dawn I’m holding on,
waking with the cold, somehow looking at my hands
that, in the pearl dark, look like the first fall castings
of the sycamore, those pocked dry leaves
that were my mother’s final hands: sallow
dying coloring, mapping liverspots, rootlike
veining texturing the underdermal surfaces. The test,

writes Fitzgerald, in an essay called “The Crack-Up,”
of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold
opposing ideas in the mind at the same time yet retain
the ability to function. He couldn’t, he says, so he cracked
like a plate. He is trying to update Keats’s
notion of “Negative Capability, that is
when a man is capable of being in uncertainties,
Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact
& reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go
by a fine isolated verisimilitude
caught from the Penetralium of mystery,
from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.”
When I heard the crows, like raven-geese, rending the dark,
filling the falling snow with wings,
                                                             I thought, for a moment,
they were speaking or singing.
Crows at the hour—Fitzgerald again—of the dark night
of the soul, Poe-like crows chasing back and forth
in a quandary or a quarrel, up and down the Gihon.
Then they disappeared, let me drift back into sleep
to find my hands holding my mother’s hands as if to help her
rise from the cold dead dream light of Vermont.
Stevens’s some twenty blackbirds differ only in their scale:
the beauty of inflections and innuendos,
shadows passing out of hearing, out of sight,
but no less present in the settled order. Thus the river’s moving,
the blackbird must be flying, two half-knowledges
or halves of one knowing. Those who love us who now live
in the air live in a loneliness we sometimes imagine.3

Keats the poet may, in the last words of Plumly’s feeling biography, disappear into the sublimity of words, but it takes a sublime wordsmith such as Plumly to bring him back to our imagination, speaking or singing--“the word as spirit, aspirant on the air, invisible, articulate, available” (these are Plumly’s words [347]; I wish they were mine) in the material sublime of Posthumous Keats.

1I quote from Charles Brown’s transcript in the “Life of John Keats,” a document he composed from 1836 to 1841 and transmitted to R. M. Milnes as a resource for his Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats, 2 vols. (London: Edward Moxon, 1848). Brown’s Life is printed in The Keats Circle: Letters and Papers and More Leters and Poems of the Keats Circle, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965). Milnes “corrected” Keats’s poetically resonant “past” to a more normative “passed” (2: 282).

2This most famous of Keats’s notions, appropriately, requires editorial negative capability. The original letter is lost, and two editors, working from the transcript of his sister-in-law’s second husband, John Jeffrey (an unreliable copyist) have variant readings. Richard M. Milnes, the first to publish the letter in Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats (2 vols. 1848) provides: “negative capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (1: 93-94). Richard Woodhouse, a friend and literary adviser who transcribed as much as he could, gives it as “Negative Capability, that is when man is Capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Rollins emends Jeffrey (on what basis, he doesn’t say, though he seems to hew to Woodhouse) as: “Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (Letters of John Keats, 2 vols. [Harvard University Press, 1958] 1: 193).

3The New Yorker. This poem is quoted in full with the generous permission of Stanley Plumly. Quotations of Keats’s poetry and letters, unless otherwise indicated, follow John Keats: A Longman Cultural Edition, ed. Susan J. Wolfson (New York: Pearson Education, 2007).

Authored by (Secondary): 

Parent Resource: