Even when the subject is one’s favourite writer, the genre of literary biography can be a dry terrain to spend time in. We expect the usual regurgitation of the subject’s childhood, the dates, the family, the surroundings rendered in painfully researched detail, then the texts themselves given superficial analysis in the order in which they came, the death of the writer explained from an academic distance, then a few pages, an epilogue perhaps, discussing the lasting impact of the writer.
Basically we are left yearning for some real feeling, the genuine impact of the life, and yet it is an elusive wish, difficult to realise in practice. How can a literary biography be informative, exciting, and truly literary in its own right?
Stanley Plumly, a contemporary American poet, claims that his biography of John Keats, the endlessly misunderstood Romantic poet, is “a walk around in Keats’ life and art, not simply through them.” This is an accurate assessment of Plumly’s approach. Posthumous Keats does not follow a chronological structure, rather it pads around the key moments and poems of Keats’ later life with a gentle touch but a piercing analytical eye, sometimes revisiting major events and sometimes spending a lot of time with an important poem.
The cover claims it is “a personal biography”, a study where the living poet, Plumly, meets the mythologised, anthologised poet, Keats, and a kind of magic leaps across the bridge of time both ways. Indeed, Plumly defies convention and produces a biography that is not only one of the most informative books about the Romantic poet ever written, but also a work of distinct literary merit.
The focus is mainly on the poet’s final years, when Keats wrote his best poetry and then rapidly lost his imaginative powers through a premature, fatal illness. Plumly describes this period in detail, and we learn not just about Keats, but also the mood of the era: the living conditions, the medical practices, the literary tastes. Sometimes Plumly will spend time on the characters that made up Keats’ family and circle of friends — people like the amateur artist Joseph Severn, who sketched the haunting image of the poet in his final days as he lay exhausted, sweating, but luminous — yet these biographical details are always necessary, assisting the main focus of the book rather than distracting us from it.
Because of the non-chronological structure, there are some interesting parallels and matches from chapter to chapter. We read about the dispute between Keats’ friends — Severn, Charles Brown and others — regarding Keats’ epitaph, the poet long dead; then, in the following chapter, we are taken back three years, to when Keats nursed his dying brother Tom and watched him fall under the touch of tuberculosis, the disease which also claims his mother and his younger brother George, as well as Keats himself — “the family disease” as the he bleakly puts it. This approach has the effect of adding more poignancy to the great poet’s life. As Tom is dying we are still reeling from the death of Keats, and the knowledge that we have of his ending — a knowledge that he is perhaps only vaguely aware of at the time — rends the heart of the reader.
It can be easy to be intoxicated by Plumly’s method. Not surprisingly his writing is poetic and elaborate. He will also repeat quotes, such as Keats’ famous epitaph, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”, or Coleridge’s haunting comment upon shaking Keats’ hand the first and only time they met, “There is death in that hand”. These are restated throughout the book, held up to the light in different contexts, so that with every refrain we can grasp a new meaning. While this can sometimes feel disorientating, the end result is one of deeper understanding. Like the immortal poems, this biography feels ethereal and measured at the same time.
Plumly’s aim here is to avoid the clichés surrounding Keats’ life and death. “Pretty Keats, happy Keats, luxuriant Keats. Also, on the personal side, little Keats, poor Keats.” The Keats that is crushed by Tory criticism of his poems, “snuffed out by an article” as Byron puts it in Don Juan. The suffering Keats, who falls “half in love with easeful death”, and wishes for a “sweet poison” from the lips of his love, Fanny Brawne. All of these versions have a kernel of truth to them, but they do not form the whole man, they do not acknowledge the stoicism, grit, naïveté of Keats and the technical, formal expertise of his poems.
Like anyone else, Keats has many dimensions. As he puts it in one of his early letters, before the nightmare of consumption begins to take him apart, “I feel more and more every day, as my imagination strengthens, that I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds.”
Keats’ suffering under the weight of consumption forms the major subject of interest in this biography. It is a constant spectre over every scene and is part of the subtext of every great letter to and from the poet. Rarely has his misery been so tenderly yet powerfully portrayed. Keats coughs blood, vomits blood, and is then perversely drained of blood by unknowing doctors in an effort to cure him. He languishes in a claustrophobic room in Rome, wishing and waiting for death, a death that takes months to arrive.
When his corpse is opened his lungs have almost disappeared, as if he were melting away from the inside. We revisit these moments throughout the book, but it is never hard going. The occasional appearance of beautiful verse is enough to relieve the strain of focus, and Plumly’s sympathetic writing coupled with his keen understanding of poetry ensures a tone that is in the end optimistic, even spiritual.
When it comes to the poems themselves Plumly pays particular attention to one of Keats’s final odes, “To Autumn”. It is perhaps his most perfect poem, and is a piece of art that seems to obliterate the poet entirely, forming a matchless union with the creator and the created object. “Keats’ true disappearance as a poet and a man begins here, a full year and a half before he dies… it is as if Keats’ only choice after “To Autumn” is to die.” Keats vanishes into the words, “absorbed by it in the act of seeing it”, and the impression we are left with is one of ceaseless admiration; both Keats’ admiration for his subject, and our own admiration for a genius at work.
To see Keats — his personality, his loves, his friends, his philosophy — as unified with his poetry is not to reduce a life, or to make a crass misjudgement, but is to extend the poet’s existence to infinity, to elevate it to what Plumly calls the “spaciousness of the sublime”. This “personal biography” manages to shed light without destroying the mystery of Keats’ life and talent, but also, and perhaps most importantly, it refreshes the poems, sending us back to them with a poet’s own insight and a child’s wonder.