I just recently finished Stanley Plumly’s Posthumous Keats, which was quite a good read. The book is part biography, part memoir, part literary criticI just recently finished Stanley Plumly’s Posthumous Keats, which was quite a good read. The book is part biography, part memoir, part literary criticism. Specifically, the book covers the last 18 months of Keats’s life and beyond, the moment from his first hemorrhage to final days in Rome. Each chapter covers in detail an aspect of Keats’s posthumous existence. For example, the first chapter deals with the epitaph on Keats’s tomb in the protestant cemetery in Rome. Keats wanted only “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” But Joseph Severn and Charles Brown (the former nursed Keats in his final illness in Rome, the latter was a close friend who was with Keats at the time of his first hemorrhage) modified and altered Keats’s original epitaph to today’s version:
This Grave contains all that was mortal of YOUNG ENGLISH POET who on his Death Bed in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies Desired these words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone
“Here lies One whose name was writ in Water.”
Feb 24th 1821
What Plumly reveals is the whole context for this modification, how the modifications represent more the desires and assumptions of Severn and Brown than Keats, how these sentiments fed and made legendary the common assumption that Keats was killed by the harsh critical response to his poetry.
Here in 2008 to fathom that Keats has not always been among the “immortals” of poetry is nearly impossible. For three-quarters of a century, Keats remained obscure, that “poor poet Keats.” Interestingly, Keats thought he was a poet to be forgotten because he had never completed a masterpiece of epic poetry in the vein of the Homer, Dante, and so on. He viewed his odes, which we consider his masterworks, but forgettable poems. His longer poems (e.g., “The Eve of St. Agnes”) were higher up the rung. But his Endymion, Hyperion, and The Fall of Hyperion were not successes, in his eyes.
When I first read the Romantics, Shelley was my idol. I labored over his poems, sought ever delight from them. Shelley was the Romantic poet. Keats was of interest, but not so inspiring. But slowly my view changed. Keats has become the premier Romantic poet. Shelley spoke to the public, railed against injustice, reflected on our purpose within society and to each other. Keats, however, speaks to himself and by doing so speaks to us as individuals. He does not care to comment on freedom or coercive state power; rather, he wishes to contemplate the nature of beauty before him or the impression of a translation of Homer. Keats achieves through this a greater connection to us than Shelley, though a great poet, can in the end only achieve less frequently and on a smaller scale. Keats is of the imagination; Shelley is of the society.
But back to Plumly’s book. Other chapters contemplate the various drawings and paintings of Keats (Severn’s, Brown’s, and Haydon’s in particular) or the progression of tuberculosis and how it was viewed by the medicine of the day. This book is enjoyable, insightful, and surprising. If you are interested in a fresh review of Keats’s work and life and the value of his poetry and the nature of an artist’s search for immortality, give this book a read.