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Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography Paperback – November 9, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
The great English poet John Keats (1795–1821) wrote his last complete poems in the fall of 1819; already ill from tuberculosis, he traveled to Italy with his friend Joseph Severn in a doomed attempt to get well, and died in Rome after a year of getting worse. The prolific and widely honored poet Plumly (Old Heart) offers seven informative, overlapping chapters that consider aspects, consequences and echoes from that sad last year of Keats's life. Plumly discusses artists' portraits of the poet (among them Severn's arresting deathbed sketch). He examines the lives and motives of the people closest to Keats, such as the faithful Severn (who outlived the poet by decades), the perhaps faithless (but perhaps not) Charles Brown and Keats's fiancée, Fanny Brawne. He considers Keats's love letters, Keats's medical training, Keatsian and Shelleyan landmarks in Rome, the fate of Keats's manuscripts and, finally, Keats's sense of his own life, as bound up in the poems. Plumly's linked essays incorporate old-school scholarship, but never seem dry or academic in the bad sense: the result feels personal indeed, if never autobiographical. At times Plumly seems unsure for whom he is writing. At other times, though, his unstinting admiration and evocative prose promise to create Keatsians yet unknown. (May)
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“A beautiful book. . . . [W]hen Plumly turns his laser-like gaze on Keats’ letters and his verse, the book is brilliant.”
- Nicholas Delbanco, Los Angeles Times
“Mr. Plumly writes beautifully and very movingly.”
- Charles McGrath, New York Times
“Plumly has written a book to last: worthy of its subject and commensurate with both words of its title.”
- Robert Pinsky, Slate
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Plumly's volume is an obvious work of love. He writes a straightforward history of Keats's last months, and then muses over the details from different perspectives. He turns a forensic as well as a philosophical eye on the motives and actions of Keats's inner circle of friends, spending considerable time ruminating on the characters and principles of Charles Brown, William Haslam, George Keats, and - of course - Joseph Severn. We see Keats's last days not just as they probably were, but as they must have been. And we see John Keats himself: fragile and anguished, full of vigor, innocence, trustworthiness, incredible talent, and deep, abiding love for Fanny Brawne and life itself.
Plumly's most remarkable accomplishment is his interweaving much of Keats's great odes with the young poet's experiences and literary philosophy. That a youth so inexperienced in life, so poor, and so desperately ill could write what many believe to be the greatest series of odes in English is astounding. I remember being blown away by Keats's odes in my high school English class, and now Stanley Plumly has written a book that explains to me why.
Keats's opening lines of his long poem, Endymion, certainly apply to his own work:
"A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing."
And yet, a lot of this book is compelling simply because of the emotion behind it, the sheer investment. However, if you want to know about Keats' youth, his boyhood, you get almost nothing. The lack of sequence can also be annoying--you are forever returned to that ghastly death-chamber. It gets to be too much. Also, Plumly tries to outdo Keats in terms of the sensuality, the fullness, of his figurations--as if he is competing with the poet. A no-win situation.
So I give a divided review here. i am glad I read this book but do not feel as if i gained much knowledge about the poetry or the poet. i did learn a lot about TB and 19th c quackery, however.
A few of Plumly's interests here threaten to become obsessive - the need to count the days til Keats's death appears throughout, whereas it would need be a source of profitable speculation only once. That Keats lived in the shadow of death is true enough, but the truth becomes diminished when it is mentioned so often. Still, any lover of Keats will embrace this work and acknowledge that it holds a unique place on the very long shelf of Keatsiana.