I needed a book to read in my hotel room during my recent travels and I ended up choosing Stanley Plumly’s “Posthumous Keats” which I found to be an entertaining read shedding light onto the footsteps of Keats, the relationships between the people who shared in his brief live, their actions and connections after he died, as well as such esoteric things as his portraits, the decisions made on his gravestone and memorials, and his life and death masks.
Plumy is to be commended for realizing that the letters from Keats, and from other people about him, give an unique insight into the humanity of the man in a way that a normal biography doesn’t and his decision to make the thinking in the book “circular rather than linear” works in bringing this out.
But it is also important to consider how this decision does lead to some problems of omissions and inconsistencies that do flaw the book.
One glaring problem comes with what he writes about the famous epitaph Keats requested. Early in the book (pg.69) Plumly remarks:
“Yet “here lies one whose name was writ on water”does not mean 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 of who might be buried so anonymously. The unnamed is, after all, written in stone, not water……He feared he had failed, his body brought down by disease, his poems belittled by Tory critics. But he also knew something: Trust the writing.”
You can either agree or disagree that Keats had ulterior motives with this epitaph, but at the end of the book we are confronted by this (pg. 305):
“Keats, at the end, is unable to separate, in the worst way, himself from his art —- a skill, if he could but see it, he has already won. His mortality becomes, in his last mind, less the mortality in than the mortality of his poetry. As he says to Fanny Brawne a year before he dies, “If I had time I would have made my myself remember’d” — a prediction that at once misunderstands what is valuable already in his work and assumes what value will be found in a wished-for future of work still unwritten.”
So, Keats actually didn’t trust the writing? It is all well and good for Plumly to have changed his mind about this while writing the book, but it would have been better to have gone back and edit either side to reflect what he believes now.
This circular style also allows him to be flippant with ideas, simply popping them out and then leaving them without expanding on them very much.
Writing “it will be the New Critics who comprehend in Keats the crucial distinction of the lyric poem as an ongoing contemporary experience, the experience of dynamic poetic form” (pg.340) or stating “tone is one of the terms that modernism began to use to define the inevitability of sound as sense, voice as vision, and not merely its seeming echo” (pgs.344-345) without giving any examples leaves no ability to consider how this is so in either Keats or modern poetry.
An exasperating example of this is when he includes T.S. Eliot’s quote of how there “is hardly one statement of Keats about poetry, which, when considered carefully and with due allowance for the difficulties of communication, will not found to be true: and what is more, true for a greater and more mature poetry than anything Keats ever wrote”. (pg.347)
Plumly quips “This complicated opinion is both right and wrong” and simply follows it up with and quite lengthy exhortation about how Keats’ writing is ‘mature’ without any consideration of how Eliot saw the discrepancy between the theories of Keats and the kind of poems he ended up writing. (pg.347)
I have read enough of Eliot’s criticism to understand his use of the term “mature” generally is a derogatory byword to denigrate the type of poetry he doesn’t like, which is something I certainly don’t agree with, but I do agree with him on the point that his statement implies, i.e. that what Keats said about poetry in his letters wasn’t naturally followed up in his poems.
Keats wrote this in a letter to J.H. Reynolds dated February 3, 1818: “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket.” Keeping this in mind when reading the great odes, it’s becomes quite clear to see how they actually contradict this.
The famous five named Odes all have arguments in them and when you make arguments you are making a “palpable design”upon the reader because you are trying to persuade them to either take or, at least, understand your position.
These odes all are arguments in one way or another: for accepting melancholy, for staying indolent, for why he will become Psyche’s priest, for why he should fade away like a nightingale, and why this bird is immortal. As for putting one’s hands into their “breeches pocket”, it is hard to find any better example of it when you encounter a poem that ends like this:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Writing out an idea about something in a letter doesn’t necessarily mean it is a position paper on a subject. The odes were written in the spring of 1819, a little more over a year later than the date of the letter, and since the first ode was written as an endeavor “to discover a better Sonnet stanza,” as he explained in a different letter to his brother, Keats could have intellectually moved on some of his previously scribbled positions about poetry as well.
The unfortunate circumstances of his life has left us only the letters, it is perhaps best to think of them as signposts of the way he was thinking at the time rather than dyed in wool ideas about poetry.
Plumy responses to Eliot’s comments by arguing:
“Keats’s statements about poetry are brilliantly, intuitively true; his statements of poetry, particularly in the odes and the two Hyperions, are not only true but mature in the way that tragic art must be”, (pg.347)
It is hard to think that all of the odes are “tragic poetry.” Two, Nightingale and Melancholy, undoubtably are, and there might be in argument for it in Grecian Urn, although I think the way the poem ends makes a strong case against it, but the other three, Psyche, Indolence and Autumn are certainly not tragical poems.
I also find Plumy’s statements about ‘Ode to Psyche’ a bit baffling:
“Keats invents in this ode what he will explore in the others: an interior, intimate sublime whose world and dimensions are the mind made multiple but whose first source is loss, longing, desire at the lip. ‘Their lips touch’d not, but had not bade adieu’ —this frozen, ambiguous moment will be echoed through out the odes”(pg.355).
Of course, when you go to the ode you’ll find the line quoted above is bracketed by the statements about “arms and pinions embraced”, “disjointed by slumber” and “ready still past kisses to outnumber” which presents a pair of sleeping lovers who have kissed and will kiss even longer than they had before. This isn’t about “desire at the lip”, it is about having that desire fulfilled and the expectation of fulfilling it again.
I guess the problem I have with the book is that I don’t find the arguments Plumly makes about Keats’ poetry very convincing, rather I see them the other way, that there isn’t any argument to made about how Keats actually was a ‘modernist’.
But, it did enjoy the parts where the humanity of the poet and the people in his life are brought to life in ways that a normal biography wouldn’t. And that has made me think about Keats’ poetry in a way which I would never had if not opened this book