I didn’t know Stanley Plumly, who died this April at 79, but I won’t forget his conversation with Howard Norman and Stanley Wyatt February 2008 at AWP. The subject was Plumly’s new book, a meditation on Keats’s life that draws perspective from its focus on his final days. “I wanted to process how, in the exemplary instance of Keats, the mystery of immortality becomes manifest,” Plumly wrote in his preface to Posthumous Keats. I don’t think the book was available yet — my copy’s sales slip is dated May, though that’s probably because I was too busy with teaching to immerse myself in Plumly’s years of research and thought until after classes ended. Otherwise, I would have grabbed a copy then and there.
I remember Plumly reading from the book’s first chapter, lines almost identical to those in his 2002 poem, also titled “Posthumous Keats”:
The road is rough so Severn is walking,
and every once in a while, since the season is
beautiful and there are flowers on both sides,
as if this path had just been plowed,
he picks by the handful what he can
Plumly reflects on the images sketched, painted, and molded by Keats’s friends close to and after his death (and it’s poignant to think that whenever exactly Keats contracted tuberculosis, he was dying for much of his adult life). The chapter explores the idealization and myth-making surrounding the poet through a sequence of life- and death-masks and biographies crafted by friends. His features were softened and prettified, as his illness was overwritten by the mawkish idea that Keats was a blossom killed by the frost of bad reviews, a view promoted in part by Keats’s friends’ embellishment of the epitaph the poet wrote for himself. Plumly parses the original words — “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” carved on anonymous stone — and finds Keats’s hope that his literary reputation will endure in the past tense of the verb “to be.” In the past, his name was ephemeral, but in the future it would be immoveable as granite.
Plumly’s chapter reminds me of the artificial sweetening of Emily Dickinson’s life. Her seclusion was read as the sorry fruit of a failed love affair, and prettified portraits have appeared since the frontispiece of her first book in 1890 to a 2015 Amazon Kindle screen saver. I’m reminded of a letter by Keats to his brother, quoted in Plumly’s book, in which Keats flirts with emigrating with George to America and becoming “one of America’s great poets.” Wouldn’t that have been something — unless Keats, like the Belle of Amherst, remained during his lifetime mostly unpublished and unread. With no friends to protect his legacy, however clumsily, I wonder if the work would have survived.
The whole of Posthumous Keats is rich with Plumly’s astute readings of Keats’s letters. In these, he observes, “Many of his most famous utterances on the shape and spirit of his mission appear in advance of its execution as poetry — not as theory so much as a thoughtful working-out, a workshop of ideas put to practical use…. In November 1817 he writes… that he is ‘Certain of nothing but the holiness of Heart’s affection and the truth of Imagination — What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth.’” Six months later, Keats would finish “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
Plumly also includes page after page of Keats’s fevered letters to Fanny Brawne. He reads them as a sign of Keats’s juggle with mortality: “It is as if Keats were operating in at least two, perhaps three worlds, simultaneously: the one in which he speaks fairly and honestly to his friends about his existential situation; the one in which he speaks to Fanny in contradictory, crazy, and sometimes abusive ways; and, ultimately, the one in which he speaks to himself, in silence, about dying, day in, day out.”
It’s hard to dodge valedictory matters in your seventh decade. Whether or not you’re still productive, the bulk of the work is past (though I’d guess every poet craves a final period like Yeats’s). To trace the arc of a poet’s reputation is to consider the fate of one’s own. But a mere eleven years after the publication of Plumly’s ‘personal biography,’ writers face a different question — will there be a posterity to cherish anyone’s work? Between the anvil of climate disruption and the hammer of nuclear proliferation, where is our daylight?
Living in the era of extinction, we can’t avoid considering our own. Plumly’s unforgettable book leads me to consider who will be left to remember Keats, or Dickinson, or any of us, in two hundred years. Or a hundred. Or fifty. Cockney poets and Transcendentalists didn’t see another Flood coming, but we do.