01 January 2010

Immortal Masterpiece -Stanley Plumly’s Tribute to Keats

by Kerri Buckley
Each man's life is an allegory
                                  —John Keats 
Most poets dream of being immortal. John Keats was no exception, and it’s interesting that perhaps no other poet, aside from William Shakespeare, has held this status higher than Keats. His early and tragic death in 1821 from tuberculosis caused him to give up on that goal. He hoped to be as well-known for his poetry as Shakespeare, but his illness, lack of health care, travels, and all the complications from all those forced Keats, in the end, to give up on his dream of being one of the finest poets in the world.

Fortunately for the world, his work did survive and has taken its place in the golden rolls of history as canons. Keats has indeed been immortalized. Known as the quintessential Romantic poet, Keats has become not only immortal, but his work is endowed with wave after wave of intense interest, most especially for his odes and letters. One of the best, and certainly most meticulously researched biographies of Keats’s life has been written in the book Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography, (W.W. Norton & Company, May 2008) by Keats scholar and poet Stanley Plumly. A Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, in College Park, the author, himself, has praised other books on Keats written by Amy Lowell (John Keats, Volume I and II). The story behind Plumly’s book is as personal and fascinating as the enigma of the young, romantic and very talented Keats. Not just a tribute, the book is a sort of prose poem with all the tools of poetry. The book has form. Stanley Plumly told in an interview about the history of his book, some twenty years in the making, its reception, his advisory position on the movie Bright Star, and the story behind the rich sections in this unusual and thorough book.
 
Why a biography on John Keats? 
 
“Keats's story is implicitly the most interesting, arresting, and moving narrative among all writers, in my opinion, regardless of genre,” says Plumly. “ I thought about, read through, and wrote several abortive drafts before I got what I wanted.  In all it took more than twenty years to research, contemplate, meditate, write, and rewrite Posthumous Keats.”
 
Here, from the book, is Keats at his most vulnerable:
          Then I saw a wan face,
Not pined by human sorrows, but bright-blanched
By an immortal sickness which kills not;
It works a constant change, which happy death
Can put no end to; deathwards progressing
To no death was that visage...
The poetics of this book are fascinating. Definitely not constructed in linear form like most, this body of work is organized in seven sections, each with seven parts. It is a composition of poetic devices, and though written in prose, is organized by metaphor, sound, myth, the story of the man in such a way that takes the reader close to the heart of Keats to learn what moved him and motivated him. It allows glimpses of his first version of “To Autumn,” for instance, of what made him joyful, and what made him suffer.  
 
And here, from the book, a passage from a letter about walks after dark:
"I should like a bit of fire to night," he writes to Woodhouse, “one likes a bit of fire—How glorious the Blacksmiths’ shops look now—I stood to night before one till I was verry near listing for one. Yes, I should like a bit of fire—at a distance about 4 feet ‘not quite hob nob’—as wordsworth says."
“The book is organized within a framework of seven sections, seven parts to a section because I needed an imposed sense of order and closure,” explains Plumly. “My freedom was that each part within a section could vary in length.  It's an 'intimate' sort of biography or meditation. I wanted to defeat linearity and create a kind of prose-poem that circulates through Keats's life, particularly his posthumous life.  “Each man's life is an allegory,” Keats once wrote in a letter.”
 
Why does Plumly think that Keats and his work are so timeless? 
 
He says “Keats's influence is universal since he represents, in his work and his life together, a purity of purpose and commitment to the art and ambition of poetry.  He elevates the common lyric to something uncommon in vision and execution. He perfects the art of the lyric poem while disappearing its subject, creating, at his best, a secret subject as discovered form.  The combination produces the lyric of tragic and sublime status. Wordsworth and Coleridge were
the groundbreakers; Keats was the perfecter.”
 
Very true. 
 
“Keats is still vital and important for the above reasons and because his life, the truth and value of it, are so alive in the moment, then and now,” Plumly adds. “His great letters speak to what poetry is and should be in the most profound terms; his life, as recorded in the letters, speaks to the vulnerability and honesty required in his poetry.  Both his letters and poetry "talk like an angel," as one of his correspondents once put it.”
 
Professor Plumly is a man with passion and a mission. 
 
After Plumly’s exceptionally hard work, the world has responded to the book with great enthusiasm. Even in Keats’s homeland of England, its reception has been positive and applauded. When asked if he’s received feedback worthy of two decades of work, he says humbly “I have received, in reviews and through the mail, wonderful and heartwarming responses to the Keats book. It just appeared in paperback, here and throughout the English-speaking world.  People seem to love the writing, but it is Keats they are really responding to.”
 
Yes, and Plumly is an amazing storyteller. He tends the fire and keeps it going. 
 
Scholars such as Plumly have made Keats’s wish come true, and the recognition keeps pouring in. A year after his book was first released, the movie Bright Star came out, based on the tender relationship between John Keats and the love of his life Fanny Brawne.  
 
What does Stanley Plumly think about Bright Star? Did it do justice to Keats’s story? He was actually asked to work with the American distributors, Apparition Films, traveling around in September, promoting the movie and speaking to audiences after viewings. 
 
He says “It's a really fine and sensitive piece of work.”
 
After two decades of researching and writing this book, what’s next for Stanley Plumly? The Professor is back at it, working on a new collection of poems entitled Orphan Hours.  He’s also written a memoir-like piece of prose about his parents, marriage, and “the passing of history I've lived through.” 
 
It may be impossible for Plumly to not write about Keats, though. He’s also currently putting together a book about English Romantic painter Benjamin Robert Haydon's well-known  painting 'Immortal Dinner,' which included, among others, Keats, Wordsworth, and Charles Lamb.  Plumly says “Haydon is the centerpiece as host, but the circles around the event are amazing, I believe, and truly interesting.” 
 
Haydon was best known for this painting, and for his enormous painting “Entry of Christ into Jerusalem,” which was the purpose for the dinner party, and for inviting Keats and the others. Another immortal subject. More writing on Keats by Plumly will only continue to keep Keats’s legacy alive and thriving. Keats’s flag flown in modern day winds.  
 
Here we have an immortal poet, an immortal dinner, and two immortal paintings. 
 
Sounds like quite a party. Feels like a poet’s dream.
 

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