At a writers’ conference in 1980, Stanley Plumly met Deborah Digges, a poet like himself, who had a passion for John Keats. The feeling soon became mutual; they would wake each other up in the middle of the night to share passages by the Romantic writer. In the early 1980’s, Plumly wrote a poem, “Posthumous Keats,” which takes its title from the last letter Keats wrote. It was addressed to Charles Armitage Brown, one of his closest friends, dated November 30, 1820, from Rome, when the poet had fewer than three months to live. Here Keats laments, “I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.” Plumly’s poem describes the autumn journey that Keats and his companion, Joseph Severn, made from Naples to Rome. Keats rode in a carriage. Severn, to give his dying friend more space and to avoid the jolting of the vehicle, often walked alongside. The artist was enthralled with the wildflowers filling the countryside. He would pick armloads of them and then, having no place else to put them, deposit them in the carriage with the poet. By the time Keats reached Rome, his carriage resembled a flower-filled hearse.
Plumly then embarked on a book-length account of Keats’s last eighteen months, after Keats had composed the great odes that would render him immortal, after he had stopped writing poetry and knew that he was dying. After some twenty-five years and much alteration, Posthumous Keats marks the fruition of Plumly’s project, which lasted about as many years as Keats lived (1795-1821). This book is not a biography of the poet, nor even a chronological account of his final months. Rather, in seven chapters, each divided into seven sections, Plumly reflects on various aspects of Keats’s life and reputation.
Some chapters explore a single theme. The first examines various images of the poet. Plumly most likes those executed during Keats’s life. Among Plumly’s favorites is Benjamin Haydon’s image that he included in his book Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (1817). Haydon placed some of his friends among the onlookers. A lively Keats stands next to the older Romantic poet William Wordsworth in this group portrait of historical and living figures. The year before, Haydon had made a life mask of Keats. Another picture that Plumly praises originated on the Isle of Wight. In July, 1819, Keats and Charles Brown were visiting there, the one to write, the other to draw. On July 31, 1819, Brown sketched his friend. The other drawing that Plumly admires is that by Severn; it is another quick sketch, executed by Severn a few weeks before Keats died.
After Keats’s death, his portrait was painted more than a hundred times. The images became increasingly idealized, as artists sought to re-create not the lively young man or the individual dying of tuberculosis but instead the general idea of the poet. Even Severn became a victim to this tendency as he repeatedly reproduced his original drawing but in altered form. According to Plumly, artists in the nineteenth century fell into one of two errors. They presented either a Keats who was too effeminate and ethereal to live in the real world or one too solid for the world to affect. Plumly includes in his strictures the portrait by William Hilton that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. This painting, based on an 1819 sketch, presents a reflective writer untouched by illness.
In his second...
(The entire section is 1418 words.)