A Brighter Word Than Bright: Keats at Work by Dan Beachy-Quick, with series editor Robert D. Richardson (Muse Books: The Iowa Series in Creativity and Writing Series: University of Iowa Press)
poet John Keats, considered by many as one of the greatest poets in the English language, has long been the subject of attention from scholars who seek to understand him and poets who seek to emulate him. Bridging these impulses, A Brighter Word Than Bright is neither historical biography nor scholarly study, but instead a biography of Keats’s poetic imagination. Here the noted award-winning poet Dan Beachy-Quick, associate professor of English at Colorado State University enters into Keats’s writing – both his letters and his poems – not to critique or judge, not to claim or argue, but to embrace the passion and quickness of his poetry and engage the aesthetic difficulties with which Keats grappled.
Combining a set of biographical portraits that place symbolic pressure on key moments in Keats’s life with a chronological examination of the development of Keats-as-poet through his poems and letters, Beachy-Quick explores the growth of the young man’s poetic imagination during the years of his writing life, from 1816 to 1820.
This book on inspiration and imagination in Keats is nothing if not itself inspired and imaginatively backed up by example and original analysis. Dan Beachy-Quick brings Keatsian depth and texture to his study, which is as much a poetry biography as it is an incredibly close reading of the major poems. – Stanley Plumly
A Brighter Word Than Bright ingeniously traces Keats’s development and ethos as a writer, from the ‘erotic effort’ of the poem and the ‘great silence of the Grecian urn’ to the ‘abyss in all its varieties.’ We are deftly escorted to a molten realm, where, through drone of bee and webs finely wrought we enter into intimations of Keats’s vision. Dan Beachy-Quick writes: ‘Sometimes I think a poetic presses down upon the poet’s mind as does a seal upon the soft wax that closes a letter.’ With exquisite delicacy and ardent quiescence, this text impresses renewed and intricate paths upon which the reader may traverse and inhabit the texts of one of the most beloved of poets. – Laynie Browne, author of Roseate, Points of Gold
In a series of lined meditations that are also incantations, Dan Beachy-Quick explores the lyrical richness of Keats’s poetry. With the eye of an artist, the ear of a musician, and the precision of a scholar, Beachy-Quick takes us on a journey through the many contradictions and innovations of Keats’s process. – Debbie Lee, author of Romantic Liars
In A Brighter Word Than Bright Beachy-Quick enters the poems and the mind that wrote them, exploring and mining Keats’s poetic concerns and ambitions. The book is a mimetic tribute to the poet’s life and work, a brilliant enactment that is also a thoughtful consideration.
Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography by Stanley Plumly (paper) (WW Norton) "Stanley Plumly's extended meditation on Keats is one of those literary treasures in which you get two great writers for the price of one. Think of Nabokov's Gogol, Charles Olson's Melville, or Henry James's Hawthorne. This is a brilliant and beautiful book." — Russell Banks, author of The Reserve
"Stanley Plumly has been studying John Keats for as many years as the great English romantic poet lived. He has so thoroughly absorbed Keats's work and life that the result, in Posthumous Keats, is virtually a new kind of critical biography.... I believe this is the greatest book ever written about the greatest lyric poet of our language." —David Baker, editor of Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry and author of Midwest Eclogue
"Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography is Stanley Plumly's deeply felt meditation on Keats's turbulent life and rich, iconic afterlife, but also on the startling vicissitudes of literary recognition and posthumous fame. Alive to his tragic vision, the book is also arduously researched and lovingly written, with a poet's profound empathy for the dying Keats." — Morris Dickstein, Distinguished Professor of English, City University of New York
The death of English Romantic poet John Keats, only 25 years old when he passed away after an agonizing year-long struggle with tuberculosis in Rome in 1821, has become the stuff of literary legend.
Its tragic prematurity, and the fact that Keats' prolonged decline bequeathed us much correspondence between himself and his intimates chronicling his physical decay, has for generations led discourse about Keats to focus would-have, could-have, and should-have-beens. As a result, memorialization of Keats has too often come to be controlled by personal agendas.
At last, one of our leading American poets has produced a truly sympathetic study of the final years of Keats' life that shifts our focus from the Keats who might have been to the Keats who was.
In Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography, National Book Award finalist Stanley Plumly traces the period in Keats' life referred to by the poet himself in a heart-rending letter as his "posthumous existence" —from 1818, and the long walking tour in the cold Northern British isles with Charles Armitage Brown that led both to Keats' meeting with the woman to whom he became secretly engaged, Fanny Brawnel and to the first outward manifestation of Keats' terminal illness (a prolonged sore throat), to the poet's death in 1821, after a desperate six months hoping for recovery in the more hospitable climate of Rome, sharing a room there with his comrade and de facto nurse cum biographer, the painter Joseph Severn.
In addition to chronicling Keats' final days, Plumly pays particular attention to how remembrance of Keats has gradually evolved and the tortured arguments among his posthumous supporters about how to appropriately memorialize him. He gives due attention to the familiar tragedies of Keats' late life — a lingering sense that has family had some genetic curse after both his mother and brother Tom died of consumption; the jarringly negative reviews of Keats' major debut poem Endymion in establishment journals like the Quarterly Review; Keats' secret, forever unconsummated engagement to Fanny Brawne; the increasingly sporadic support of most of his friends as his condition worsened; the mismanagement of his inheritance by family members and the tight purse strings of a controlling trustee; and the persistent, exacerbating misdiagnoses of Keats' illness by six successive physicians.
Plumly also traces how the familiar, pathetic narratives of Keats, as the effete aesthe who drew flowers in the margins of his notes as a medical student, killed by reviewers whose savage critiques left him mopey and depressed, came to be, revealing the agendas and ambivalences that divided Keats's posthumous supporters and made them less effective. Most notably, Percy Bysshe Shelley's resounding lament in Adonais — whose preface attacks the "wretched men" responsible for what the poem casts as Keats' "bloom" having "died on the promise of the fruit" — is in fact written less out of a desire to preserve Keats' memory than to allow Shelley to claim the moral high ground in his own ongoing battle with the critics of the Tory literary establishment.
Plumly's narrative meditation, itself constructed with poetic elegance in seven chapters of seven sections each, is a quest to reach beyond these interpreters into Keats' own writings, reading his letters side by side with his poems. Foregrounding the poetry, Plumly reveals a more mature and more complicated Keats, whose self-doubts and fears of death were humanizing and momentary.
Keats, he reminds us, was studying medicine not with the ultimate goal of being an apothecary, as is often erroneously supposed, but with a desire to be a surgeon, this well before the age of anesthesia, a desire motivated perhaps by his experience nursing his mother and brother Tom as both died from tuberculosis. His is not the ambition of a shrinking violet and his immersion in experience of the senses does not consist entirely of listening to bird song and smelling flowers. Keats, Plumly also reminds us, wrote the bulk of his corpus after his illness had already begun, in about a semester's time, from the beginning of 1819 to the end of that summer, and had with chilling accuracy accurately predicted his remaining lifespan to be about a thousand days.
In what he called his last "living year," 1819, Keats worked quickly, fiercely, and with a philosophical program founded on his own idea of Negative Capability, the ability of the poet to remain artificially suspended in a state of uncertainty, consciously dismissing the impulse to come to a final resolution. In a provocative analysis of Keats' infamous self-bestowed epitaph, "Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water," Plumly argues that the line must be read as closely as the poetry: "Was," he notes, with attention to the tense, "is the operative verb"; it "does not mean that the unnamedname will always be so written."
Keats' death becomes a part of his work and its vessel. It is this idea that leads to Keats' greatest undertaking—exploring the life of the eternally suspended moment and both the light and dark it may contain. Plumly reveals Keats° claim to be not the mortal poet, constrained by his death, but the poet of mortality.
There can hardly be a larger, more ambitious theme.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
One of our generation's important American poets, Stanley Plumly has received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Delmore Schwartz Award, the William Carlos Williams Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other honors. His tenth collection of poems, Old Heart, was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. Plumly grew up in Ohio and Virginia. He was educated at Wilmington College in Ohio and Ohio University. Plumly taught at Ohio University, where he helped found the Ohio Review, and is currently Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Excerpt: Written in stone, written on paper, written in water, written on air. How little survives us but words and words on words. The regretted words on Keats's tombstone have survived not only mockery ("I was a great sufferer, after the death of Keats, from the scorn and sneers passed upon his memory . . . Eventhe pathetic line on his tomb, 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water,' was particularly made the object of ridicule. `Here lies one whose name was writ in water and his works in milk and water.' ") but gravity, as the "head-stone, having sunk twice, owing to its faulty foundation, has been twice renewed by loving strangers, and each time, as I am informed, these strangers were Americans." (On February 8, 2006, close to 185 years after Keats has been buried in the "Cemetery of Poets," the International Herald Tribune reports that "this precious bit of paradise is decaying . . . Many of its important monuments are crumbling like the bones they mark, damaged by pollution and years without archaeological maintenance. The landscape is overgrown, waterlogged by poor drainage . . . 'It looks romantic and lovely, but the stones are falling apart,' said Valerie Magar, a conservation specialist at the United Nations International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property.")
In his various memoir prose, Severn, nearing eighty, adds that Keats's own words—his poems—have survived in spite of "the changes in the changing world, sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better, but always an intellectual lottery in which the world delights." Robert Gittings, in his introduction to his version of Selected Letters, speculates that Keats's immortal phrase " 'Negative Capability' may have been invented or misread by Jeffrey"—that is, John Jeffrey, Georgiana's husband after George, who badly "transcribed" much of Keats's correspondence with his brother. The implications of this possible invention speak powerfully to the lottery that Severn suggests immortality is—and to the vulnerability of anything written in stone or on paper. One is reminded of F. Scott Fitzgerald's definition of negative capability in his essay "The Crack-Up": that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold opposing ideas in the mind at the same time yet retain the ability to function. The dialectic of mortality/immortality is itself perhaps an example of—because we are dealing in words, regardless of their source—negative capability, of living eternally in doubt and uncertainties, alive, so to speak, among the ambiguities of a possible afterlife. The title of the only prose that Severn published in his lifetime, "On the Vicissitudes of Keats's Fame" (the Atlantic Monthly, April 1863), was originally proposed as "On the Adversities of Keats's fame"; vicissitudes and adversities both imply tension, opposition, the pull of mortality inherent within the concept and the chanciness of immortality, the fragile, lucky, deferred thing that immortality is.
Then there is the palimpsest itself that is a poem: How many tries, how many erasures, how many traces are necessary to bring the best words in their best order to the surface of the impure page? Keats wrote fast and revised faster. In every case (with the possible exception of "La Belle Dame sans Merci"), the revision, word to word, lifts the text from something less extraordinary. In "Ode to a Nightingale," the restored pronominal adjective "My" rescues "heart" from the generality of an allusion to poetic history, just as the substitution of the adjective "drowsy" for "painful" allows "pain" to become a verb—"My heart aches and drowsy numbness pains, My sense. . . ." In "To Autumn," florid, inert writing is quickly crossed out ("While bright the Sun slants through the husky barn"; "Spares for some slumberous minutes the next swath") in favor of some of the most transparent writing in English ("Spares the next swath and all its twined flower"). In "Ode to Psyche," the point of departure for the great odes, it is "by my own eyes inspired," not by "clear eyes"; and at the end of the poem, "A bright torch, and a casement ope at night" is meant "To let the warm Love in," not to let the "Warm Love glide in." The odes are everywhere enriched with such changes, changes made on paper that has somehow survived human hands passing them along, mortal hands in mortal time. Brown's claim that Keats wrote "Nightingale" in one long morning sitting under a plum tree in the garden of Wentworth Place is subjective at best; his further claim that "When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books" is likely memory heavily edited or misread. But to add that the "writing was not well legible; and it was difficult to arrange the stanzas on so many scraps" is to imply coauthorship, even with Keats's "assistance." Brown here seems to be assuming control of an assumed artistic chaos, an authority over the "scraps" of authorship. But Brown aside, the real story is the paper itself, and how after a "false start on sheet two, Keats wrote two and half stanzas on sheet one. He then wrote the next two and a half on sheet two, turning it upside-down to avoid the false start. Stanzas six and seven were written on the verso of sheet one, and he then returned to the verso of sheet two to write stanza eight." These are small sheets (8 by 43/4 inches), sent by Keats to his friend Reynolds, who passed them on to his sisters, who willed them to a nephew, an artist named Towneley Green, whose death in 1900 occasioned their sale to the Marquess of Crewe, who in 1933 offered them to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
"Ode on a Grecian Urn" was copied by Keats's brother George, from manuscript, into a notebook of other fair-copied Keats poems. (George, remember, has returned to England in January 1820 to try to raise money enough to save himself from complete bankruptcy.) Within a month the notebook is on its way to America, where it remains in possession of the Keats-Jeffrey family until George's grandson, John Gilmer Speed, borrows, on a permanent basis, the notebook as a source for his edition of The Letters and Poems of John Keats (1883). The notebook, with the "Urn" inside, turns up next in 1891 in Melbourne, Australia, where it is purchased by Edward Jenks, Professor of Law, who sells it two years later to a Bernard Quaritch, who sells it in yet another two years to the British Museum as part of its Additions to the Manuscripts. Gittings, who is the scholar of these paper trails, says of "Ode to Psyche" that Keats drafted the Ode to Psyche on a single sheet of the white wove paper known as "Bath," that is a large sire of notepaper, eight by fourteen inches when flat, and folding into four pages of approximately eight by seven. It was a paper which he himself described in his letters as used by "Boarding schools and suburbans in general," and though he employed it often for his own letters, it may reflect here the extra care he thought he was taking over this poem. On 4 May 1819, he gave this draft to his friend J.H. Reynolds, who kept it until his own death in 1852. Reynolds appears to have let it out of his sight only twice, once to Richard Woodhouse, who made a copy of it at some unspecified date, and, years later on 2 July 1847, to Richard Monckton Milnes for the preparation of his Keats biography.
Gittings then follows a trail similar to that of the "Nightingale" ode. On Reynolds's death, "Psyche" passes to his sisters, who bequeath it to Towneley Green, after whose demise it comes up for sale in 1901 at Sotheby's (for eighty-six pounds), disappears for a while, "until 1909 it was acquired by the Pierpont Morgan Library from an unknown source."
Nothing but paper passed along with the breath of its words alive with fire. Scraps of paper, scraps of words written in fire. As if written by "the bright Hyperion," "whose flaming robes" stream out "beyond his heels . . . / as if of earthly fire," to scare away "the meek ethereal Hours." "On he flared," writes Keats, who is himself on fire in Haydon's portrait of his young fierce profile in Christ's Entry into Jerusalem. In the pantheon of that portion of the wall-size painting, where Keats is just above Wordsworth, who in prayerful reverence is flanked to his left by Voltaire and Newton, even the air that these luminaries occupy looks kindled, pocked with flame. But those last days, those last meek hours in Rome, in the small rectangular bedroom that had for six months surrounded his life, in this now cold space suspended above the warm flow of the Spanish Steps, Keats's diminished profile and wasting body seemed to have taken over, and what was left of Keats seemed to be melting, disappearing before Severn's eyes. The night sweats and constant evacuations were only part of it. The fire that was Keats, the breath to feed it, was going. Still, in Severn's middleof-the-night deathbed portrait, the face of Keats—through its calm and utter sleep-set exhaustion—seems intensely if darkly alive, potentially mobile, angular, and, if wasted, expressively there. Fire as the figure of the spirit, fire to think by, fire to heal the soul, fire for the bread of the body. Keats had reprised each of these phases these last months. "Small busy flames play through the fresh-laid coals, / And their faint cracklings o'er our silence creep / Like whispers of the household gods that keep / A gentle empire o'er fraternal souls"—so Keats had written as part of a birthday poem for Tom. Then Severn, like a brother, years later keeping watch: "I have sat up all night—I have read to him nearly all day, and even in the night—I light the fire—make his breakfast, and sometimes am obliged to cook—make his bed, and even sweep the room. I can have these things done, but never at the time when they must and ought to be done . . . what engages me most is making a fire—I blow—blow for an hour—the smoke comes fuming out—my kettle falls over on the burning sticks—no stove—Keats calling me to be with him—the fire catching my hands and the door-bell ringing."
The one ringing the doorbell the day after Keats dies is likely the Roman maskmaker Gherardi, who takes a cast of Keats's bone-white face as the death mask. This matrix of the mask is soon passed on to John Taylor, Keats's publisher, and in 1865 is purchased by Lord Houghton, Keats's first biographer, after which it seems to get lost. This face of a sleeping Keats is fired like pottery, like porcelain, stronger than the face that Severn has only a few weeks before drawn in stoic suffering. It is a face fixed in transition, truly frozen in time. "On Saturday a gentleman came to cast the face, hand, and foot," remembers Severn. "On Sunday his body was opened; the lungs were completely gone." There is a moment, about a page long, in a wonderful little book put together by the Romantic scholar Neville Rogers (Keats Shelley & Rome: An Illustrated Miscellany, 1949) that has this to say about the "alleged" death mask of John Keats:
In 1948 a lively interest in the Keats world was aroused by the discovery of this cast of the death mask; although why it should have been regarded as a discovery is in itself a minor mystery. The cast, advertised for many years in the trade catalogue of a London firm at trifling cost, appears to have entirely escaped the attention of Keats scholars. When it was brought to my notice I could recall only one possible example which appeared in the Browning Sale Catalogue, 1913, as item 1394 "a plastered Death Mask of Keats". I have, however, since come to the conclusion, from a description of it by Browning in a letter to the Storeys (see Browning to his American Friends, edited by Gertrude Reese Hudson, Bowes & Bowes, p. 6) as "my cast from the face of Keats, such a beautiful and characteristic thing" that this was the life mask so often misdescribed.
The author here is Dorothy Hewlett, an early biographer of Keats. The vexed question of the life/death masks, she reports, comes down to "measurements taken with the craniometer" of two other castings "by Professor F. Wood Jones, F.R.S., of the Royal College of Surgeons who, together with T.B. Layton, D.S.O., M.S., of Guys," examines both. Their opinion is that "there is nothing incompatible with both masks being of the same man, living or dead."
A death mask becomes a life mask "misdescribed"—or is it the other way around?—while two other castings belong to the same Keats "living or dead." Surely this is fire alive in two worlds at once or the fire that lives between worlds, the mortal and immortal. Is Keats's face in the mask that Haydon casts, almost to the day that he paints Keats's fiery profile in Christ's Entry, the same, almost identical face that Gherardi casts the day after Keats dies—after six months and more of wasting disease, starvation diets, and severe depression? How could a healthy, living Keats and a long-suffering dead Keats have more than less the same fired face in a mask? Or are we being asked to see with the wishful eyes of a beholder, one who would have Keats alive in death? Yet there are obvious, if subtle, differences between Haydon's mask and Gherardi's mask having primarily to do with the weight of the face, the content of flesh. The "death" mask is clearly closer to the bone, and the more compelling for it; the life mask shows a trace of a smile. Those who would have the masks as merely different castings of the same source are looking for mortal fire or fearing the transforming power of fire from what we sometimes dramatically call the other world. There are five years between the life and death castings, with later confirmation of each in Brown's beautiful 1819 Shanklin drawing and Severn's beautiful 1821 deathbed portrait. The two sketches separate the two worlds; the two masks, supposedly the most accurate kind of renderings, bring them together, perhaps because of their presumed objective reading of the subject. The face under the face of the referred-to death mask feels, not surprisingly, more alive than the 1816 living casting. It feels more alive because of the force of life, the five more years behind it: the five years of medical training, the years of losing brothers and Fanny Brawne, the years of the struggle to become "among the English Poets," the years of slowly succumbing to consumption, the year of "marching up against a Battery . . . This Journey to Italy." Experience, inhabiting experience, obviously marks a difference between the life and death masks, while their similarities derive from the one being implied in the other, the living haunting the dead. That is what finally the Professors of Faces are saying: Keats is the same man, the same face, living or dead—just as the meaning behind immortality is life, vital mortal life, not simply life not-dead. And more life, more elemental experience, especially in one so young, means twice alive.
By 1809 Keats's fevered mother has returned to Edmonton and the home she abandoned five years earlier. She is thirty-three years old and dying of consumption. She is doubtless a broken woman, now bedridden. Keats, at fourteen, will become her nurse, companion, and willing servant. He cooks for her, gives her her medicine, reads to her, sits up with her sometimes through the night, all of which ministration takes place in a small, confined, almost airtight room. Almost nine years later, having completed his medical training at Guy's Hospital, he will be many months into his nursing of Tom, who by the autumn of 1818 is falling away before Keats's eyes. This time I Keats is more vulnerable to "the family disease": He has just gotten back from his aborted walking tour of the North with Brown, fairly sick himself with a serious sore throat. Again the confinement room is small, with the windows closed to keep out the damp, dangerous night air. The two brothers together in close daily, deadly quarters, September through November, will signal the end for one and the beginning of the end for the other. This fraternal image will be repeated two years later in Rome, except that Keats will be the patient and iron Severn will act as nurse, companion, and witness. For six months Severn will keep watch, most of it in the now famous tiny bedroom in which Keats dies above Piazza di Spagna. Sometimes the window is open, sometimes Severn—from December onward—carries Keats into the larger living space within their apartment for a change of scene, a change of air.
The Italians, unlike the English, know about air, its possible lethal, invisible qualities. The Campagna in summer has taught them that: insect air, evil air, malaria. All the while, it is not the sweet-sour odors or noises off the street but heat from light that causes them to close their blinds and often their windows. They suspect that whatever phthisis or consumption is, it is in the air and thus in the clothes, the furniture, the wall coverings, the books. Six Anglo-trained doctors cannot diagnose correctly Keats's pulmonary condition, though the wasting illness is responsible for at least 25 percent of all deaths reported. Until his body is opened and the lungs' black cavity is revealed, James Clark, a communicable disease specialist, is still not sure as to Keats's cause of death. But the Italians know or know enough to know that Keats's living and dead body carries and communicates something dangerous, as contagious as fire. Yet fire is also a purifier, a chastisement to evil air. No sooner is Keats buried than the "brutal Italians" do "their monstrous business." According to Severn, "vile indiscriminating Roman law required that all the furniture should be burned, and the rooms refurnished and everyway restored." The "burning of the furniture in the death-room" becomes not only an exemplary bonfire, visible from -Keats's window, in the middle of the popular Piazza di Spagna, but a symbolic burning and purifying of Keats's absent body. For Keats, though, the Keats who forever matters, this fire, this purging of the body of the spirit, has already happened. It happened somewhere back there in lost time, perhaps the autumn of 1819, when the last great lines get written, or perhaps the autumn of 1820, when he sails into the unknown and the known, when he disappears into the sublimity of his words.
and the Secret Societies by Jennifer N. Wunder (The Nineteenth Century: Ashgate)
Jennifer Wunder makes a strong case for the importance of hermeticism
and the secret societies to an understanding of John Keats's poetry
and his speculations about religious and philosophical questions.
Although secret societies exercised enormous cultural influence during
the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they have received
little attention from Romantic scholars. And yet, information about
the societies permeated all aspects of Romantic culture. Groups such
as the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons fascinated the reading public,
and the market was flooded with articles, pamphlets, and books that
discussed the societies's goals and hermetic philosophies, debated
their influence, and drew on their mythologies for literary
inspiration. Wunder recovers the common knowledge about the societies
and offers readers a first look at the role they played in the
writings of Romantic authors in general and Keats in particular. She
argues that Keats was aware of the information available about the
secret societies and employed hermetic terminology and imagery
associated with these groups throughout his career. As she traces the
influence of these secret societies on Keats's poetry and letters, she
not only offers readers a new perspective on Keats's writings but also
on scholarship treating his religious and philosophical beliefs. While
scholars have tended either to consider Keats's aesthetic and
religious speculations on their own terms or to adopt a more
historical approach that rejects an emphasis on the spiritual for a
materialist interpretation, Wunder offers us a middle way. Restoring
Keats to a milieu characterized by simultaneously worldly and
mythological propensities, she helps to explain if not fully reconcile
the insights of both camps.
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