A gentle, concentric chronology of the English poet’s life, pausing occasionally for close—sometimes too close—discussions of poems and individual lines.
Plumly (English/Univ. of Maryland; Old Heart: Poems, 2007, etc.) brings his training, art and craft to bear on the sad case of John Keats (1795–1821), seeking to illuminate “certain connections and crossovers [that do] not fit the profile of strict biographical narrative.” Ruminating more than explicating, Plumly seeks to celebrate the verse and to illuminate the man. He visits and revisits the views of Keats’s friends and family, lovers and rivals. He interprets images of the poet made during Keats’s life, paying special attention to Charles Brown’s portrait, drawn just before consumption had begun its wasting work, and to Joseph Severn’s justly celebrated deathbed sketch of the friend he nursed during the final months in Rome. Quoting generously from Keats’s correspondence with his friends, Plumly gradually adds other portraits. Clustered around the poet were his brothers Tom, who died before him of the same disease, and George, who emigrated to America. His rival Percy Shelley invited the dying Keats to stay with him and Mary in Italy; his great friend Brown may have deliberately avoided accompanying the poet to Rome. Fanny Brawne, the great love of Keats’s final year, also comes to life here, as the author quotes from her sad letter to the poet’s sister: “All his friends have forgotten him, they have got over the first shock…They think I have done the same, but I have not got over it and never shall.” Severn emerges as the brightest hero in Keats’s darkest days. Filling out the canvas, Plumly examines the inadequacies and biases of the earliest biographies and offers educative asides on everything from tuberculosis and its treatment to 19th-century travel and Rome’s Protestant Cemetery.
A work animated by deep affection and informed by sturdy scholarship.