A re-creation of a famous 1817 dinner party hosted by painter Benjamin Haydon for his friends John Keats, William Wordsworth and Charles Lamb serves as a way of exploring the lives, artistic sentiments and worldviews of some of the most influential literary figures of England’s Romantic period.
When Haydon invited his friends to dinner and tea on Dec. 28th, 1817—a night he would later refer to in his autobiography and diary entries as “the immortal dinner”—he did so for two reasons. The first was to introduce the young emerging poet Keats to Wordsworth, already considered a great Romantic poet. The second was to share his progress on his most important historical painting to that point, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem. A massive work that incorporated the faces of Keats, Wordsworth and Lamb, Haydon had spent three years on the painting by 1817 and would spend another three on it before it was completed. Although poet Plumly (Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography, 2009) does not spend significant time describing the “lively, even raucous evening” itself, he uses it as a way to ambitiously chronicle the events before and after the meal in each of the artist’s lives. The author also adopts a speculative tone when discussing the meal—e.g., after delving into their work to compare their differing views on poetry form: “You have to wonder if any of these issues were discussed or brought up at the immortal dinner.” In this exhaustively researched but occasionally digressive book, Plumly uses diary entries, autobiographies, historical accounts and excerpts of the artists’ works to explore a key time period in artistic and literary history.
Eloquent at times and rambling at others, this colorful historical narrative will be of interest to academics of the Romantic era, but the disorienting chronology and critical jargon may deter some general readers.