Here is the answer to what is perhaps a burning question: what happens when poets write biographies?
Stanley Plumly is the poet laureate of the state of Maryland, a professor at the University of Maryland, and an accomplished (read: published) poet; I am otherwise unfamiliar with the man’s poetry, but I take it upon quick research that he is famous in the skeletal sort of way that modern American poets can be. By this I mean that unless you live in Maryland, or perhaps are the sort of person who buys books of poetry by modern poets, you’ve likely never heard of him, and this is indicative of a much larger issue about modern poetry: everybody writes it (at least when they’re young), but it’s ceased to be a matter of prestige, or a form of art held dearly by the public. Where perhaps it may once have been fashionable, it’s been usurped by pop music, which is a more immediately accessible form of art1 which fulfills the desire for catharsis.
In the same way that even those who don’t listen to or appreciate classical music would know the names of Beethoven or Mozart, so John Keats would join the pantheon (I think) of poetic greats whose names have exceeded their art—add to this the names of Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and Maya Angelou. One may assume even before opening the book that Plumly is a fan of Keats, but what I was interested to see is how a man who views Keats as a literary giant would explain the phenomenon in a culture that has to a great degree forgotten poets—or perhaps Plumly would only write to the audience that does care.
Perhaps some of the fascination with Keats lies in the fact that he died so young (of “consumption” or tuberculosis at the age of 25); like so many modern superstars who died young—James Dean, Elliot Smith, Heath Ledger, Jeff Buckley, and Jim Morrison, just to name an obvious few, and I would also submit the name of Tristan Egolf—it becomes easier to ascribe genius to those whose potential was cut short, and therefore the sum of their professional or artistic legacy necessarily includes not simply what they’ve done, but what we posit they would have done.
In Keats’ case, his career as a writer spanned all of 3 or 4 years; his best (though not best-known) work is the long form Endymion:
A THING of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.
It becomes difficult, therefore, to separate Keats from his lingering death, and indeed Plumly in this respect is significantly morbid: each of the 7 chapters, which loops around and covers Keats’ life from a slightly different angle, draws special attention to Keats’ expectoration of blood, his gauntness, and the poet’s moribund final days. But as if to apologize for his focus on Keats as a dying man, the author takes special care to emphasize that it is perhaps unwise and dangerous to reflect on Keats as the comet come and gone too soon—the rock star dead young, in other words—because of the danger of forming a fictional character. Put another way, Plumly posits two versions of Keats: a posthumous Keats about whom we may coo when we read “Ode to a Grecian Urn” in our Norton Anthology, and the living Keats who was a much more complicated and in some ways much less sexy figure.
What Plumly seems most interested in is twofold: first, how the moribund poet’s familiarity with death,2 his romance with Fanny Brawne, or his quixotic notions of legacy influenced his poetry; secondly, how the dead Keats transmogrified into such a different person than the living one. His first chapter deals primarily with an introduction of the dying Keats in Rome with his friend/nurse/painter Joseph Severn, and contrasting the likenesses of Keats drawn during his final days with later portraits (original works or copies of copies), wherein the miserable humanity afforded Keats by his illness is buffed away and only Keats the Young English Poet, the textbook Romantic, remains.
Having not read any of the other notable biographies of Keats, it would be difficult for me to compare Plumly’s “personal biography” to an of the other (“impersonal?”) ones. It is, as you might expect, less an exhaustive chronicle of Keats’ life, times, and literary corpus and more an extended essay about Keats, and more largely about death and legacy, for which the former is a perfect example.