Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Garden of Verse: 'Immortal' Glimpses Into the Lives of Poets



           The title of this largely entertaining peek into the lives of creative artists in the early 19th century by Stanley Plumly, "The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb," mentions the names of three literary worthies likely to create an interest in lovers of poetry. Particularly the great age of English Romantic poetry. The title does not include the name of another artistic figure, Benjamin Robert Haydon -- a painter, not a poet -- who was the host for this "immortal evening." While he is not remembered the way the three writers are, at one time paid, public exhibitions of his ambitious historical paintings drew thousands of visitors in London and other sites.
         The book's title evokes the enduring importance of the three writers, especially the poets Keats and Wordsworth. Lamb was most successful as a storyteller and informal essayist, popular in his time and for generations after, though not widely read today. 
          But Haydon has been largely forgotten. His genre, "historical painting," has been entirely superseded, first by photography and then by film. The painting he was working on (and would take six years to complete) when he invited his literary friends for Sunday dinner, followed by a late supper, and apparently a good deal of wine throughout, was "Christ's Entry into Jerusalem." The particular reason for inviting the three writers (a few other guests were invited as well) was that all three had posed for Haydon and their faces, their figures clothed in period dress, appear among the crowd of observers depicted witnessing the momentous arrival of the great religious teacher.
          I found it hard to warm up to this painting. Plumly makes no case for it as great art either. The book's central preoccupation is what was wrong with Haydon's view of his vocation and his art, and with Haydon himself -- what keeps him, that is, despite his out-sized confidence in his own genius from being among the immortals. Rather than his painting it's his obsessive journal-keeping about his life and times that interests us today. His record of the memorable 'evening' serves as the book's lens into the characters of the 'immortal' figures and leads to his reflections about them at other times.
          But much of "The Immortal Evening" focuses on Haydon's "unsuccessful" life and this is the limitation of Plumly's approach. Almost anything else that Plumly writes about here is more interesting than his analysis of Haydon's failings, which at times appears to grow repetitious. It's the kind of book where you leaf ahead to see when the names of the people you are interested in, Wordsworth or Keats or Coleridge -- who, though unavailable for the feast or to pose for the painting, gets a lot of ink here too -- next turn up.
          So the hook -- three great writers who sort of know each other get invited to dinner by a guy who appears to be a better host than he is an artist -- attracts, but the book delivers less of what I want and more than I need to know about a period painter who happened to write an awful lot of diary and memoir stuff. At one point Plumly says of Haydon that he should have been a writer.
         Himself a poet, Plumly is a very good writer, and I would read anything he has to tell me about Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge or their period. Haydon's life may invite our sympathy, but like his paintings as a subject he's ephemeral.
            Plumly, who wrote a book titled "Posthumous Keats," which I read enthusiastically a few years ago, might be regarded as the high chef of literary biographical slices. Keats, who died at 26, had a short life, but Plumly's book concentrates on how its ending has fixed our notion of a young man of genius, who (it seems to me) resembles the famous pursuer of a dream in his own "Ode to a Grecian Urn": 

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal...

            Keats won't age, won't decline, won't disappoint his fans, can never be accused of "failing to live up" to expectation of his early brilliance.
            Here Plumly quotes this judgment by the ill-fated painter Haydon: "Keats is the only man I ever met with who is conscious of a high calling... except Wordsworth."
            In fact the arc of Wordsworth's artistic biography takes a path opposite to Keats's. His best work is done in his early years; by the time Haydon and Keats, and most English speakers, become acquainted with his great poetry, Wordsworth is at the peak of his fame but his inspiration is gone. He lives a long life, but falls increasingly out of favor, especially to those who loved his great work.  
            As for Lamb, of whose career I knew almost nothing, his biography is also a cautionary tale. Despite wide publication and popular favor, he spends almost his whole life as a clerk in a civil service office, supporting a troubled family. He takes long rambles through his beloved London and gets amusingly drunk at Haydon's "immortal" party.
            For readers, especially English major types, fascinated by the two genius generations of Romantic poetry, slices of life from period letters and diaries woven together by an author who is a master of the field are like peeks into the lives of the rich and famous by the celebrity lovers of our own day. Only, to make explicit my own prejudice, learning what these guys thought about, or said about themselves -- or about one another -- is actually worth the effort.
            Keats knew who he was, and it is interesting that a fellow artist who misjudged his own destiny also knew. Haydon puts his three writer friends into his would-be masterpiece as figures among a watching crowd as Christ on a donkey (wearing a tiara of heavenly glow) pushes past them into the holy city. Wordsworth's face droops downward with heavy thoughts. Lamb looks abashed at divinity's approach, while Keats passionately argues his own line of thought.   
            Plumly's fascinating book, perhaps unavoidably, puts Haydon in the center of the picture. But our eyes, and thoughts, are on the guys in the corner.