“And So Live Ever—Or Else Swoon to Death”

By Neal Comment


As I was getting breakfast in the Festival of Books green room Sunday morning, I spotted Los Angeles Times Book Prize-winning poet Stanley Plumly at an adjacent table, so I went over to offer my congratulations and ask him about his new book, Posthumous Keats, and what attracted him to Keats as a subject. “The poignancy of his life and the power of his death,” Plumly replied readily:

“It’s not sudden or abrupt, the way Shelley died,” he elaborated. “In a way, it’s the inevitability of it, once the process starts, and you can see the markers of decline… [Also,] this grandest of all literary poets thought he had failed, and the irony is that he succeeded so beautifully.”

Instead of a straightforward biography, Plumly circles around some of the key moments in Keats’s life—”never far from Rome and those last days”—with a steady eye on how his status as one of the all-time greats emerged. Reputation, he reflected, is always transient, and the way we perceive our literary icons depends as much on the responses of other readers as it does on the work itself. “You can say in hindsight that it’s inevitable his work would be remembered forever,” Plumly observed, “but there’s no guarantee.”