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  • The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb by Stanley Plumly
  • Michael O'Neill
The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb. By Stanley Plumly. New York: Norton, 2014. Pp. 368. Cloth, $26.95.

Benjamin Robert Haydon struggled all his life to be a major painter, finally killing himself in June 1846. His last journal entry referred to King Lear, "Stretch me no longer on this rough world" (qtd p. 334), and indeed his prose—confessional, gossipy, racked, observant, thrusting one into the detail of a life lived to the full—may be his major legacy. He also left behind a few hugely ambitious works of uncertain artistic value, including Christ's Entry into Jerusalem. Haydon celebrated this painting at what he called the "immortal dinner" of December 28, 1817, when he invited a group of people for a meal, including Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb, all of whom appear on his canvas. Other guests included a young doctor, Joseph Ritchie, who was about to set off on an ill-fated search for the source of the River Niger (Ritchie would die a few years later) and John [End Page 174] Kingston, Wordsworth's "immediate superior" (p. 13) and the butt of Lamb's drunken lampooning in the course of the evening.

Others, notably Penelope Hughes-Hallett, have written about the immortal dinner. But Stanley Plumly manages to be freshly evocative not only about its lights and shades, and rich interplay of personalities, but also about its fuller meanings and larger resonances for thinking about Romantic creativity. His eloquent study refuses to be tied to a simple thesis, but its deepest subjects include human value, what matters to people, why they quest for something approaching immortality, and how that quest is most nearly fulfilled when most embroiled in and alert to what is fleeting and transitory. Biographical, pictorial, and textual close-ups mingle with longer perspectives throughout the book. Its structure—a series of soberly descriptive yet near-poetic meditations on this or that figure or poem or painting—allows Plumly scope to say freshly why both central and peripheral Romantic figures (and they share the same stage, as in a Chekhov play) engross and still matter.

Haydon haunts the pages: should we think his commitment to High Art delusional? Does it serve as a warning, in its simplified, almost self-caricaturing way, about the Romantic pursuit of sublime, epic greatness, a quest that was doomed to fail and yet, in failing, succeed? Plumly on several occasions argues that Haydon's large-scale failures stemmed from an over-controlling cognitive bias. When he triumphs as a painter, in, say, the unerringly attentive 1843 drawing of Wordsworth or his "vital 'Mary Haydon as the Delphic Sibyl'" (p. 268), it is, on Plumly's account, because "he is not overthinking the process" (p. 269). Plumly is a persuasive Romantic expressivist in his praise for the real achievements of writers such as Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, and Lamb as occurring when they implicitly accept—even as they reconfigure—brokenness and accident, the inexplicable and the quotidian. At such moments, which might include the twists and turns of a conversational poem or an ode, or a sketch responding vibrantly to what lies at hand, the Romantics approach a truly authentic art.

Plumly's style is itself lively and alert. It has its tics, including a fondness for the historic present of a kind favored by modern biographers: "Keats is wearing, of course, his great coat" (p. 19) is an effect, for example, that seems to strain after, rather than capture, the "plasmic, living moment" (p. 269). Very occasionally the writing can seem a little too in love with the set piece or the grand pronouncement: the euphemism of "passes" for "dies" (p. 242) means that a would-be elegiac passage about multiple deaths within a short period of time (Hazlitt, Siddons, Scott, Coleridge, and others) is less affecting than it wants to be, while the assertion that "Friendship is what we have" (p. 113) verges on sentimentality (though the book is a powerful tribute to the complexity and significance of friendship).

But for the most part...


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pp. 174-176
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