“Posthumous” Keats

Michael Theune
Illinois Wesleyan University

Re: Keats’s 30 November 1820 letter to Charles Brown

In his final extant letter, John Keats writes, “I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence” (LJK 2: 359). This particular articulation of the poet’s state of being in what would turn out to be one of the final months of his life has become a significant formulation for Keats commentators. Though Keats’s “posthumous existence” is not nearly as ubiquitous as “negative capability” in Keats studies, on the one hand, no other term is—“negative capability” is a term which has become virtually synonymous with Keats in the mainstream of critical conversation about the poet and in fact has come to be deployed in a variety of fields and endeavors not obviously associated with studies of the poet or scholarship on Romanticism. However, on the other hand, Keats’s formulation regarding his “posthumous existence” certainly now ranks as among the poet’s own terms by which critics have become fascinated, using it to help focus and energize readings of the poet’s life and work.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of significant critical reference to the “posthumous existence” formulation:

  • Andrew Bennett’s Keats, Narrative and Audience: The Posthumous Life of Writing (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1994).
  • Jeffrey C. Robinson’s Reception and Poetics in Keats: “My Ended Poet” (NY: St. Martin’s, 1998). (On pages 184-5, Robinson cites the Stanley Plumly poem “Posthumous Keats” in full.)
  • Ralph Pite’s “Keats’s Last Works and His Posthumous Existence,” in Victorian Keats and Romantic Carlyle: The Fusions and Confusions of Literary Periods, edited by C.C. Barfoot (Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1999).
  • “Keats’s “Posthumous Life”: Corpus and Body,” the first chapter of James Najarian’s Victorian Keats: Manliness, Sexuality, and Desire (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).
  • “Keats’s Posthumous Life of Elegy,” the first chapter ofSarah Wootton’s Consuming Keats: Nineteenth-Century Representations in Art and Literature (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
  • Stanley Plumly’s Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography (NY: Norton, 2008).
  • Brendan Corcoran’s “Keats’s Death: Towards a Posthumous Poetics,” in Studies in Romanticism 48.2 (Summer 2009), 321-48.
  • “Keats and Catachresis,” the third chapter of Anahid Nersessian’s The Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2020). (One of this chapter’s two epigraphs is Keats’s remark on his “posthumous existence.”)

Besides these in-depth critical endeavors, it also simply has become the case that Keats’s “posthumous existence” now is a touchstone for critics discussing Keats—a fact to which the many discussions of the formulation “posthumous existence” that are now appearing in the Keats Letters Project’s focus on the November 30 letter attest. Just as Keats’s letter to his brothers in late December, 1817, can be referred to via (a not unproblematic) shorthand as the “negative capability” letter, it is clear that the poet’s 30 November 1820 letter has become the “posthumous existence” letter. In John Keats in Context, “posthumous existence” is of course remarked upon in the entries on “Mortality” (53-4) and “Letters” (72), and nor is it surprising to see it commented upon, as well, in the entry on “Travel” (57).

There are plenty of reasons for the intrigue and resultant popularity of the term “posthumous existence.” The fact that the formulation is articulated in Keats’s (so far as we know) final letter gives it special resonance: it is not only an apt last word, it is (somehow) beyond a last word: it is a last word formulated, if its author is to be believed, already from beyond. Additionally, “posthumous existence” is potent. It is terrifying to think that Keats—who, having nursed his brother Tom and having been trained as a surgeon, knew all too well the family disease of consumption, and who, as reported by Charles Brown in Milnes’s Life and Literary Remains, had ten months before inspected the arterial blood of his own pulmonary hemorrhage and knew that it was his “death-warrant” (54)—knows his mortality so intimately. Though dying too young, with the acknowledgement of his “posthumous existence,” Keats conveys a tragic understanding, offering the wisdom, the comprehension, of a life fully lived, and even already lived beyond.

The formulation “posthumous existence” certainly is powerful, but a good deal of its potency comes from its seductiveness, its own ability to attract and maintain attention by scintillating. As a formulation, “posthumous existence” is far from straightforward; instead, it is gnomic, paradoxical, even oxymoronic—in a way, and to a degree, very similar to the term “negative capability.” Additionally, again in ways similar to “negative capability,” “posthumous existence” is vague enough that it can be applied to many things. It makes itself available. “Posthumous existence” can help a critic think about Keats envisioning himself as a canonized poet, as it does for Bennett; or it can be seen as “a wry comment on [Keats’s] powerlessness against other people’s elegies,” as it is by Pite (66);  or it can refer to specific periods of Keats’s life, and the work to keep the memory of the poet alive, as it is deployed by Plumly; or it can be equated with a “highly pressurized blankness, an attempt to evacuate [the] body and thereby to protect it from expropriation,” as it is in Nersessian (93).

Despite these differences in application, two other key similarities in the use of “posthumous existence” among critics emerge. First, all the uses are serious. Even if recognized as a necessary defensive strategy, “posthumous existence” is understood as a tragic awareness. It’s weighty. It’s heavy. Second, it is taken at face value. Though “posthumous” may be thought by critics to have some other, minor referential use—pointing to, say, Hazlitt’s thinking in the essay “On Posthumous Fame”—“posthumous” really means just that: it’s an adjective used to describe something that occurs after the death of the originator.

But it likely should not be taken to mean only this. Keats was a mimic and a punster. He even admits to this in his final letter. In the midst of the larger action of a proing and conning—after having just confessed to Brown that “I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any hand writing of a friend I love so much as I do you”—Keats turns to note the other aspect of his current situation, its life and liveliness, for what it is: “Yet I ride the little horse,—and at my worst, even in Quarantine, summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life” (LJK 2: 360). So, Keats, who almost always was in a punning mood, was, he reports, particularly so very recently.

I believe Keats is punning, as well, in his formulation of “posthumous existence.” When Keats says he feels as though he is leading a “posthumous existence” he is, among many other things, revealing that he is leading a life similar to that of Posthumus Leonatus, a character from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.

No one should be surprised by this. During late November, 1820, Keats was not only in a punning mood, but he also was in the mood for Shakespeare. Keats, of course, loved Shakespeare, and this admiration reveals itself even in this final letter. Hyder E. Rollins suggests that Keats cannot help but allude to his beloved Bard. After Keats notes how physically close he and Brown must have been when, on his way to Italy, he was in Bedhampton and Brown was visiting the Dilkes in Chichester, Keats exclaims, “Then was my star predominant!” (LJK 2: 359). Rollins connects this with lines from “The Winter’s Tale, I.ii.201 f., ‘a bawdy planet, that will strike / Where ‘t is predominant’” (LJK 2: 359; n. 3).

Keats not only idolized Shakespeare, but he also loved Cymbeline in particular. In Recollections of Writers, Charles Cowden Clarke recounts,

It was a treat to see as well as hear [Keats] read a pathetic passage. Once, when reading the “Cymbeline” aloud, I saw his eyes fill with tears, and his voice faltered when he came to the departure of Posthumus, and Imogen saying she would have watched him—

…‘Till the diminution
Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle;
Nay followed him till he had melted from
The smallness of a gnat to air; and then
Have turn’d mine eye and wept. (126)

If Keats was perhaps naturally drawn to Cymbeline, his intuitive connection was seconded and perhaps reinforced by Hazlitt’s work in his Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays. For Hazlitt, as well, Cymbeline is “a favourite.” And it is so largely because of the powerful presence of Imogen; Hazlitt writes, “We have almost as great an affection for Imogen as she had for Posthumus; and she deserves it better.” Imogen is mentioned twice in Keats’s correspondence: in his letter of September 14, 1817, to Jane Reynolds, amid some teasing proing and conning about love (LJK 1: 157-8), and, more famously, in Keats’s formulation of “the camelion Poet,” which “has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen” (LJK 1: 387).

Keats comparing his situation to that of Shakespeare’s Posthumus is strikingly apt. Most obviously, Posthumus was exiled to Italy—indeed, to Rome—and away from his beloved Imogen. Keats is displaced in Rome, and away from his beloved Fanny Brawne. While I believe these links alone are adequate enough to connect Keats’s “posthumous existence” with Cymbeline’s Posthumus, other links are clear, as well. For example, there is the wild strangeness of the romance world of Cymbeline—in her introduction to the play in The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, critic Jean E. Howard remarks that the play’s “characters understand so little about what is happening to them” (281)—and this must have chimed with the strangeness, the foreignness, that Keats must have been feeling. In fact, late in Cymbeline, Posthumus wakes to find such unknowing truth. After having a vivid dream about his family, an imprisoned Posthumus awakens to discover a magical book lying next to him. He reads it, but does not understand it, and yet, still, feels it encapsulates his life; Posthumus states,

‘Tis still a dream, or else such stuff as madmen
Tongue and brain not; either both or nothing;
Or senseless speaking or a speaking such
As sense cannot untie. Be what it is,
The action of my life is like it, which
I’ll keep, if but for sympathy. (5.4.148-53)

Interestingly, it should be noted, immediately after these lines, a jailer enters, and asks Posthumus if he’s prepared for this execution, if he is “ready for death” (5.4.154). Posthumus responds that he’s more than ready, stating, “Over-roasted rather; ready long ago” (5.4.155). Posthumus, as well, was for a time, living posthumously.

While the above are the key similarities, there are others. For example, both Keats and Posthumus are of low rank—Posthumus is a “poor but worthy gentleman” (I.i.7), and there’s an illicit marriage between Posthumous and Imogen, just as there was a secret engagement for Keats and Fanny Brawne. (In his recent novel The Warm South, which imagines an alternate afterlife for Keats in Italy had he lived beyond February 1821, Paul Kerschen seems to pick up on this connection. Although Kerschen does not refer to the possibility of a pun in Keats’s use of “posthumous existence,” he does have Fanny Brawne, inspired by Imogen, disguise herself as a man in order to travel to Italy to reunite with Keats.) Keats also acknowledged having, at times, “a horrid Morbidity of Temperament” (LJK 1: 142), and Imogen notes that Posthumus “did incline to sadness, and oft-times / Not knowing why” (I.i.63-4). One might even speculate further that the orphan Keats may have identified with Posthumus, whose father died before his birth—hence, his name—and whose mother died as he, Posthumus, was being born. Though they die before the play begins, Posthumus also, like Keats, has two brothers. Finally, in Cymbeline there is a bottle of poison concocted by the evil Queen that gets cut so that it becomes medicinal, a tranquilizer. It is difficult to think about this and not think about the laudanum that Keats purchased at Gravesend, a tranquilizer that could also serve as a means for euthanasia, or suicide.

So, to be clear: in his formulation of “posthumous existence,” Keats is not only seriously assessing his situation as “posthumous,” that is, as somehow living after the death he was quite certain would come; he also is, in an act of vast, if subtle, wit, identifying with one of Shakespeare’s characters.

Why does Keats do this, and why should we care?

Keats does this for multiple reasons. First of all, at a most basic, but also fundamental, level, he can’t help it. Keats, as noted above, just is a trickster. Andrew Bennett states, “What makes the poetry of John Keats so compelling, at once so disturbing and so seductive, are its uncertain but irreducible and scandalous instabilities” (1). This insight, of course, may also be applied to Keats’s letters, generally, and his formulation of “posthumous existence,” specifically, as may a good deal of what comes after it. Bennett continues:

What may most fundamentally be identified as the ‘character’ of Keats’s poetry involves the uncontainable intensities of an inundation of figures, such as oxymoron, enjambment, neologism, and an adjectival distortion and syntactical dislocation, by which ‘thought’—the ideational or ‘thetic’—is apparently subsumed within the suffocating sensuousness of ‘language’. At the same time, such intensities themselves generate an unmatched intertextual complexity, conceptual scope and intellectual force: Keatsian ‘solecism’ is produced by interlocking and conflicting energies which displace and redefine oppositions between beauty and truth, mortality and immortality, thought and feeling, dreaming and wakefulness, passivity and activity, life and death. (1)

Again, we can extend these insights to apply to the poetry and the letters.

Such wordplay, in the instance of the articulation of “posthumous existence,” also is a coping mechanism. In “Humor and the Apocalypse,” an essay in Ninth Letter (1.2 (Fall/Winter 2004)), Tom Bissell notes, “[T]o reflect on dreadful, painful material while in pain equals pain. To reflect on dreadful painful material with humor equals something else: a refusal to crumble, a psychic gift.” This note about gallows humor in general resonates strongly with the specific insights that Ralph Pite brings to Keats’s work from the poet’s final years. Citing the kinds of evaluations that led Keats to tone down the ending of The Eve of St. Agnes, Pite states,

[Keats’s] sense of himself as leading a “posthumous existence” can be read as, in part, a wry comment on his powerlessness against other people’s elegies. The “changes of sentiment” that come to characterize his last poems and the drive in them towards self-parody are, I suggest, responses to the usurpation of his identity which occurred when Keats became dangerously ill. His writing in these poems as well as in the letters throughout the period of his illness is a way for him to resist people’s pity and to contend with the stereotype of the consumptive poet that was imposed on him and on the pattern of his life. (66-7)

Pite seems to me to be absolutely correct. The recognition that there is punning occurring in “posthumous existence” largely is a recognition of another instance of the Keats’s resistance: it is a witty acknowledgment of how the poet’s character is already written/determined.

But that’s not all it is. As an irreducible and scandalous uncertainty, as Bennett might put it, in addition to being a witty jest, a simple act of gallows humor, and an act of psychic defense, Keats’s acknowledgement of his “posthumous existence” also is a revelatory act of identification, and, as such, is—again, though in a very different way—a vital act of resistance. Jean E. Howard notes, more fully this time, that “[w]hat is eerie about Cymbeline is that its characters understand so little about what is happening to them, and yet each appears to play out the part assigned to him or her by some higher power: Jupiter, destiny, time” (281). With his pun, Keats is translating himself, taking on a different role, trying out another part. Dying, Keats transubstantiates his existence, placing himself in the firmament of the genius creator—in this instance, Shakespeare—reaffirming that his life indeed feels like a “continual allegory” (LJK 2: 67). Keats writes in an earlier letter:

A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory—and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life—a life like the scriptures, figurative—which such people can make out no more than they can the hebrew Bible. Lord Byron cuts a figure—but he is not figurative—Shakespeare led a life of Allegory; his works are the comments on it—(LJK 2: 67)

Keats’s identification with Posthumus, then, is a resistance strategy very similar to that of Christian saints and martyrs who turn to the suffering of Christ to help them bear their own suffering. Keats had earlier converted the Christian “vale of tears” into a “Vale of Soul-Making” (LJK 2: 101-2), secularizing that earlier concept. With his identification with Posthumus, Keats is deriving an understanding of the script his life is following, elevating the mystery and circumstances of his existence by equating them with the stuff of Shakespeare’s sacred texts.

I don’t wish for this to sound too otherworldly. Keats writes, “there are two distinct tempers of mind in which we judge of things—the worldly, theatrical and pantomimical; and the unearthly, spiritual and etherial…” (LJK 1: 395). I’m arguing that Keats, in putting on the character of Posthumus, is approaching his life both theatrically and spiritually. Simply put, Keats’s statement that he is leading a “posthumous existence” is not merely a tragic recognition; it is also a sparkling revelation of the way that Keats, internally, is navigating his circumstances. As Posthumus, Keats, as he so often does, is making a tragic-comic alloy.

Again, this should not be too surprising, even as Keats nears the end of his life. According to Rollins, Keats makes an allusion in his penultimate, extant letter, even when seeming to offer up a cri de coeur. Writing to Charles Brown on 1 November 1820, the day after his 25th birthday, and the day after his release from quarantine in Naples—Keats, despairing of his distance from Fanny Brawne, cries out, “I can bear to die—I cannot bear to leave her. Oh, God! God! God!” (LJK 2: 351). In his note to this vast lament, Rollins states, “Even in this extremity Keats may have been thinking of the death of Falstaff as described in Henry V, II.iii.19 f., ‘So ‘a cried out, “God, God, God!” three or four times’” (351; note 3). Rollins offers no similar note to the Posthumus alluded to in “posthumous existence,” though, I trust it is now clear there could have been one.

And perhaps should have been. While I don’t in any way intend to be too grandiose about the discovery I’ve shared here—the works of all the critics I’ve cited here are much grander than this current enterprise, and indeed all of this essay could have been done away with through just one footnote a few decades ago—I do want to note how surprised I was as I kept looking into critical work on or using the term “posthumous existence” that I kept finding that no one had yet made the posthumous/Posthumus connection, especially given the direct discussion about punning in the 30 November letter.

The missing of the pun, thus, seems significant, and is itself worth considering. At one level, I think that the connection between posthumous and Posthumus may just be hard to believe. Though we admire Keats’s inventions, his experimentations with incommensurables, it takes time to recognize them. It’s hard to catch all his quicksilver imaginings. Fair enough. At another level, it may of course be the case that many have seen this, but have not deemed it worthy of comment. As Christopher Ricks puts it in “Keats’s sources, Keats’s allusions” (in The Cambridge Companion to Keats), in a discussion of a different allusion to Shakespeare in Keats, “Irrespective of Shakespeare, Keats’s lines are a thing of beauty and a joy forever. A poet does well to have the courtesy and the prudence not to make the taking of an allusion a precondition of a reader’s appreciation. The allusion is a bonus, not an entrance-fee” (159).

However, I should note that at times it seems that there has been something willful in not detecting the posthumous/Posthumus pun. At times, there seems an almost palpable turning away from this possibility. A critic looks so very carefully at Keats, at the formulation “posthumous existence,” and/or at allusion in Keats… but then does not make the connection. I felt this powerfully when reading Ricks’s excellent essay. I felt sure that he would make this connection. And Ricks, who comments extensively on Keats’s allusions to Shakespeare, in fact includes in his essay Charles Cowden Clarke’s remembrance of Keats’s strong reaction to the passage from Cymbeline cited above, a quotation that mentions the name “Posthumus.”  Of course Ricks is in no way to blame for not seeing this—I don’t mean that. His essay does the work of priming readers to better detect such wordplay and allusion, but is itself under no obligation to reveal this particular pun.

But other works, I think, are. One such work is Stanley Plumly’s Posthumous Keats. While intended to proffer a kind of meandering journey through Keats’s later life, his death, and his posthumous reception, Plumly in fact retells a familiar story about Keats’s journey from immaturity to maturity. I’ve made larger critiques of Plumly’s book elsewhere (including here, here, and here; critiques which also contain nascent forms of the argument I’m making in this essay); here, I’ll simply note that, after citing the chameleon poet passage, Plumly writes, “Although the second volume of The Letters enacts much of the ‘light and shade’ enjoyed in discussion in the first, it represents more shade than light” (350). Plumly may be right—Keats undoubtedly suffered greatly—but it seems as though Plumly has his thumb on the scale: he very often simply excludes the light from his admittedly unsystematic work. One rarely sees any sign of pantomimical Keats in Plumly’s book. This is especially true when it comes to Keats’s posthumous/Posthumus pun. Plumly uses Keats’s idea of his “posthumous existence” as the title for his book, and he even cites the passage from Charles Cowden Clarke’s Recollections of Writers, including its reference to Posthumus, but nowhere does he try to think through, let alone admit the possibility of, Keats-as-Posthumus. For Plumly, Keats’s remark about his posthumous existence has become a sign and seal of the poet’s mature, adult awareness of his doom. It is an ultimate proof that the poet finally manned up.

As it was published only very recently and as I have to submit this essay very soon to the Keats Letters Project, I have not yet had the opportunity to fully investigate and think through Anahid Nersessian’s use of “posthumous existence” in “Keats and Catachresis,” but I look forward to doing so. As I noted earlier, Nersessian equates “posthumous existence” with “a highly pressurized blankness.” Of course, this may turn out to be a useful, productive critical gesture, but, at least right now, it seems to me that recognizing Posthumus’s presence in “posthumous existence” goes some way to fill that blankness. We shall see.

One thing, though, seems fairly clear: the posthumous/Posthumus pun in fact is more than, as Ricks would have it, a bonus. It really matters that we hear this allusion. If we don’t, we don’t get Keats in full, or, rather, as Jack Stillinger has put it (in The Cambridge Companion to Keats), we don’t get “Multiple Keats,” by which he means a Keats defined by “a sort of unresolved imaginative dividedness between the serious and the humorous, the straight and the ironic, the fanciful and the real, the high-flying and the down-to-earth, the sentimental and the satiric, the puffed up and the deflated” (253). Now, though, we get to hear “‘Posthumus’ Keats” differently, detecting in it, certainly, mature, worldly tragic recognition, but also theatrical play-fulness (please pardon my own pun), the mercurial nature so key to Keats, which, in turn, complicates, multiplies, scintillates the meanings of Keats’s final “awkward bow.”

…Speaking of which: I’d like to make my own, now. While I’ve endeavored in these remarks to share what I’ve thought through so far about Posthumus/Keats, this bit of Keatsian wordplay that also is a rift loaded with always already alloyed ore, I, too, must end with an awkward bow, admitting to my own share of unknowing about Keats’s identification in his letter, and after. In Cymbeline, things end well for Posthumous and Imogen. Was Keats still hoping for a happy ending? I don’t think so, but it’s difficult not to feel some hope embedded in this act of identification. And what are we to make of the fact that Keats makes other, later references to his posthumous existence? According to Joseph Severn (in The Keats Circle),

Each day [Keats] would look up in the doctor’s face to discover how long he should live—he would say—“how long will this posthumous life of mine last”—that look was more than we could ever bear—the extreme brightness of his eyes—with his poor pallid face—were not earthly… (1, 224).

How are we, now, to hear this, and how does this, if at all, echo back to Keats’s letter and alter the way we hear it? Might we see in the glint of Keats’s eye a sign of his insistent punning playfulness, even as his deathly face betrays what will be his ultimate fate? Whatever speculations are prompted by such further questions, my hope is that at least now we might more fully attend to Keats’s posthumous/Posthumus existence.

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