That Half-Light: A Brighter Word than Bright: Keats at Work by Dan Beachy-Quick

John Gibbs

Brighter Word than Bright CoverIt may be safe to say John Keats is the reason I'm into poetry. I can recall reading the odes my senior year in high school, a stereotypically formative time no doubt, and feeling intimately drawn to Keats's sensibilities, observations, and control. His verse seemed to flow with overindulgent images, sounds, and metaphors, yet was kept tightly bundled by the rich formal constraints, the strict iambic thump of the Romantics. Naturally, I tried to mimic this style of writing and unsurprisingly I failed. Keats was not to be touched by any contemporary pen, I thought; but that is not to say he was not relevant, just the opposite. I kept his lines in my back pocket, and he would visit and revisit my own poems from time to time. I felt his influence tuning the emotions and senses of my work, reminding me of what I was actually trying to say in a poem.

It is with this intense disposition toward Keats that I came to Dan Beachy-Quick's A Brighter Word than Bright: Keats at Work. The book itself is the most recent installment in the University of Iowa Press's Muse Books series, which presents contemporary literary critics' thoughts on what a canonical literary figure had to say about the craft of writing. In this case, poet and critic Dan Beachy-Quick stands at the helm, braiding together a series of portraits, anecdotes, and recollections which aim to illustrate Keats's own relation to the muse. The book is brief, but content-wise there's enough to reread and mull over that its denseness outweighs its brevity. Its multi-layered, unconventional format also contributes to the overall richness of the text.

An explanatory note introducing the text alerts us to the untraditional origins of the book, if we assume we can safely categorize it, at least nominally, as a biography of sorts. "I should admit I have little interest in offering a portrait of Keats more accurate than those already available," Beachy-Quick states. "I am more concerned with returning Keats, as best I can manage, back into that half-light that obscures accurate rendering" (xvii). The book follows more or less what it sets out to do in this brief note. Never do we receive copious amounts of easily forgettable biographical data or learn of what transpired on such and such a day in Keats's life, rather the result is a poetic interpretation of what could have transpired on such and such a day paired with Beachy-Quick's informative musings on the event.

Of Keats's brief medical training Beachy-Quick meditates, "I like to think the lessons of anatomy taxed his imagination in ways that reading poetry both affirmed and complicated" (31). Here we have one poet curiously supposing something of another. True to form, Beachy-Quick returns Keats to that "half-light that obscures accurate rendering" by replacing fact with possibility, keeping Keats fresh and his actions all the more mysterious and unpredictable.

Although many moments in the book explore the grey area between fact and fiction, Beachy-Quick sews the whole of it together chronologically, beginning in 1816 and concluding in 1820 (the year of Keats's death). Peppered throughout the timeline are seven "portraits" of Keats at a specific moment in his life. Each sketch aims to paint Keats in a sympathetic, nuanced light. Some include letters from friends. One, in particular, illuminates the origins behind the composition of "Ode to a Nightingale." Keats's friend Charles Brown remembers how Keats went out and sat beneath the plum-tree near his own house to hear the nightingale's song for several hours:


When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale. (85)

Other portraits are written fantastically in the present tense, almost as if Beachy-Quick were present in the scene itself, a passive observer off in the corner. He imagines something happening and conveys a sense of drama to readers:


He wanders through Hampstead. The door he ends up knocking on is at Wentworth Place; the door is the Brawnes'. Mrs. Brawne opens the door; Keats sick, poor Keats—she lets him in. (136)

The portraits remind us of the various approaches one can take in fitting the many pieces of a person's memory together, and emphasize that no one interpretation need be greater than any other. All can work together in unison, with each adding its own weight to the depth of the person being remembered.

Still, this book is not strictly a biographical exploration of John Keats, but also a book written to enlighten and guide other writers in the act of writing better. Advice must be applicable and anecdotes instructive in order for the book to accomplish what it has set out to do. Beachy-Quick does this by showing us a Keats always in transition, a Keats who is consistently evaluating himself and his position as poet and person. Beachy-Quick's overarching portrait of Keats is one that favors introspection, one that is obsessively plunging deeper and deeper into his own mind in search of some inner truth about the world and his position in that world.

We receive an image of Keats not as an individual who writes poetry as his hobby from nine to three on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but of Keats as a person completely consumed by his poetic disposition as evidenced in his letters: "A Poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence because he has no Identity; he is continually in for and filling some other Body" (61). This of course coming on the heels of Keats finishing his epic poem Endymion, which he considered a poetic failure by his own standards. It is through this recognition of failure that Beachy-Quick proposes Keats discovers the genius buried within himself:


The "Genius of Poetry" that worked out its own salvation within Keats—regardless or disregarding of Keats's own salvation—is also a Genius of Failure. Genius is when the self suffers a breakage from one into many and "I" becomes anonymous, choral, and the mind not a pot, but a putty. (61)

Here is that half-light, once again, returned to us: Beachy-Quick blurring the lines between what many would consider polar opposites, genius and failure, supposing you cannot come to the realization of one without the other. If that isn't a call for young writers to experiment, founder, risk, struggle, blunder, and aspire I'm not sure what would be.

Of course I haven't touched on Beachy-Quick's own discussion of Keats's most prolific year 1819—the year in which he composed his most famous odes. But let that remain something for readers to discover should they find this book among their reading list one day. A Brighter Word than Bright is an (forgive the pun) illuminating read. Dan Beachy-Quick's notes and new imaginings on Keats create a unique space where both the critic and poet can read and delight in this wondrous text. Let lovers of Keats find it curious and enchanting. Let those foreign to his work become utterly captivated.


A Brighter Word than Bright: Keats at Work
Dan Beachy-Quick
University of Iowa Press, 2013
ISBN 978-1-60938-184-4

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