‘The Immortal Evening’

Priscilla Gilman in The New York Times:

MomentOn Dec. 28, 1817, Benjamin Robert ­Haydon, then England’s pre-eminent history painter, hosted a dinner party to celebrate his progress on his latest work, “Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem.” He invited, among others, three men anachronistically pictured in that painting: John Keats, William Wordsworth and the essayist Charles Lamb. In “The Immortal Evening” (the phrase is from Haydon’s letters and diaries), the poet and biographer Stanley Plumly offers an idiosyncratic, heartfelt, at once sinuous and expansive exploration of the dinner, its “aesthetic context and the larger worlds of the individual guests, particularly the three ‘immortal’ writers, Keats, ­Wordsworth and Lamb.”

Plumly begins the story strikingly, ­elliptically, in the present tense: “Keats has the most ground to cover.” What the walk to the dinner was like for each of its major participants, the look and feel of Regency London, what kind of food they would have eaten, all come to vivid life in Plumly’s evocative rendering. But if it presents a historical place and moment with immediacy and “present-tense personal intensity” (as Plumly says of Romantic art), “The Immortal Evening” also tackles timeless questions: “How does a living moment in time become ‘immortal’? What are a painting’s terms of immortality?” (Or, for that matter, a poem’s?) Why are some artists remembered and some forgotten?

More here.