Review: A Brighter Word Than Bright

A Brighter Word Than Bright

by Dan Beachy-Quick

Although A Brighter Word Than Bright is about Romantic poet John Keats, I couldn’t get Keatsmy favorite Oscar Wilde quote out of my head while reading it: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

It’s a cruel irony that nonfiction is thought to be the most accurate medium for Truth—reducing reality to the recitation of facts. If that were so, then the minutes of a company meeting should have more cultural sway than Shakespeare, right? Yet when I was in London, there were scores of young and old gathered at the gates of the Globe Theatre.

I didn’t take a poll, but I’m confident that when people think of London in 1599 (when the original Globe was built), they think of Shakespeare rather than that year’s landmark court ruling, Edward Darcy Esquire v. Thomas Allein of London Haberdasher, which established the foundation for modern antitrust law.

I didn’t see anyone perusing court transcripts outside the Globe.

That’s why Dan Beachy-Quick’s biography of Keats is so refreshing. Rather than retelling his life story or critiquing his work through some previously unexploited element of his personality, Beachy-Quick gives us the biography of the poet’s imagination.

Which, of course, requires a lot of imagination.

No shortage there. Beachy-Quick, author of nearly a dozen collections of poetry, essays and criticism, weaves a fever-dream narrative that treats its subject as more putty than marble, so that Keats, the man, vanishes at times.

Or perhaps Beachy-Quick brings us so close we no longer recognize him.

Either way, A Brighter Word Than Bright engages the reader’s imagination, and the author states from the beginning that:

“I have little interest in offering a portrait of Keats more accurate than those already available… I am more concerned with returning Keats, as best I can manage, back into that half-light that obscures accurate rendering so as to make more brilliant those sudden flashes in his poems and letters that, lightning-like, reveal the storm-tossed grasses in the ceaseless field even as darkness closes the vision again—sudden clarities, and the afterimage that lingers long past the lightning’s strike.”

Our subject is deliberately blurred, grated into the environment with an opacity that is oddly revealing. From an early age, Keats is displaced, yet absorbed by the world. Or perhaps consumed is more like it. Beachy-Quick sketches a grief-burdened man-child weeping beneath a desk for his dead mother. Yet, the boy is not separate from the desk, nor the desk from the room. All is connected in this tragic tableau: “Some music sobs up into song. Some song digs down and confronts what it also must comfort.”

Keats is tormented by his talents, a gift on par with Greek tragedy. Much like Darrin McMahon’s Divine Fury: A History of Genius, Beachy-Quick views genius as something that possesses, rather than something one may possess:

“To listen to genius is to let oneself be guided by that voice in the self that is not the self’s own. It implies an otherness exactly where we expect to find identity; it speaks within us a rumor to us, that we are least ourselves where we are most ourselves.”

This duality zigzags throughout the book, at times we are uncomfortably close and at others removed, disoriented, flipping between past and present tense to remind that art, and the artist’s struggle, belong to all ages. That like Keats’ poems, all is absorbed into a timeless moment—infinity in a single instant and vice versa. (Beachy-Quick cleverly enforces the point with reference to the work of the paradox-obsessed Greek philosopher Zeno.)

As we progress chronologically, Beachy-Quick peppers in some academic critique, for example going through the Odes and incorporating Keats’ letters for context. I was particularly struck by one passage from Keats to his wife, Fanny Brawne:

“I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute. I hate the world; it batters too much the wings of my self-will, and would I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it.”

Would it be fair to say Keats was the first emo kid?

Actually, that may be as fair as any other portrait. No biography has been able to capture the man in full, which certainly adds to his appeal. Beachy-Quick, with this unconventional and highly original biography, gives us something better than the Truth. He gives us the febrile terror that inhabits the artist’s soul.

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