The Warm South begins where a dozen biographies end and a hundred poems linger, in 1821 at the Roman deathbed of twenty-five-year-old John Keats, the definitive dead poet, an orphaned unrecognized genius cruelly cut down through no fault of his own. The fellow who said, “Beauty is truth; truth beauty.”
Not a promising subject for fiction, then, outside of dewy-eyed bio-pics and other vehicles in need of a tragic young death. Whereas by page four of The Warm South, we find a “John Keats” whose fatal tuberculosis is in complete remission, miraculously so far we’re concerned, but well within the bizarre range of prognoses imagined by his doctor.
To that extent, Paul Kerschen has written an alternate history. Thereafter, however, he adheres to the regulations of well-researched historical fiction, and history rewards his attention. Fellow tragic Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and novelist Mary Shelley conveniently resided in Italy at that time, and had already invited Keats to visit them. The Shelleys’ physician in Pisa, and their closest Italian friend, Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri, was a free-thinker who, like Keats, had studied medicine in London. Tragic Romantic rock star Lord Byron and Greek revolutionary leader Alexandros Mavrokordatos were on the scene as well. A novelist could hardly request a more fully stocked scene.
History is less kind to the novelist’s characters. If nothing else, death is a reliable solver of problems; resurrection restores them with interest. Then as now the first gift received by the convalescent will likely be an unpayable medical bill:
“Forgive me, Joe,” he said. “It is the melancholy. It came first of my illnesses, and it will be the last to take leave.”
“So says Doctor Clark. The nervous fibers.”
“I do not speak of fibers,” said Keats. “It is the trouble I have put you to. I’ve so depended on you, and on everyone, I don’t know how I am to make good.”
“It is nothing,” said Severn.
“I shall settle my debts to the penny.”
He had said it to give confidence. But Severn turned aside with a twist to his mouth, and Keats realized he was embarrassed to have such a promise made him by a sickly man in a nightshirt, sitting up in the cot that ought to have been his deathbed.
Elevated diction aside, Kerschen’s prose-about-poets is appropriately mellifluous, alert, and hungry throughout, even if lengthy effusions in re Tuscan landscapes are lacking—and again appropriately, since Keats, despite his nominal tributes to “A Nightingale” and “Autumn,” remained to the last a city boy fed by human company and bookish culture.
Which returns us to the matter of diction. To a contemporary American ear, raised on our impoverished grammar, multitudinous contractions, and liberal strewing of obscenities, the dialogue of educated Georgian English characters sounds painstakingly cautious, as if the speakers were picking their way towards the nearest exit across a room of unpredictably hostile or clingy vipers. And that is, more or less, how this generation of English poets dealt with the impossibly conflicting demands of maturity.
As of 1821, on retreat from the most scandalous divorce of his era, Byron had blossomed into a bloated bullying prototype of Christopher Hitchens. After the deaths of three children, Mary Shelley radiated unrelenting anger and depression; her husband sought shelter in a series of absurdly idealized infatuations. Lacking Shelley’s and Byron’s upper-class assurance or income, Keats spent the entirety of his documented life thrashing between warm declarations of affection and distrustful retreats into solitude. All three men followed the same basic strategy: desperate escapes from unbearable claustrophobia into freshly problematic circumstances, carrying a heavier load of unmet obligations each time.
Kerschen’s revived Keats maintains his accustomed erratic path: deserting his Roman support group, dropping his correspondence with English lover and friends, recoiling from literature to medicine.... After an attempt to untangle the Shelley ménage ends in ambiguous signals from both spouses—
His golden lashes blinked. He tilted his head, furrowed his brow in strange inquiry and, moving very close, pressed his lips lightly and chastely against Keats’s closed mouth. For a heartbeat he hung silent, as if waiting on a question, then spun about and went at a soft tread up the steps.
—Keats characteristically reflects:
All that had happened at the Shelleys’ was a dream of warning. He dare not take a wife.
And then elopes with the sixteen-year-old daughter of his benefactor.
The Italian characters, naturally, feel more at home than the English, albeit not a home they can claim as their own. Occupied by Austrian soldiers, Tuscany, like the rest of post-Napoleonic Europe, is controlled by regressive regimes dedicated to furthering the gulf between rich and poor, prone to treat science as conspiratorial sedition, and happy to meet dissent with imprisonment, exile, or execution.
Such dark times demand political action alongside all maturity’s other impossibly conflicting demands; indeed, it’s difficult to conceive any action which is not political in some sense. The Italians protest, take up arms, are jailed, are shot. Byron and Shelley write regicidal satires and dream of resurgent liberating armies. Keats’s attempts at activism are more obscure, if just as ultimately ineffective: self-sacrifice (and teenage-bride-sacrifice) at a one-man Doctors Without Borders outpost in malarial marshland, followed by the production of a poetic tragedy on “The Death of Danton,” which triggers a riot without even benefit of a summons to liberty.
A girl’s thighs are thy guillotine. The mount
Of Venus shall be thy Tarpeian rock.
At Carnival, Percy Bysshe Shelley and the young Pisan patriots masquerade as carbonari; Keats dresses as Mary Shelley:
Keats turned, legs moving free in the skirts, and pressed himself to the wall. Giuditta considered him. “I would do more, with more time,” she said. “Your hair should be dressed. And I would powder you here.” She waved where his breastbone came up pale and knobbed from the bustline, like something that had grown on a tree. Then she looked up and laughed.
“Now don’t look sad!” she said. “You’re a fine girl.”
“Ciabatte!” called someone. A pair of ribboned shoes was passed over the curtain and Keats held his foot out; but they were minuscule, made for a child, and Giuditta put them aside.
“You’ll do well enough in your stockings,” she said. “Are you ready?”
On Keats’s marriage, a bit more than halfway through the book, our gaze is averted. The narrative torch passes, to Chorus of Peasants, to outsiders like the Wodehousian Joe Severn and Keats’s unknowingly discarded English rose, Fanny Brawne, who sustains the antic humor which Keats has stifled beneath the burden of Universal Justice. The troupe assembles; the missing are called in; the range of possibility widens and occasionally lightens, even while braided catastrophes (a ruined dinner, an awful party, to prison, to death-by-water) pop like well-ordered fireworks: these might be the precipitants of a Big Heist, or an operatic finale, or the resolution of a Lubitsch sex farce.
And as implicitly promised we are in the end rewarded. Truth and beauty, obligation and independence, drop into conjunction for a day, or a few hours. Long enough to remember at least.
Is our reward deserved? In such dark times—the early nineteenth century; the early twenty-first—can such trivial pleasures even be justified?
Certainly not, but The Warm South graciously reminded me that rewards, just as surely as punishments, may be both undeserved and undeniable.
Ray Davis lives in El Cerrito, CA, and publishes at pseudopodium.org. His writing has also appeared in Genre, Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, the Public Domain Review, Ash of Stars, the Valve group website, and other venues.
Banner: John Keats’ gravestone; credit: Piero Montesacro, reproduced under CC BY-SA 3.0.