On Dec. 28, 1817, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon welcomed John Keats, William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb and two other guests to a dinner party at his home in London.
While Haydon recorded little in his diary of what was said, he called the event "an immortal evening."
Poet Stanley Plumly, who earlier wrote one of the best books on Keats, "Posthumous Keats," examines the lives of those who attended the dinner. In an interesting aside, Plumly discusses the distances each had to walk to attend, giving a vivid portrait of the raucous London of the time.
The famed Wordsworth was entering his long years of decline. Keats was just beginning his brief period of mastery, and Lamb had not yet done some of his best writing. The other guests were Joseph Ritchie, a explorer doomed to die in Africa, and Wordsworth's boss, a post office functionary.
While the vignettes on Wordsworth, Keats and Lamb sparkle, Haydon emerges as the book's leading character.
A painter of massive historic works in a style whose era had passed, Haydon after the immortal dinner's triumph suffered years of artistic failure and financial disaster.
Plumly finds that he had the artistic talent to succeed, but stubbornly refused to change with the times and endlessly feuded with the painting establishment. Haydon is best remembered today for including the faces of Lamb, Keats and Wordworth in the painting he considered his master work, "Christ's Entrance Into Jerusalem."
While Haydon championed the Romantic aesthetic of Wordsworth and Keats, he adamantly stayed with a neoclassical 18th century style as J.M.W. Turner and others gained acclaim with powerful naturalistic paintings that anticipated impressionism.
With all of his shortcomings as a painter, Haydon showed that he was a fine writer in his diaries and autobiographical works. Plumly also cites his role as an influence on Keats. Haydon took the budding young poet to the British Museum and introduced him to Greek sculpture and ceramics, a major inspiration of Keats' great works.
Haydon, who makes a vivid appearance in Mike Leigh's film "Mr. Turner," eventually killed himself in a ghastly manner involving pistols and knives, ending years of humiliation, financial crises and artistic failures. He'd held on until 1841, when the Victorian era's economic and social innovations had fueled Britain's rise to global dominance.
Plumly shows Haydon as a sad sack hero of artistic integrity, a man who gave little heed to commercial considerations. Haydon's dinner party, his friendship with famous Romantics and his acutely observed writing gave him a slice of immortality. While his artistic career foundered, his paintings and drawings still receive study. Plumly sadly notes that he gave too little attention to his real talent for portraits.
Unlike the electric "Posthumous Keats," "The Immortal Dinner," with its long discussions of aesthetic and philosophical subjects such as the nature of genius, bogs down in technical prose.
"Posthumous Keats" offered brilliant new visions of the poet whose death at age 25 in Rome curtailed an astounding poetic flowering. Its account of Keats' final months dying of tuberculosis, including the harrowing journey from Naples to Rome after he'd escaped Britain, possess the rich detail and philosophical depth of great novels.
Plumly takes a more rhetorical, academic approach in "The Immortal Dinner." While not reaching the narrative power of the Keats book, "The Immortal Dinner" is a valuable look at Britain's artistic culture at a time of wrenching social change.