TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, says a new book about an almost 200-year-old dinner party serves up plenty of food for thought. Here is her review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Guess who's coming to dinner? It's a cold evening in London in 1817, and John Keats and William Wordsworth turn up at the door - separately, of course. Keats is only 22, and he's about to abandon his medical studies to dedicate himself to poetry. One of the purposes of this dinner is to introduce the aspiring Keats to the stiffly eminent Wordsworth.
Also eager for a night out is the essayist Charles Lamb, destined to be a minor figure in British letters, but a charming one. Lamb could use some laughs and many refills of that red wine he likes so much because he's been caring for his mad sister, Mary, ever since she stabbed their mother to death in a fit of rage.
Also filling the seats around the dinner table are a government bureaucrat, who's invited himself, and a young explorer named Joseph Ritchie, who's fated to die horribly on an expedition through the Sahara. The host of the evening is the then-prestigious Benjamin Haydon, creator of massive historical and religious paintings that don't sell well.
So magical is the chemistry among these men, so crackling the conversation that Haydon and others will forever after refer to that dinner as "The Immortal Evening." If you're a fan of poetry or meditations about art or simply curious about taking an excursion into the Romantic age, you'll want to accept your invitation to "The Immortal Evening," which is what critic and poet Stanley Plumly calls his profound new book about that event and its long ripple effect.
Don't make the mistake of thinking this is a foody book. None of the guests that night bothered to jot down the menu. So Plumly must speculate about the roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and mixed veg that Hayden - or more accurately some invisible serving woman - probably dished up. Rather than haute cuisine, it's the high quality of the talk that's relished here. If a movie were to be made of Plumly's book, it would be more on the model of the old art film "My Dinner With Andre" rather than the crowd-pleasing "Julie And Julia."
Plumly opens his book with a haunting time-travel set piece. He traces the roots each of the principal guests would've had to walk through London in the order to get to Hayden's studio where the dinner was held. Here's Keats's journey. (Reading) Keats has the most ground to cover. From the Village of Hempstead to Lisson Grove is a distance of about 3 miles. In 1817, it will be a walk through countryside and emerging outlying city. A combination first of open fields, small woods and close-in lanes, yielding to streets of shops and market gardens, the occasional modest furniture or China factory. Keats will have likely started out in the early afternoon since Sunday dinner will be served at a regular 3:30. He's wearing his great coat, the same coat - or one much like it - that he will forget to take with him on another later winter day in February, 1820 on a visit into London proper, when the temperature suddenly drops and the consequence is the hemorrhage that will prove to be his death warrant from tuberculosis.
That snippet gives you a sense of Plumly's writing style, widening out in time and subject from the specific moment. Once at Haydon's studio, Keats, Wordsworth and Lamb are seated beneath Haydon's giant work-in-progress, a religious painting entitled "Christ's Entry Into Jerusalem," into which each of their faces had been painted as part of the crowd.
Drawing from diaries and letters, Plumly recreates the men's animated conversation about art and science. But he also uses the dinner as a jumping-off event from which to trace their intertwined lives and mixed artistic legacies. In particular, Plumly's close readings of Keats's immortal poems such as "Ode On A Grecian Urn" and Haydon's flawed paintings are eye-opening. While his glosses on Lamb's generous and funny essays made me hunt for my old copy, which has been gathering dust for some 25 years in a basement bookcase. "The Immortal Evening" is an evocative reflection on the sometimes terrible personal demands of great art and the bitter whims of feat. For those readers ready to digest it, Plumly's book is a feast for the senses and the mind.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author of the new book "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." She reviewed reviewed "The Immortal Evening" by Stanley Plumly. If you want to catch up on broadcasts that you've missed or just listen on your own schedule, you can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.