I, who at
twenty had wept publicly in the Dexter-
Davison branch of the public library
over the death of Keats in the Colvin
biography and had prayed like him
to be among the immortals…
I finally got around to seeing the film Bright Star, written and directed by Jane Campion. I always intended to see it, but Keats and his story mean so much to me, I was afraid the film would just make me angry. I didn’t want to see him turned into one of the malnourished waifs people often picture when they think of the Romantic poets.
Ironically, that’s sort of what Campion did with the Keats character, and yet I really enjoyed the film. I love her aesthetic. I love her quiet flow. And it didn’t matter that the Keats character was not the Keats I have come to know, because a work of art doesn’t have to be historically accurate––even if by “accurate” I mean only my accuracy. And then the film isn’t really about Keats, anyway. It’s about Fanny, Keats’ bright star.
There is no doubt in my mind that Fanny Brawne was an essential element of Keats’ genius. They adored each other, and they infuriated each other. Their entire relationship was like the first couple of moments in Hamlet’s “get thee to a nunnery” scene.
When I first began my studies of the life of Keats, Fanny infuriated me, too. She seemed to torment him on purpose, even during his illness. And, yet, she was entirely dedicated to him. After his death, she cut her hair and dressed in black for six years, wearing their engagement ring all the while. (A little more than “a little month.”) But then, about four years later, married and fairly wealthy, she wrote to Charles Brown that her infatuation with Keats, a poor poet, was folly. But then again, unknown to her husband, she kept Keats’ letters her entire life. She gave them and other items from the relationship to her children shortly before her death, and, conveniently, when Keats was beginning to become famous.
Keats loved her. His letters to her are without question some of the greatest love letters ever written. He wrote many of his best poems during a time of his life when she was constantly on his mind. She was his muse, both cruel and kind, La Belle Dame Sans Merci.
The role of Fanny in Bright Star was played by Abbie Cornish, an actress I had never seen before. She did a lovely job, particularly with her reaction to Keats’ death. She let the wilderness flow in reaction to the now famous letter from Joseph Severn:
Rome. 27 February 1821.
My dear Brown,
He is gone–he died with the most perfect ease–he seemed to go to sleep. On the 23rd, about 4, the approaches of death came on. “Severn-I–lift me up–I am dying–I shall die easy–don’t be frightened–be firm, and thank God it has come!” I lifted him up in my arms. The phlegm seemed boiling in his throat, and increased until 11, when he gradually sunk into death–so quiet-that I still thought he slept. I cannot say now-I am broken down from four nights’ watching, and no sleep since, and my poor Keats gone. Three days since, the body was opened; the lungs were completely gone. The Doctors could not conceive by what means he had lived these two months. I followed his poor body to the grave on Monday, with many English. They take such care of me here–that I must, else, have gone into a fever. I am better now–but still quite disabled.
The Police have been. The furniture, the walls, the floor, every thing must be destroyed by order of the law. But this is well looked to by Dr C.
The letters I put into the coffin with my own hand.
I must leave off.
I lost it, too. I always do when the subject is the death of Keats. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of his poetry and artistic philosophies––philosophies which only come to us through letters he wrote to family, friends, and of course, Fanny. (We have Tennyson and his compatriots to thank for bringing Keats’ work out of relative obscurity.)
Keats was the youngest of the great Romantic poets; he was also the best. He was heavily influenced by the excellent work and ideas of Wordsworth and Coleridge, but he was not bound by them. He seemed to absorb the greatness of previous poetic generations and then refine them through the ever-important fire of Romanticism. It is Keats who crystallizes for us what is perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest theme: exquisite Beauty and exquisite Truth are intrinsically connected to impermanence, loss, and brevity. And that, as Mark Strand suggests, is the central concern of the modern lyric poem. It is the central concern of all great art, in my opinion.
Keats understood brevity. He experienced a great deal of loss in his life, and then he was gone by the age of twenty five. He knew it was coming. About a year before he died, he came home from London feverish and coughing. Charles Brown records:
“He mildly and instantly yielded to my request that he should go to bed…On entering the cold sheets, he slightly coughed, and I heard him say, ‘That is blood from my mouth…I know the colour of that blood; – it is arterial blood…that drop of blood is my death-warrant; – I must die.”
The odd thing is that Keats seemed to know his life would be short well before the onset of TB. And at least one other, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, saw it, too. Keats only met Coleridge once. They both happened to be walking in the Highgate area of Hampstead Heath. Coleridge was walking with a mutual friend, and Keats joined them for a moment. Keats was starstruck. After he left their company, he had to turn back to shake Coleridge’s hand again. It was one of those “I’m a big fan of your work” moments. Here is Coleridge describing the incident:
“He was introduced to me, and stayed a minute or so. After he had left us a little way, he came back, and said, “Let me carry away the memory, Coleridge, of having pressed your hand!” “There is death in that hand,” I said to Green, when Keats was gone; yet this was, I believe, before the consumption showed itself distinctly.'” In another account of the story, Coleridge begins with “Poor Keats.”
I have mentioned in an earlier post that Keats was buried with a few unopened letters from Fanny. Why he stopped reading her letters is one of the more lovely mysteries of literary history. But maybe there was a moment as he lay there dying in Rome, looking out of his window onto the Spanish Steps and the Bernini fountain, believing he was a failed poet at the end of a doomed love affair, that it was all just too perfect.
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art––
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors–
No––yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever––or else swoon to death.