Last night, I went to see the film “Bright Star” directed by Jane Campion. It is the love story of the 19th century, Romantic poet John Keats and the muse who inspired him, Fanny Brawne. The film gave me a whole new vision of Keats, a different perception of his poetry, one which is based more on empathy than on judgment.
Campion has done a beautiful job of creating a script with language taken from the poems and letters of the poet. The imagery of the film alludes to Keats’ poetic imagery constantly. How beautiful Campion’s snapshots of the bee in a red flower or the latch of the door turning between the wings of a blue butterfly! Keats wrote the words that directed Campion’s attention to these ordinary, extraordinary moments:
“It has been an old comparison for our urging on — the beehive! However, it seems to me that we should rather be the flower than the bee. For it is a false notion that more is gained by receiving than giving — no, the receiver and the giver are equal in their benefits. The flower I doubt not receives a fair reward from the bee … its leaves blush deeper in the next spring … and who shall say between Man and Woman which is the most delighted?” (Letter to J.H. Reynolds, 19 February 1818)
“For myself i know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days — three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.” (Letter to Fanny Brawne, 1 July 1819)
The whole film is radiant with desire.
The memory and the fear of death intensifies love’s longing in the story. Fanny’s father’s death and Keats’ brother’s death, remembered at the beginning of the film, foreshadow the end when Keats dies of complications of tuberculosis in Rome. After Fanny learns of the poet’s death, we see her cut a black thread that she has stitched into a white cloth. The image, so powerful in its simplicity, recalls the Greek myth of Atropos cutting the thread of a man’s life.
Throughout the film, as Fanny and Keats converse, they quote some of Keats’ most famous poems, beginning with his claim that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever — its loveliness increases! It will never pass into nothingness, but still will keep a bower quiet for us, and a sleep full of sweet dreams and health and quiet breathing” (from “Endymion”). As the film goes on, they speak verses that Keats wrote after he met Fanny, and it becomes clear, so clear, that she was a great source of inspiration for him. His poetry was not coming from some abstract place, but from the center of his being responding to the center of hers.
I’ve read Keats poems many times — he and Coleridge are my favorite Romantic poets — but somehow I never grounded my understanding of the poet’s work in his relationship to the love of his life. Only a college education could have blinded me to something so obvious. The film cuts through academic preoccupations to the heart of the matter. Never a word do we hear in it of “negative capability” because that philosophical idea was not the main focus of Keats’ emotional life or poetic inspiration. But after watching the film, no one will never forget that he wrote things like:
“Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
to feel forever its soft swell and fall,
awake forever in a sweet unrest,
still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
and so live forever …” (from “Bright Star”)
“All my thoughts, my unhappiest days and nights have I find not at all cured me of my love of Beauty, but made it so intense that I am miserable that you are not with me … or rather breathe in that dull sort of patience that cannot be called Life. I never knew before what such a love as you have made me feel was. I did not believe in it, my fancy was afraid of it, lest it should burn me up. But if you will fully love me, though there may be some fire, it will not be more than we can bear when moistened and bedewed with Pleasures.” (Letter to Fanny Brawne, 8 July 1819)
Fanny was a real, beloved person to Keats, and Campion makes her and her poet real to us. Campion does this in a new, fully-alive, sensuously rich way. Her film is like a living poem speaking from the past into the heart of the golden present.
I went home after watching the film and read dozens of letters and poems by Keats: sonnets like “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” “When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be,” and “Bright Star” as well as odes like “To Psyche,” “To a Nightingale,” “On Melancholy,” and “To Autumn.” How different to meditate on the romances “Eve of St. Agnes” and “Lamia” with Keats’ relationship to Fanny Brawne acutely in mind! For these songs came from Keats’ secret life, the one he revealed in letters to Fanny, letters that he covered from the sight of his friends even as he wrote them in their houses.
Of course I admit that the film is a love story that simplifies some of the uglier jealousies and misogynies Keats sings out in his letters to male friends and even to Fanny herself sometimes. But it still gives us something important to remember. Love gave Keats life.
p.s. In the film, Keats says, “Craft is a carcass … If poetry doesn’t come as naturally as leaves to a tree than it had better not come at all.” This made me laugh! Yes, Keats made his metaphoric comparison between poetry and tree-leaves in a letter to Benjamin Bailey, but did he therefore mean that poetry comes easily? I’ve watched the leaves split open twigs to emerge after winter, and I think the growing process is neither painless nor easy, though the revivification of the tree is, of course, a wonder to behold.
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