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Diving into Poetry:

A Review of Bright Star

by S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.

Since my Ph.D. is in English literature, and John Keats is my favorite poet, I have been anxiously awaiting the release of Bright Star, a film about the romance between Keats and Fanny Brawne.   Keats, one of the most famous of the Romantic poets, (usually mentioned in the same breath with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley), met Fanny in 1818, but he died of tuberculosis in 1821 at the age of 25.  Though they were informally engaged, they were never married.

Directed by Jane Campion (The Piano, The Portrait of a Lady) Bright Star tells the story of the romance primarily from Fanny’s perspective.  Since Keats’ death, there has been much discussion about the actual nature of the relationship between Keats and Fanny Brawne.  For many years after his death, some painted Fanny as a heartless flirt who had no real affection for Keats and did not appreciate his poetic genius.   Since all of her letters to Keats were destroyed at his own request, we have little information about how she felt about him in her own words.  This scarcity of material describing Fanny’s feelings has led to the belief among some people that the love affair was one-sided on Keats’ part, Fanny not having the same kind of passion for him.  Others have maintained that the fervor revealed in Keats’ letters to her would not have been expressed if he did not think that she had some measure of strong feelings toward him.

In Bright Star, Campion offers her own interpretation of the nature of their romance, relying heavily on Andrew Motion’s 1997 biography of Keats.  In this biography, Andrew Motion presents Fanny as someone who was devoted to Keats, though Keats’ own ambivalence made it difficult for her to express her feelings for him.  After Keats’ death, Fanny cropped her hair and wore mourning for three years, just as if they had really been married, never taking off the ring he had given her (Motion 568).  She did eventually marry, but evidently rarely spoke of her relationship with Keats.  For many years after Keats’ death, most of the admirers of his poetry were unaware of Fanny’s identity. Thirteen years after her death in 1865, her family made public the letters that Keats had written to her.  Many of Keats’ admirers thought it was in bad taste for Fanny to have even kept the letters, much less that her family should allow them to be published.   In 1937, Fanny’s letters to Keats’ sister were published.  In one letter she writes of her continued feelings for Keats:   “They think I have [forgotten him].   But I have not got over it and never shall” (Motion 568).

Though Bright Star portrays her as the girl who has a reputation for flirting and having an obsession with fashion (Beau Brummel was her father’s cousin), Campion presents her as being very much in love with Keats, a girl who, though finding his poetry difficult, hangs on every word of his letters and becomes ill when he does not write to her. Bright Star depicts Fanny as a daring young woman who refused to conform to convention, in love with a dying, penniless poet.

The choice of the title Bright Star may indicate Campion’s opinion that Keats’ own attitude toward love and romance complicated the relationship.   The phrase Bright Star is from the opening line of one of Keats’ sonnets which begins, “Bright Star! Would I were steadfast as thou art—.”   In this poem, Keats expresses a frequent wish of his that his love and devotion could be as permanent as a star.  Yet, the sonnet reveals that the constancy of a star is not an adequate symbol, for though the star is steady, “unblinking,” it is alone, remote, and detached, almost like a religious hermit. Keats wants to be as steadfast as a star, but, at the same time, a living human being that can feel passion:

Pillowed upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel forever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death. (Bright Star, 10-14)

If Campion’s film at times does not seem to present a sizzling romance that modern moviegoers are more used to seeing, it is probably because the actual relationship of Keats and Fanny was complicated by his ambivalence about romantic love.    He was torn between his love for poetry and his love for a woman, having a fear that a torrid romance would distract him from his work as a poet.  Keats’ friends, such as Charles Brown,  splendidly portrayed in this film by Paul Schneider, also feared that Fanny was a threat to Keats’ poetic genius.  Keats, and some of his closest friends like Brown, felt that the poet needed to be transcendent, like the bright star, standing apart from the world.  At the same time, Keats wanted to be involved in the passionate side of life, experiencing that “sweet unrest” that so often accompanies a passionate love affair.  This movie shows how Keats felt the need to withdraw from Fanny in order to write, and how these separations tormented him, often giving rise to suspicions, jealousies, and accusations.  Though Keats tried to keep away from Fanny as much as possible for the sake of his poetry, she did become, as Motion puts it, “the focus of his faith in Beauty…his whole universe in miniature” (470-1).

There was a period when Keats and Fanny lived in the same house, Keats and the Brawne family’s rooms being separated only by a wall.  There is a tender scene in Bright Star where Keats and Fanny, aware of the other’s presence on the other side, place their hands on the wall, reaching out, “touching” one another through the wall.   The wall between Keats and Fanny was composed of various materials:  Keats’ poverty and illness, 19th moral customs, Fanny’s reticence, and Keats’ own ambivalence.

But Bright Star is more than an attempt to depict the romance between Keats and Fanny Brawne.    It is also an effort to let us experience the poetry of Keats.  Whether or not this portrayal of the love affair is accurate,  Bright Star is a beautifully filmed representation of the romance, every scene a form of poetry itself.  One of the most famous of Keats’ poems, Endymion, begins with the lines:

A  thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
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. (1-5)

Campion’s film is a thing of beauty, one that I hope will not pass into nothingness.

Though Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw do a wonderful job of portraying Fanny and Keats, I can’t help but believe that the real star of the movie is the poetry.  In an era where moviegoers favor action thrillers and horror, it would seem difficult to make a movie about a poet that would be interesting.  If the theme of a movie is romance, then we expect to see the couple giving way to their passionate desires, not holding back because of internal constraints.   Since the life of a poet like Keats would consist mainly of reading, meditating, and writing, it would be difficult to portray such activities in a dramatic fashion.  But Campion manages to interest us in the work of the poet by staging scenes where the composition of poetry is taking place in beautiful settings where he is seeking inspiration and where the lovers meet.  The way the film portrays nature in the splendor of the various seasons makes one wish that one had the gift of language that Keats  had to describe such beauty.  The interior scenes are also set with meticulous care:  those taking place in front of windows are stunning in their use of light and color.  Several of the scenes in Bright Star are reminiscent of a portrait by his friend and artist, Joseph Severn, of Keats reading beside an open window.  As a matter of fact, several scenes seem to make use of famous paintings of Keats, Ben Whishaw appearing  to deliberately strike some of the poses that we find in familiar portraits of Keats.  There are also scenes of rooms with books piled high on tables as the poet researches, looking for the exact word, phrase, or idea to construct his poems. Campion also chooses to let various characters read or recite various portions of Keats’ poetry, trying to integrate such recitations seamlessly into the film.    Weaving the poetry into beautiful and powerful images of the film allows us to experience Keats’ poetry in a new way.

I have been analyzing poetry for many years.  I have approached poetry in almost the same way I handle Scripture as I prepare a sermon–doing exegesis and trying to interpret the text.  Sometimes, when we handle poetry so long from an academic standpoint, we forget some of the basic elements of poetry, such as how compelling the imagery of poetry can be and the emotional impact that it can have upon a person.    No doubt, some viewers of Bright Star may get caught up in arguments concerning whether Fanny and Keats were really as passionately in love as the film depicts them to be.  Whether the film is historically accurate is beside the point.  The important thing is how the text of the film is interwoven with the poetry of Keats.  The haunting images in Keats’ poetry are juxtaposed with the provocative images of the film.  This mingling of film and poetry has, in effect, created a new text which opens entire new possibilities for examination of the poems, the text of the film and the text of Keats’ poetry providing a kind of intertextuality whereby the meaning of both texts is shaped by the other.  Just as the dramatic reading of a poem in a certain way can enhance or subvert the meaning of the text, film has the ability to do the same.   From now on, when I read La Belle Dame Sans Merci, perhaps I will see Abbie Cornish and  Ben Whishaw reciting it to one another.  When I read Ode to Nightingale, I will hear Ben Whishaw’s voice reading it the way he did as the closing credits rolled on a black screen.

Keats’ poetry, whether I’m reading, Lamia, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, The Eve of St. Agnes, or any of this other poems, always has the ability to move me emotionally.  But I must confess that I was never so stirred by Ode to a Nightingale as I was when hearing it read by Ben Whishaw at the end of this film.  Of course, that doesn’t mean much coming from me, because I am the most sentimental and emotional of moviegoers.   After sitting through a beautiful film for two hours, seeing the presentation of a tragic love affair, and watching  Abbie Cornish’s heart-wrenching performance when Fanny hears of Keats’ death,  we have a new experience of the poem when we hear Ben Whishaw read Keats’ words that he would like to fade away into the forest with the nightingale,

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs;
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow. (21-30).

Experiencing the imagery of the film combined with the imagery of the poem gives us a whole new set of emotions and interpretations.

At one point in the film, Fanny asks Keats to describe for her the craft of poetry.  Keats replies:  “A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out.  It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.”  Far too often, when we read poetry such as that by Keats, we try to “work it out,” or examine it analytically and arrive at an interpretation of its meaning.  So much of the meaning of poetry must remain shrouded in mystery, but it moves us nonetheless.   In an article by Peter Keough, Jane Campion describes an experience she had in college with Keats’ poetry that may sound familiar to many people who take literature classes:  “I had this ridiculous professor who thought there were many different interpretations of a poem. I was fascistic and thought there was only one. That it was a puzzle to be cracked. Later, I learned that the experience of immersing oneself in beauty without the need for final answers was more rewarding.”  A film like Bright Star helps us to experience the sensation of poetry, allowing the poetry, with the help of powerful images, to experience poetry at a level beyond thought, not needing final answers about meaning.

Before viewing the film, I would suggest that you read the poems Bright Star, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and Ode to a Nightingale. (I have included them at the end of this review).  Don’t leave the theater when the final credits begin to roll.  Sit in the dark and listen as Ben Whishaw reads Ode to a Nightingale.  You may never experience the poem that way again.  Campion is quoted as saying in an article by Maria Garcia, “Poetry is like an object that you can constantly turn around in your mind….It’s a garden you can keep returning to. It allows you to have this really close relationship to people hundreds of years apart.”  Through Bright Star, we can return to the garden of Keats’ poetry and experience it afresh. We can dive into the lake of poetry, not trying to “work it out,” but simply allowing ourselves to be moved by its mystery.

Works Cited

  • Garcia, Maria.  “A Sweet Unrest: Jane Campion Recreates Love Affair between Poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne.”  Film Journal International. 21 Aug. 1999.  18 Oct. 2009.  Link here
  • Keats, John.  “Bright Star.”  John Keats:  The Complete Poems.  Ed. John Barnard.   New York: Penguin, 1988.
  • —.  “Endymion.”  John Keats:  The Complete Poems.  Ed. John Barnard.  New York: Penguin, 1988.
  • —.  “Ode to a Nightingale.”  John Keats.  The Complete Poems.  Ed. John Barnard.  New York:  Penguin, 1988.
  • Keough, Peter.  “True Romance:  Jane Campion Directs the Best Movie ever Made about John Keats.”  The Boston Phoenix.  23 Sept. 2009.  18 Oct. 2009. Link here
  • Motion, Andrew.   Keats.  New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

Bright Star

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.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful – a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said –
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep
And there I dreamed – Ah! woe betide! –
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Ode to a Nightingale

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness, –
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain –
To thy high requiem become a sod.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?

 

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