December 2009 - January 2010

Arts & Letters

Bright stars

By Sophie Gee
John Keats and Fanny Brawne revisited

John Keats’s last letter is just about his most powerful piece of writing. He was in Rome, dying of tuberculosis. He’d gone there in a final attempt to stave off the death he knew by then was inevitable. He was separated from his beloved fiancée and her family, who had cared for him as his illness worsened. Frightened and believing he was a failure, the 25-year-old poet took opium in alcohol to ease his pain. “I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any handwriting of a friend I love so much as I do you,” he wrote to his close friend Charles Brown. “There is one thought enough to kill me; I have been well, healthy, alert, &c., walking with her, and now — … I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow. God bless you! John Keats.”

The “her” with whom Keats walked was Fanny Brawne, the girl next door he had fallen in love with three years before. In an earlier letter to Brown, he confessed, “I am afraid to write to her. I should like her to know that I do not forget her. Oh, Brown, I have coals of fire in my breast.” Although he lived for another two months after writing these letters, he was too sick and despairing to write again.

Keats’s letters to Fanny have survived as a largely complete collection, and are now the subject of renewed interest thanks to Jane Campion’s film Bright Star (released on 26 December), which retells the story of Keats’s truncated passion with his “dearest Girl”.

In a series of equally compelling letters to his male friends between 1817 and 1820, Keats elucidated a remarkable literary vision. He knew that he was up against the achievements of Wordsworth and Coleridge, as well as Milton, whose shadow falls across the whole of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In response, Keats imagined a new lyric that depicted changing sensory experience – extraordinarily difficult to get right, all too easy to get wrong. In 1817, aged 22, he published his first volume of poems and, in the following year, the extravagant dream vision Endymion. Critics savaged both works. Keats was grouped with the “Cockney School” of poets, which the conservative Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine lampooned as a group of lower-middle-class vulgarians puking out uneducated doggerel, a casting that has led to the incorrect belief that Keats spoke with a cockney accent.

Keats sensed that he was working against the clock. His mother had died of TB when he was a teenager; in 1818, his beloved brother Tom was ill and dying of the same disease. He wrote – quite literally – as if he was racing against mortality, his hand moving so quickly that he made constant mistakes. In February 1820, his throat haemorrhaged and “so violent a rush of blood came to my Lungs that I felt nearly suffocated.” He realised it was his death warrant. “This is unfortunate,” he remarked understatedly to Brown. He knew he had the talent and the vision to create something truly extraordinary, but he knew that fate was against him. He published a last volume of poems in 1820, but died before their real value was known.

Reading the 1820 poems after immersing yourself in the vivid, deliberate life of Keats’s letters is a profound experience. Working against unimaginable pressures of grief, fear, illness, pain and a sense of almost certain failure, Keats wrote a set of lyrics that fully realised his creative vision. Experimental, but superbly controlled, they reverberate with his depth of understanding about what Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Coleridge had done before him, while also doing something unique.

Several poems now part of the Keatsian canon are not in the 1820 volume: Endymion; various sonnets, including the small early triumph ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, and the last sonnet, ‘Bright Star! would I were as steadfast as though art’. But the 1820 collection is miraculous, and reading through the masterpieces it includes is deeply moving: ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’, ‘Lamia’, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, ‘Ode to Psyche’, ‘To Autumn’, ‘Ode on Melancholy’, ‘Fancy’ and ‘Hyperion’.

Had Chaucer and Spenser been cut off at the same age, they would have left us nothing; Shakespeare and Milton might be remembered for a few early works.

Love-letters tend to have a sameness to them, but there is something singular about Keats’s letters to Fanny, so it’s no wonder Campion was drawn to them. “I almost wish that 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,” Keats writes in one fanciful epistle. In another, he declares, “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, ’twill not be more than we can bear when moistened and bedewed with Pleasures.”

The letters to Fanny are only half the story, however. Keats would elsewhere confess, “I have not a right feeling towards Women … When among Men I have no evil thoughts, no malice, no spleen … I must absolutely get over this – but how? … an obstinate Prejudice can seldom be produced but from a Gordian complication of feelings.” This Gordian complication is at least partly explained by the story of his childhood. Keats’s father died when he was nine; his previously doting mother (also named Fanny) remarried two months later. Miserable in the new marriage, she disappeared, abandoning the children to their grandmother. After four years she returned, ill with consumption. Keats nursed her devotedly to her death. When Keats sealed his letters to Fanny Brawne, he did so with a seal “mark’d … with my Mother’s initial F for Fanny”. Keats’s passion for his “dear Girl” ricochets between primal longing and fear: “You cannot conceive how I ache to be with you”, and then “I have been endeavoring to wean myself from you.”

Keats’s intellect was neither strenuously educated nor mature, but he developed a coherent aesthetic theory over the course of his short adult life, leaving us with some of the best known phrases employed in poetic analysis. With “O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” Keats aspires to knowledge produced by sensory perception rather than abstract reasoning. “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth,” he adds in the same letter. (Campion repurposes the “holiness of the heart’s affections” for the romantic story.)

His most famous expression – “negative capability” – emerged from a conversation with two friends, reported in a letter to his brothers: “that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. Negative capability generated poetry that depicted changing sensations rather than articulating settled meanings. “What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet,” Keats wrote. Keats’s poetry was new because it revealed complex feelings without grounding them in descriptions of reality or experience.

With Bright Star, Campion rescues Fanny from the eclipse caused by her lover’s posthumous fame, restoring her as the star that burned brightest in Keats’s firmament. We get to know the famous poet through Fanny’s eyes – not the other way around, as history would have it. Campion’s Fanny Brawne is an amateur dress designer of considerable talent; the first shot of the film depicts her needle running deftly through fine fabric, an analogue to Keats’s poetic labours. She is also the daughter of an upper-middle-class family – out of the impoverished young poet’s league, as both Keats and the Brawnes know.

Deliberately unconventional women are the protagonists of all Campion’s films, from the revered dark comedy Sweetie (1989), about a domineering, unbalanced older sister, to The Piano (1993) and The Portrait of a Lady (1996) – another literary adaptation – about an unorthodox heroine confronting a doomed relationship. With An Angel at My Table (1990), Campion depicted Janet Frame’s battle with an incorrect and cruel psychiatric diagnosis. The heroine of her 1999 film, Holy Smoke, becomes obsessed with a cult in India, and in In the Cut (2003), the character played by Meg Ryan dares to pursue a troubling, ambiguous relationship with a homicide detective.

Bright Star is sparer and more restrained than Campion’s earlier work, not least because the sexual attraction between Keats and Fanny remains unconsummated; a tender kiss is all we get. The sets are sparse, the colours clean, the composition of the frames tight and minimalist. As befits a film about Romantic poetry, there are lots of nature scenes. One shows a pre-tubercular Keats ascending a blooming apple tree to lie spread-eagled on its crown; in another, Fanny repairs to a luscious bluebell wood to pore over Keats’s letters. Alas, the bluebells appear to be blooming in mid-summer, after a scene involving rose-sniffing. Horticultural order was one thing Romantic poets didn’t get wrong.

Fanny’s determined fidelity to her unfamous, unwell, but undeniably sexy lover relies for its effect on the mostly robust performance by the Australian actress Abbie Cornish. After gaining attention as the lead in Cate Shortland’s Somersault in 2004, she played Heath Ledger’s heroin-addicted lover in Neil Armfield’s Candy (2006). Since then, her own star has risen in Hollywood. (Now she is the steadfast companion of actor Ryan Phillippe, who last year divorced Reese Witherspoon, after meeting Cornish on the set of Stop-Loss.)

Cornish’s signature as an actress is her capacity for stillness, but this conflicts somewhat with Campion’s construction of Fanny as vital, self-possessed, daring and unafraid of confrontation. Cornish is also physically at odds with the extremely effete Keats, who is charmingly portrayed by the clever-looking English actor Ben Whishaw. Most of the movement in the film comes from Paul Schneider, who plays Charles Brown as a booming, misogynistic Scotsman – an unnecessary flourish, since Brown was not Scottish (he and Keats went on a holiday there in 1818). Late in the film, Keats and Fanny recite one of Keats’s best loved poems, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. Campion stages it as a quasi-consummation scene: the story of a knight’s intensely erotic coupling with a faerie-seductress enables them to speak their desire for each other. The real circumstances in which Keats composed ‘La Belle Dame’ are very different. The first draft of the ballad exists in a long letter he wrote to his brother and sister-in-law in 1819. Keats had just found a group of hoax love-letters written to his dying brother, Tom, by a beautiful French girl named ‘Amena Bellafila’ – actually Charles Wells, the brothers’ friend. Keats was certain the letters had intensified Tom’s suffering. He called them “no thoughtless hoax – but a cruel deception on a sanguine Temperament, with every show of friendship”. The episode prompted the dark imaginings of Keats’s ballad: “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’.”

What Campion gets most right is the feeling of extreme discomfort that accompanied life in Romantic England – socially, sartorially, medically, financially, familially and climatically – and, in capturing this, she gives Bright Star grit and tension. The depiction of Fanny Brawne, however, doesn’t really work. By turning her into an unconventional heroine railing against the conventions of her social world, Campion grounds Bright Star solidly in her oeuvre, but more or less misses the point of Fanny’s relationship with Keats.

Fanny Brawne is weird and interesting because she comes to us via Keats’s literary sensibility and because her relationship with him occurred in the midst of an enthralling period, dominated for Keats by ambition and impending death. It’s conspicuous, after all, that the “Bright Star” of Keats’s last sonnet is a reference to himself, and not to Fanny Brawne.

Cover: December 2009 - January 2010

December 2009 - January 2010

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