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
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.
—John Keats, “Bright Star”
Some of the most beautiful poetry in the English language has been inspired by star-crossed lovers. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning, William Butler Yeats and Maude Gonne, Shakespeare and the Dark Lady of the Sonnets to name but a few. But no story is more poignant than that of poet John Keats (1795-1821) and Fanny Brawne (1800-1865). His love for her inspired some of his most famous poetry; she was his “bright star.”
Literally the girl next door, Fanny Brawne was 18 when she met John Keats in November of 1818. By the fall of 1819, Keats had proposed. The engagement was kept secret because Keats was broke. He had given up a promising career in medicine for a less promising one as a poet. He was unable to sustain himself financially, let alone support a wife. While her mother didn’t precisely forbid the marriage, she withheld her consent until Keats had some dough in the bank.
Jane Campion's 2009 film Bright Star, named after the Keats poem, faithfully depicts the romance from their first meeting in 1818 until Keats' death from tuberculosis in Rome in 1821 at the age of 25. The film details the many obstacles in their path, namely the objections of Keats' friend Charles Armitage Brown, who considers Fanny to be a nuisance, taking Keats away from his work, to Keats' lack of money and ill health. Despite this, the love between Keats and Fanny keeps growing until they are engaged. Keats goes off to Rome for his health, but he is aware before he leaves that he will probably not return to England.
The film fairly vibrates with emotion, lingering on the small moments: the couple reading together, the first time that Keats touches Fanny's hand, for example, or the first time that they kiss. Campion doesn't rush the “getting to know you” period of their relationship. It's almost as if it unfolds in real time. Abby Cornish’s Fanny is fiery and flirtatious. Keats must have been attracted to her like a moth to a flame. She is perfectly complimented by Ben Whishaw’s John Keats, who manages to make a dying man a romantic hero, not an easy feat.
There are so many wonderful scenes in the film, particularly when Keats is explaining poetry to Fanny who says that she doesn't understand it. She even tells Keats that she doesn't completely admire his poem “Endymion.” Keats and Fanny don't really seem to have that much in common, she loves fashion and gossip, while he seems contemplative and bookish, but despite that they are immensely attracted to one another. It's not just the scenes between Fanny and Keats that resonate with all the longing, and pang of first love, but also the domestic scenes between Fanny and her family, Fanny dragging her reluctant brother and sister along as chaperones whenever she wants to see Keats. At times the emotions might seem over the top, particularly Fanny's, but if one remembers back to what you were like when you fell in love for the first time, and they seem all too real. Keats suffers pangs of jealousy as Fanny goes to balls, worried that she might meet someone else: “My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you—am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again—my Life seems to stop there—I see no further.—Love is my religion—I could die for that—I could die for you.“ (Letter, 13 October 1819).
By 1820, Keats was seriously ill with the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him. He was confined in Charles Armitage Brown's house in Hampstead, and his doctors advised him to neither see Fanny nor write poetry. Fanny and her family had rented the other half of the house. Some of the most poignant moments in the film are when Fanny and Keats, unable to see each other, press themselves against the wall between the two houses as if they can feel each other on the other side. Imagine knowing that the man you love is so close, yet you can’t see him!
They write to each other, although his health is rapidly deteriorating. The moment when Fanny learns of Keats’ death is heartbreaking. She cuts her hair in a fit of rage and sadness, dons mourning clothes, and walks the snowy paths outside. She recites the love sonnet he had written for her, “Bright Star,” as she grieves the death of her lover.
I could go on and on about this wonderful film, but do yourself a favor and rent it if haven’t seen it; it's a perfect film to watch during National Poetry Month, and at all times for romance fans.
After he died in Rome on February 23, 1821, all of Fanny’s letters to him were buried with him. Fanny kept his letters, and wrote to Frances Keats that she “had not got over it and never shall,” continuing to wear mourning for several years. She never took off the ring Keats had given her. She eventually married Louis Lindon in 1833, living largely abroad until they returned to England in 1859. Although financial troubles led Fanny to sell the miniature of Keats, she held on to his letters.
Just before she died, Fanny told her children about her time with Keats and entrusted to them the letters he had written to her which she said would “someday be considered of value.” She died in December of 1865, and was buried in Brompton Cemetery in December. All told, there were thirty-nine letters, twenty-two of them written in the months before he left for Rome. The letters were published in 1878; finally the public were made aware of the role that Fanny Brawne had played in Keats’ life. One of the letters was auctioned by Bonhams this week in London fetched a whopping £96,000 which is almost $200,000. Even a fraction of that would have allowed Fanny and Keats to marry and given him a living while he wrote. (Thanks to The Two Nerdy Girls for news of the sale.)
Elizabeth Kerri Mahon loves to write about Scandalous Women & the men that loved them. Her first book, Scandalous Women, was published by Perigee Books in March 2011. Visit her at scandalouswoman.blogspot.com.