Archive for Bright Star

Bright Star

Posted in Biographical, Poetry with tags , , on December 7, 2009 by telescoper

After spending the best part of the day ploughing through a succession of tedious jobs and wasting most of my lunch break trying to cope with a recalcitrant IPod, I came home with a brain completely drained of any bloggable material. However, picking up the paper instead of switching the television on proved to be a good move. It reminded me that I went to see the film Bright Star a couple of weeks ago. Since yesterday’s post was in poetic vein a quick post about it would seem to be in order, although I’ve never attempted a movie review on here before.

Directed by Jane Campion, Bright Star is a film about the life of John Keats (played by Ben Whishaw) and his passionate infatuation with the girl next door, a young lady by the name of Fanny Brawne (Abby Cornish). This romance inspired Keats to compose some of the most famous  love letters ever written in the English language. Keats’  letters were published in the 1870s (long after his death in 1821 at the aged of 25) but the other half of the correspondence – the letters written by Fanny – are lost. This is a problem for literary historians, who don’t really know what to make of her, but a boon for the dramatist, who has the chance to create a character from scratch unfettered by too many preconceptions. What emerges is a dignified, slightly eccentric and highly fashion-conscious heroine who makes stylish hats and frocks while her admirer is scribbling his verses. There’s more sewing in this film than in any other I’ve ever seen. The clothes look great, if a bit anachronistic. It’s a costume drama with a difference. Overall, in fact, the film looks gorgeous. The photography is just stunning – it has been a very long time since I last saw anything so beautiful on the big screen.

Keats once described Fanny as “beautiful, elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable and strange”. I think Abby Cornish conveys all of that. But at other times he was less flattering, calling her

ignorant – monstrous in her behaviour, flying out in all directions, calling people such names that I was forced lately to make use of the term Minx – this I think not from any innate vice but from a penchant she has for acting stylishly.  I am however tired of such style and shall decline any more of it.

Of course he did no such thing. Keats’ friend Charles Amitage Brown thought Fanny was an interfering flirt and American critic  Richard Henry Stoddard said “She made him look ridiculous in the eyes of his friends”.  There’s no way of knowing what she was really like – it’s always hard for outsiders to understand other people’s obsessions anyway – but in the movie she is definitely a bit prickly at times.

By contrast with Fanny’s perky glamour, Keats himself is a drab, introspective, almost ghostly figure. His brother dies of tuberculosis – the disease which will shortly get him too. His descent into poverty and illness is exacerbated by the terrible critical reception that greets his poetry. The only thing he really has to cling to is his relationship with “The Minx” which is beautifully portrayed, their growing intimacy only gradually revealed. Much of their dialogue is taken, word for word, directly from Keats’ letters but somehow it doesn’t sound stilted. Their passion is restrained, but keenly observed.

The title of the movie is actually taken from that of one of Keats’ poems. Written in 1819, a year after he met Fanny, this expresses a desire to withdraw from the shifting uncertain world of change and enter a world of timelessness where he can be with his beloved for all eternity.

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.

Keats himself died just a couple of years after writing this, although I doubt that his death from tuberculosis amounted to the kind of blissful rapture he suggests in the last two lines.

Walking back home afterwards, it struck me that  if you didn’t know anything about Keats and Fanny Brawne before watching the film, you would think it was Fanny who was the “Bright Star” of the title. During his lifetime there was never any suggestion that John Keats would ever – even in death – acquire a reputation as one of the greatest poets in the English language.  His work was never popular in his lifetime and was pretty universally reviled by critics too. In poetry as well as in science, it is well nigh impossible to know what is going to last. Only time will tell.