This was no fairy story – it had an unhappy ending. Furthermore, we knew it did. Last evening we watched a DVD, Jane Campion’s movie 'Bright Star', a brilliant portrayal of the relationship of poet John Keats with his neighbour Fanny Brawne. It didn’t fit my conceptions of the two protagonists but that didn’t matter. In itself it contained its own reality. And that was striking and disarming. This is no costume drama – rather human passion stretched close to breaking point.
Keats and Brawne’s playfulness turning to romantic obsession was beautifully portrayed with superb camera work. Mood matched scene time after time. 'A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.’ Fully clothed the two lovers recite stanzaz from ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci ‘- one of cinema’s most sexy scenes. This relationship was unconsummated – therein lies much of the power of the tale. But the quotes from Keats' letters reveal the fervour. The bereaved Brawne walking through the snow-clad woods of Hampstead Heath at the conclusion of the movie is equally striking – loss as winter of the soul..
The end film credits are backgrounded with a recital of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale’ ‘For many a time/ I have been half in love with easeful death.’ Rarely has the word ‘forlorn’ carried so much meaning. When I was teaching Seventh Form English, Keats was one of my selected poets for extensive study. Before I began I wondered about the student reaction – how would 1960s youth respond to lush romanticism - but there was little need to worry. Keats’ own conviction carried the day. They accepted him for what he was. His three great odes are a summation of that movement that is called romanticism.
To assist my teaching I bought Gittings’ 'Life of Keats'. My mental picture of the poet and Fanny Brawne was based upon that biography. Now, Campion has fastened another dimension. I must reread Gittings. The pile of unread books on my shelf still grows. And the list of those I want to reread is enormous. So much to read, so little time. ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’.