One of the topics on Slate‘s Culture Gabfest for the week of September 23 was Jane Campion’s new John Keats biopic, Bright Star. The film, which has opened in selected cities around the country, was previously shown at both Cannes and the Toronto Film Festival. A. O. Scott, in the New York Times called it “ravishing.” On the other coast, Kenneth Turan said Campion “marries heartbreaking passion to formidable filmmaking restraint.” For the most part Slate’s gabbers agree. Although it will take awhile for the film to reach Western Pennsylvania, if ever, it sounds like a film that lovers of Keats’ poetry, indeed lovers of all kinds, will look forward to seeing.
Keats deserves the attention. He is a poet whose best work equals anything the English language has to offer. “A thing of beauty” was emblazoned on the wall on one side of the stage of my high school auditorium in Brooklyn, “is a joy forever” on the other. “On First Reading Chapman’s Homer” was probably the first of his poems that we actually studied, the first of his “realms of gold” that we “traveled.” Later there were the great “Odes” and “The Eve of St. Agnes,” “Lamia” and the sonnets — even “Bright Star,” the sonnet that gives the movie its title. But like most everything we were forced to read in high school and later in college, Keats’ poetry was something to honor in name, not actually to read.
He got little enough attention during his short life, and what little he did get was not always very good. He died at 25 of what was then called consumption, now tuberculosis. Born to the working class, in an age when with few exceptions poets were from the moneyed classes, he worked as a pharmacist, and pharmacist poets commanded little respect. Critical reaction to his published work was quite negative. He was associated with the radical poets of the day, most notably Leigh Hunt, who was seen as a mentor, in what one reviewer called “the Cockney School of poetry.” The reviews of his work were so poor that they gave rise to the myth, cultivated by both Byron and Shelley, that Keats was so crushed by them that he sickened and died – in effect, that the bad reviews killed him.
Of course, the film focuses on the love affair between Keats and Fanny Brawne, a love destined to go nowhere, both because of Keats’ financial status and his sickness. The film captures an affair filled with moments of joy and moments of disappointment. Passions were unleashed: as when Keats and his friend Brown fight over Fanny. If the picture of women presented in some of Keats’ later poetry is any indication, his affair with Fanny was not always sweetness and light. In “Lamia” a snake takes the form of a woman to entrance the young hero, who eventually dies when she is exposed. “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is a model of the cruel mistress, who holds the young knight in thrall. This is a far cry from the idyllic vision of “The Eve of St. Agnes,” where the lovers can escape together to a happier place.
Love, as Keats portrays it, is as much about sorrow as it is about joy. If you want to find true melancholy, Keats says in the “Ode on Melancholy,” gaze into the eyes of your mistress and recognize her mortality, recognize that her beauty is ephemeral: “She dwells with Beauty — Beauty that must die.” Still, when all is said and done, what else is there? One can only hope that Campion’s film doesn’t turn Keats’ angst into something saccharine. From all accounts it avoids that pitfall.