John Keats and His Bright Star, Fanny Brawne
It took me about thirty seconds of the trailer to fall in love with the movie Bright Star. In those thirty seconds I saw everything I love in a movie: period costumes, literary characters, classical music, English accents. By the end of the trailer, I was dying to see the movie. Of course, the local movie theater didn’t even show Bright Star. Apparently, everyone would rather see that Michael Jackson movie (slash documentary slash concert) or an animated movie about food falling from the sky (the latter is actually a good movie, by the bye). Everyone, that is, except me, and my mother. So I had to wait until Bright Star arrived on DVD for your home viewing convenience. Yes, I would have paid the $10 to see the movie, but I didn’t have to. I had to wait.
I confess, I’m a sucker for these kinds of movies. Those who really know me would call me a “hopeless romantic". Well, it’s true, I am (even though my head often gets the better of me). Almost any day of the week, I would rather see some sad love story about a dying poet and his true love than watch meatballs falling from the sky (I must repeat, I really enjoyed that movie too).
So I just recently rented the movie (no luck at the red box; had to go to that obsolete institution known as a rental store). Those magical two minutes of the trailer were expanded into two hours of wet-eyed bliss.
I didn’t know much about John Keats (and I know I should) before I watched Bright Star, except that he was depressed and sickly. So the movie pushed me on in my damaging curiosity to discover more about this depressed poet and his love for Fanny Brawne, whom he called his “Bright Star”. But first, a little about the movie as a movie:
Bright Star (2009) was filmed in the United Kingdom. It stars Ben Wishaw and Abbie Cornish.
Ben Wishaw will be recognized as playing Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited (2008). He is also due to appear in the upcoming film The Tempest (which was filmed in Hawaii, I might add).
Abbie Cornish, an Australian actress, has appeared in the films Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) and A Good Year (2006). Both Wishaw and Cornish were outstanding in Bright Star.
The writer and director of Bright Star is Jane Campion, the woman who directed The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady, both period films as well. Jane Campion is one of the few female directors to get an Academy Award nomination.
Bright Star was nominated for the Golden Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival and also for an Oscar for costume design. It won a British Independent Film Award for cinematography.
The movie covers a short space of time in the lives of John Keats and Fanny Brawne, focusing on their relationship. Their relationship lasted for three years, the last three years of Keats’s life. John is a poet, and Fanny is a fashion designer, but the film centers on the two of them together. It focuses on their love.
Who Was John Keats?
John Keats was born near London, England on the 31st of October in 1795. When John was only eight years old, his father died after a fatal fall from his horse. Six years later, John’s mother died of consumption. John, his sister, and his two surviving brothers (another brother died as an infant) were left to the care of guardians.
Before committing himself completely to literature, John Keats studied medicine. In 1816, at the age of twenty-one, John published his first poem titled “O Solitude.”
John Keats is famous for being one of the leading poets in the Romantic movement. Other poets of the time were William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. These, along with Keats, formed the Big Six of English Romantic literature. Romanticism was a reaction to the hard-fact outlook of the Age of Enlightenment. It emphasized emotion and intuition above rationalism, and was the opposite of Realism. Romanticism reached all areas of the arts.
John’s brother Tom was sick with consumption. John and his brother George took care of him. But when George immigrated to America, John was given sole responsibility for Tom. In 1818, Tom died. Around this time, John met Fanny Brawne.
Who Was Fanny Brawne?
Fanny Brawne was also born near London, in 1800. Her father died when Fanny was a small child. She had a brother, Sam, and a sister, Margaret. The dazzling Miss Brawne was coquettish, witty, and very fashionable. There was an army barracks near where she lived, and Fanny liked to attend the military dances. She is described as a realist, with not much knowledge of poetry.
In 1818, Fanny met John when she lived with her widowed mother close to John’s residence. Their relationship progressed more when Fanny’s family moved next door in the spring of 1819. They fell deeply in love but could not become formally engaged because of John’s lack of income. John struggled to make a living writing poetry, and Fanny was now his inspiration.
In 1820, it became clear that John was sick with consumption, the same disease his brother died of. After coughing up blood in February, John recognized the fate that was to claim him: “That drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die.” Through his knowledge of medicine and his experience with his brother’s illness, John knew the signs of consumption well.
Fanny was kept at a distance, the doctors advising against emotional strain. One can only imagine that the distance kept between them caused more of an emotional strain than any visits would have.
In the summer of 1820, John, being turned out of his rental, moved a mile away from Fanny. The distance between them proved unbearable. John became increasingly depressed and jealous of Fanny, whom he could not see as often as he would have liked.
Consumption is known today as pulmonary tuberculosis (TB). It was called consumption because of the way it consumed its victims. Consumption is a bacterial disease that principally affects the lungs and is contagious. Some of the symptoms of consumption are chest pain, coughing up blood, fever, chills, and fatigue. Consumption can be prevented through vaccination and treated with medication.
John was heartbroken and heartweary. He grew worse, and in an emotional upset walked all the way to Fanny’s house where the family took him in. He spent a month with them, the happiest month of his tragic life.
But his happiness was not to last. His illness was growing worse, and John’s friends urged him to travel to Italy in hopes of recovery in a better climate. Although he did not believe he would recover, although he hated to leave Fanny behind, John left for Italy in September. After months of physical and mental anguish, he died February 23, 1821 and was buried in Rome. He was only twenty-five years old. At John’s request, these words were etched on his lonely tombstone: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
John wrote over three dozen letters to Fanny in his last few years. She kept them away from the public her entire life. Seven years after Fanny’s death, the letters were exposed and Fanny’s identity as John Keats’s love was revealed.
What Became of Fanny?
Fanny was in mourning for several years after John’s death, and never forgot him. In 1833, Fanny married Louis Lindon, who never knew about his wife’s former romance with Keats. Fanny and Louis had three children. Fanny told her children about Keats, but never told her husband. She died in 1865. After the death of her husband 1872, Fanny’s children released the love letters from John Keats (the letters written by Fanny were destroyed).
John Keats was a poet, a lover, a sufferer. Some of his most beautiful poetry was inspired by Fanny Brawne, the love of his life. The love letters of John Keats are some of the most beautiful ever written. In one of his letters, he told Fanny that “Love is my religion.” John Keats searched all his life for beauty. He saw beauty in nature and he saw beauty in Fanny Brawne. But whether or not John Keats ever found true beauty we cannot know. He died in agony, almost alone, leaving Fanny and his poetry behind him.
John Keats Quotes
"On Seeing the Elgin Marbles" 1817
My spirit is too weak — mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagin'd pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick Eagle looking at the sky.
"When I have fears that I may cease to be" 1817
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain ...
... then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
Letter to Benjamin Bailey (November 22, 1817)
I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of imagination — what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth — whether it existed before or not.
Letter to Richard Woodhouse (October 27, 1818)
A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence; because he has no identity — he is continually informing — and filling some other body.
A thing of beauty is joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness ...
Bright Star 1819
Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art...
Letter to Fanny Brawne (July 1819)
I almost wish 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.
Letter to Fanny Brawne (July 25, 1819)
I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute.
Letter to Fanny Brawne (October 13, 1819)
My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you - I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again - my Life seems to stop there - I see no further. You have absorb'd me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving - I should be exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you.
Letter to Fanny Brawne (February 1820)
On the night I was taken ill when so violent a rush of blood came to my Lungs that I felt nearly suffocated - I assure you I felt it possible I might not survive and at that moment though[ t] of nothing but you
Letter to Fanny Brawne (February 1820)
I cannot say forget me - but I would mention that there are impossibilities in the world.
Letter to Fanny Brawne (March 1820)
You fear, sometimes, I do not love you so much as you wish? My dear Girl I love you ever and ever and without reserve. The more I have known you the more have I lov'd. In every way - even my jealousies have been agonies of Love, in the hottest fit I ever had I would have died for you.
Letter to Fanny Brawne (March 1820)
Perhaps on your account I have imagined my illness more serious than it is: how horrid was the chance of slipping into the ground instead of into your arms - the difference is amazing Love - Death must come at last; Man must die, as Shallow says; but before that is my fate I feign would try what more pleasures than you have given so sweet a creature as you can give.
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