John Keats (1795-1821) was a remarkable English poet famous enough to have been in the English literature canon we were required to learn when I was in high school (1953-57), a stage of education I now see -- for myself and others -- as mind-shaping. My teachers would have accepted Jane Campion’s movie about Keats, “Bright Star,” but they would have been nervous. It’s a very “chaste” movie -- only a bit of kissing because, after all, he was dying of TB which is highly contagious. And absolutely period-accurate in clothing and setting, though Campion chose a slightly larger double-house of the same period so they could get the cameras into the rooms. But there’s always something about Campion’s attitude and assumptions that is unsettling. Fanny Brawne, so proud of her fashion, has a Mother Goose look about her.
This online interview with Campion offers some clues. You can read for yourself, but I’ll list some quotes I really like.
“Negative capability” is “that idea that great men have a way of managing to stand within doubt and uncertainties, mysteries, without irritably searching after fact or reason. . . .that sort of feeling that people don’t know what to do with gaps in their lives. It’s a scary notion, but actually, if you can stand in space just for a little while, a new door will open, or you’ll be able to see in the dark after a while. You’ll adjust.”
“An easeful thing . . . is another idea of Keats, that poetry should come as easily as leaves to a tree, or it had better not come at all.” (Alvina Krause used to say, “stop trying and just do it.” Sometimes “don’t force it to come from you -- let it come THROUGH you.”)
“I think that three-act fundamentalism in film culture is a problem sometimes, because it’s almost too obvious, or it’s too expected. And it’s not the only way to fill two hours, or to phrase things, or to order thoughts, or order ideas.”
“I kind of made my own ballad of Fanny and Keats.”
“. . . for ideas to become real, they have to be played on your senses.”
My English teachers would have prepared the important points about Keats’ life and probably analyzed a poem or two. They wanted us to be the best, the top, to rise in the world through knowledge of fact plus determination to achieve. In short, they accepted the same structure of life as coaches: skills, strategies, certification by authorities, middle-class respectability.
All the things that a Romantic rejects. They were nervous of the senses, so no wonder the first “modern” street drug to capture Romantics (I’m not counting opium a la Coleridge) was LSD which expands and swirls the senses, shakes up all assumptions. (Tim tells me this. I’ve never tried it.) Today’s sports focus on beer: obliteration of consciousness. And head trauma. One of my former students from the Sixties says he still has gaps of memory from his football days.
So “Bright Star” seems simply an experience. I needed to watch it twice: once because of the unfamiliarity and then again in a spirit of recognition. Campion uses the letters Keats wrote, along with his poems. to let him be what he is. No one, not even the determined Mr. Brown who loses the rules of caution in his own life, “explains” the poems, though Campion hired a professor to dissect the poems for the cast. The cooked and “pulled” poems we learned in English class are left outside the film. Instead we simply watch the plume put them on the page. The actor wrote them out himself.
The period was a terrifying time, with France -- not so far away -- busily decapitating its best and brightest, and prosperity flickering in and out for the newly developing “middle class.” Boys went to work at thirteen or earlier. Keats was trained as a doctor, in hopes of a stable income. Instead he threw over that intention in order to become a poet. Then the burdens of TB bore Keats and his brothers down into poverty and death. Keats went down writing, sustained in part by writer friends. Shelley is buried near him. Other writers were part of his circle of friends and even nursed him. Keats, in torturing pain, was denied opium by his friends, who feared he would commit suicide.
Exclusiveness of relationship was not addressed in this movie. In fact, the poem called “Bright Star” seems to have been written as much for the benefit of Fanny Brawne’s predecessor, Isabella Jones, as for Fanny. Another departure from fact is that though Fanny was in mourning (a formal state of dress and behavior) for six years, she married after twelve (she would have been thirty years old then), producing three children. She was not Emily Dickinson.
More than facts and dates, this film concentrates on place. Once the location was chosen, it was allowed to unfold as it was: a vale of bluebells, a field of naturalized daffodils, a forest of pale tree trunks. The idea of the duplex house allows the shared wall that joins/separates the bedrooms of Yeats and Fanny as a metaphor for the relationship. The idea of a romantic “conceit” is exploited when Fanny makes her bedroom into a butterfly refuge, not some kind of supernatural fantasy, but retaining the “bugness” of them: keeping them in jars with cheesecloth tied over the top, brushing them aside in order to open a door without crushing them, and finally, when despair sets in, carrying the winged debris out in dustpans and on trays. This is not a cheerful or escapist story.
This film is always “en famille” with the small cautions, holidays and vanities of a bourgeois household of limited means. The little red-haired girl called “Toots” blurts out what is not politely said. The weedy stalk of a boy named “Samuel” whose duty is to chaperone, grabs his stovepipe hat and stoically trails Fanny through her impetuous flights. A fond tuxedo cat is often present. The mother and family friends offer much wordless support as well as unheeded advice. Mr. Brown, in his anxious protection of Keats, says quite enough.
This is a way of life that I embrace and enact in my solitary way. I’ve witnessed enough mindless violence and forcing, enough of the attempt to nail everything down with facts and regulations. Now I want pastoral domesticity so that life can come not from me but through me. I’ve stopped trying to write. Now I just do it. It is a “negative capability.”