“Write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been. For myself I know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair.”
—John Keats to Fanny Brawne, 1819
TORONTO — Young love would be the only love the British poet John Keats would ever know.
The author of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” met his 18-year-old Hampstead neighbor, Fanny Brawne, when he was 23. He was not initially enthralled; in a letter to his brother, he described her as an ill-behaved minx “not from any innate vice but from a penchant she has for acting stylishly.”
But soon the pair were passionately in love — and soon after, tuberculosis (then called consumption) would claim Keats’ brief, vivid life.
Their story is eloquently told in “Bright Star,” the new film from Australian writer/director Jane Campion (“The Piano”). It was born, as so many films are, from pure happenstance. Wanting to learn a little more about Keats’ poetry, Campion several years ago picked up Andrew Motion’s biography of the poet. Halfway through the book, Fanny appears — and Campion immediately became enthralled by their story.
“It wasn’t as I imagined,” remembered Campion, in Toronto earlier this month to introduce her film at the Toronto International Film Festival. “He wasn’t a romantic guy, he wasn’t looking for love, he’s someone who felt himself rather unfit for it, and the whole business of watching his friends fall for girls seemed a bit ridiculous to him. So it was a shock to see him fall the way he did.”
Keats’ letters to Fanny have survived (though Fanny’s responses to them have not), and Campion read them — “chilled,” she said, by the tragedy of it. “The pain for them, and the separation that was in force between them — it just completely undid me, I was completely moved by it. That they were going to have to lose each other at the same time they found each other, and Keats has found his voice and his life. I was in awe of their courage. It’s unbelievable what they went through.”
“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter ...”
—Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
Their love was bright-burning and brief; nothing could come of it, and the two knew it. Fanny’s mother, fond as she was of her neighbor, wished a far better marriage for her daughter than a consumptive, penniless poet. Shortly before his 24th birthday, Keats gave Fanny a ring and vowed to marry her someday — but the engagement was kept secret, and Fanny did not wear the ring in public.
Their time together was in drawing rooms or in walks on the nearby Hampstead Heath; more often they were separated, by walls (they lived for a time in adjoining houses) or by continents.
An ailing Keats left England in 1820 for a sojourn in Italy that he hoped would improve his health. It did not, and he died there, just 25, and is buried in Rome’s Protestant graveyard. Cats roam near his tombstone, which reads, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
He is remembered, despite his youth, as one of the great poets of history; a writer able to brilliantly translate pure sensation into dreamlike words. Campion noted that Keats wrote that the poet is the least poetic of creatures; he is a medium, losing himself in the moment.
History has forgotten Fanny (Frances) Brawne, who as a young woman loved fashion, dancing and witty conversation. After Keats’ death, she wore widow’s black for several years and spent many hours rereading his letters and wandering on the Heath at night.
She would later marry and have two children, but wore Keats’ ring for the rest of her life. “They think I have (forgotten him),” she wrote to Keats’ sister, with whom she maintained a long friendship. “But I have not got over it and never shall.”
Campion, who read the correspondence between Fanny and Keats’ sister, described Brawne’s writings as “so mature and measured, so kind and funny and gentle.” But she didn’t come across the letters until after she’d already found a way of creating Fanny’s voice.
“One of my big guides was a description Keats gives (in a letter), beginning ‘Shall I give you Miss Brawne?’ It’s very critical, he described her in kind of clinical detail.”
That passage, it turned out, was what made Campion want to make the movie — it was “kind of smashing of all cliches about the way their romance was. I think actually they were really honest with each other, and I think honesty is really the most seductive of all things.”
“To be happy with you seems an impossibility! It requires a luckier Star than mine.”
—Keats, in his last letter to Fanny, 1820