Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art--As anyone who has visited this blog for any length of time knows, John Keats is a favored poet here. Seeing the film Bright Star, which offers a glimpse into Keats' last years, has added a dimension to my appreciation of his poetry. According to Poets.org:
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors--
No--yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever--or else swoon to death.
A portrait of love and loss, Jane Campion's film Bright Star chronicles the tragic love affair between John Keats and his neighbor, Fanny Brawne, throughout the years in which Keats wrote several of the most celebrated poems of the Romantic period. Told from Brawne's perspective on the romance, the film not only reveals the evolution of their young love, but traces Brawne's introduction and immersion into Keats's world of poetry, beginning with apathy and ending with passionate involvement.
Though at the time the lovers meet in 1818 Keats has already established himself in the literary world, his career does not afford him the financial means to marry. Knowing this, Brawne's interaction with Keats is limited, so she injects herself into his life by feigning an interest in poetry.
One of the most intimate early scenes of the relationship takes place over an impromptu poetry lesson, though Keats is suspicious of Brawne. When she asks for an introduction concerning "the craft of poetry," Keats dismisses the notion: "Poetic craft is a carcass, a sham. If poetry doesn't come as naturally as leaves to a tree, then it better not come at all."
As the conversation continues, however, Brawne earns Keats's trust, and he offers a more useful explanation: "A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it's to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery."
From that point on, Brawne develops an obsession with poetry—mostly Keats's own poems—and occasionally recites favorite verses from memory. It is through Brawne that much of the poetry of the film reveals itself, either from her memory, or read to her by Keats.
Poems excerpted in the film include the book-length sequence Endymion, "When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be," "The Eve of St. Agnes, section XXIII, [Out went the taper as she hurried in]," "Ode to a Nightingale," "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," and the title poem, "Bright Star," which Campion depicts as having been written with Brawne as Keats's muse, though the historical evidence is inconclusive.
I enjoyed Bright Star much more than Jane Campion's other films, finding in it a simplicity that only a master filmmaker can achieve. To quote from a review on the blog Ripple Effects:
Campion has created on screen the dazzling visuals of the master painters. There are numerous Vermeer moments in the interior shots, all done by the window with natural light seeping in as Fanny sews, makes her laces, reads love letters. Outdoor scenes are a natural cinemascape reminiscence of impressionist vision. Like the paintings of Monet and Seurat, hazy and dreamlike, they effectively convey the illusive union the young lovers achingly long for but is teasingly placed out of their reach.
Although never consummated, their passion for each other is no less ablaze. The film is a clear statement that love is not synonymous with nudity and sex on screen. Campion has depicted their passionate ardor with sensitivity and restraints. There are moments of utter quietness, for love needs no language. There are scenes adorned with melodious vocals and instrumentals, augmenting the yearning within. Campion is a master of cinematic effects.
For anyone who enjoys love stories, Bright Star is one of the most romantic films that I have ever seen. Keats and Fanny appear to have little in common on the surface. However, Fanny pours as much attention and artistry into her sewing projects as Keats does into his poems. Both are craftsmen, she of silks and patterns and he of words. Their brief relationship, which they craft with humor, kindness, and devotion, is the most beautiful work of all. The impossibility of their love gives it a poignancy that is genuinely heartbreaking. In the face of death the young lovers' attachment is all the more desperate. Nevertheless, Keats refuses to bed his bride-to be, saying "I have a conscience," knowing that the price to pay for a momentary pleasure could be high indeed, especially for Fanny. It is that self-denial that lends a power to the story, making the final scenes almost too agonizing for words. The last moments, when Fanny walks through the snowy woods dressed in black and reciting the poem "Bright Star," has a loveliness as rare and exquisite as Keats' poetry itself.
Save it for me, sweet love! though music breathe Voluptuous visions into the warm air, Though swimming through the dance’s dangerous wreath, Be like an April day, Smiling and cold and gay, A temperate lily, temperate as fair; Then, heaven! there will be A warmer June for me.
~ from "To Fanny" by John Keats