Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bright Star vs. This Living Hand

The poem that has always characterized the John Keats/Fanny Brawne romance in my mind is not Bright Star, the title of the movie to be released in October 2009 on Keats/Brawne, but this one...

This Living Hand

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed--see here it is--
I hold it towards you.

My understanding of the Keats/Brawne relationship is that he was infatuated and she disdainful. The movie trailer suggests that she did love him, but turned away from marriage with him for practical reasons. I never thought that was the case--I always understood that his love for her was unrequited, and This Living Hand, has an immaturity to it that speaks more of infatuation and disillusionment and anger at her indifference than anything else. There is some speculation that the person addressed in the poem is collectively the critics who were harsh towards Keats. If that is the case, then the immaturity and anger I felt the poem expressed becomes pettishness that is distasteful. I'm staying with the camp that says it was directed to Fanny.

I love Keats--his odes and sonnets are among my favorite literature of all time, but I hate to see filmmakers insist on reducing all forms of genius to Hallmark love stories. I can't buy that Keats' prowess as a poet stemmed in any way from his relationship with Fanny Brawne any more than I can buy that Jane Austen's prowess as a novelist stemmed in any way from her relationship with Tom LeFroy.

Somehow our culture has reached the conclusion that love is the only emotion that matters, and so all artists's work must be related to love. When love stories don't exist, they are created for the poor souls who apparently lived without a life-defining love story. Frankly, I think a movie about Keats's relationship with other poets who did truly shape his career would be not only more accurate but more interesting. Does every story have to be a love story?

I have yet to see Becoming Jane, though my curiousity is starting to win out over common sense. I'm not sure about Bright Star. Certainly based on the trailer, I won't like it. Fanny Brawne was not Keats's bright star or guiding light--she was a girl he mooned over and who didn't much care for him. Nor did she inspire his greatest works--it took a nightingale, an urn, and autumn to do that. Bright Star, even if it is about her, is good, but not great. This Living Hand is not even that good.

For the record, here is Bright Star:

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art--
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.


  1. I've read different things about KEATS/BROWNE relationship. I know he decided not to read her letters once he was very ill in Rome and refused to write to her. This is what they told me when I visited the Keats & Shelley Memorial House in Piazza di Spagna (Rome) where John died.
    She had given him the paper to write to her and a marble oval, used at that time to cool high temperature. He left with his friend, painter John Severn, but he was quarantined for several days at Naples port so when he finally arrived in Rome his health was seriously compromised. He lived at “La Casina Rossa”, next to the Spanish Steps at Piazza di Spagna for about 3 months, dying there on the 23rd of February 1821, at 25. He never wrote to Fanny nor read her letters but wanted them to be buried with him with a curl of her hair. On his grave, at Testaccio Protestant Cemetery in Rome, no name nor date were written, just these words: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. From the letters Fanny later wrote to her sister, we know she remained deeply in love with the poet. She accepted to get married only after 9 years from his death and had three children. She kept Keats’s letters till her death - secretly from her husband.
    This is what I have in my sources ( a leaflet from the Memorial House).
    It's always so interesting to read your posts! Cheers,J.!

  2. I didn't know there was a movie coming out about Keats. I think I'd better read a Keats bio first before seeing the movie, if I do at all. I enjoyed Becoming Jane, but I managed that by pretending it wasn't supposed to be Jane at all and was just a fictional construct.

  3. Maria - how great that you got to visit the Keats & Shelley Memorial House. It's on my list for whenever I get the opportunity to visit Rome! I confess that my view of the Keats/Brawne relationship is heavily biased from my English professors when I was in college, who really pained Brawne as unworthy of Keats's adoration. It's amazing what sticks from one's education, isn't it?

    Dorothy - I have heard from most Janeite friends who enjoyed BJ that they took the approach that you did--it's a fine movie, but not a good biopic. I sort of feel that way about the Rozema MP film--a good movie, but a bad adaptation :)

  4. I cannot get over how upsetting Becoming Jane's moral message is - basically that Wilhoughby is a perfectly nice, responsible guy, that Jane Austen needed a man to write great literature, and that Pride and Prejudice was all she ever wrote.

    Not to mention how much I dislike the leads, and wish the secondary cast (Anna Maxwell Martin and James Cromwell especially) had declined this horror.