The loveliest of love letters? Keats to his ‘Bright Star’

keatssevI have just had to empty and refill my bookcases, seeing them painted and replaced in our newly decorated dining room (which doubles up as a work space). So I have been able to take another look at my lovely array of books of John Keats‘s poetry and letters, biographies written over the past 150 years and critical discussion of his writing. I wanted to run away for a week and reread my favourites – there just doesn’t seem time to do them justice amongst the jumble of other things I do in the week to earn a living. At times of stress I regularly turn, in short bursts, to my copies of ‘The Letters’ and ‘The Poems’ of Keats,  and may fit in another viewing of Jane Campion’s film Bright Star , preventing as they do the pulling out of hair and the breaking of cups and dinner plates.

John Keats wrote the most striking letters – philosophical, romantic  and frankly heartbreaking. Many explain his poetic philosophy and add significantly to the power of his poetry, others are amusing and lighthearted. One I recently revisited would have many women swooning. It was written by Keats to Fanny Brawne in the summer of 1819, the year in which he wrote much of his best, and best known poetry. He had fallen deeply in love with Fanny over the previous six months and was spending the summer away from her on the Isle of Wight with his friend Charles Brown. In Bright Star, excerpts from this letter are read by Ben Whishaw, who plays Keats, as heard in this clip (although the images are not from the film):

However, it is wonderful to read the whole, veering as it does between barely inexpressible joy and a deep despair:

Postmark: Newport, July 3, 1819

Shanklin, Isle of Wight, Thursday

My dearest Lady — I am glad I had not an opportunity of sending off a Letter which I wrote for you on Tuesday night—’twas too much like one out of Rousseau’s Heloise. I am more reasonable this morning. The morning is the only proper time for me to write to a beautiful Girl whom I love so much: for at night, when the lonely day has closed, and the lonely, silent, unmusical Chamber is waiting to receive me as into a Sepulchre, then believe me my passion gets entirely the sway, then I would not have you see those Rhapsodies which I once thought it impossible I should ever give way to, and which I have often laughed at in another, for fear you should [think me] either too unhappy or perhaps a little mad.

I am now at a very pleasant Cottage window, looking onto a beautiful hilly country, with a glimpse of the sea; the morning is very fine. I do not know how elastic my spirit might be, what pleasure I might have in living here and breathing and wandering as free as a stag about this beautiful Coast if the remembrance of you did not weigh so upon me I have never known any unalloy’d Happiness for many days together: the death or sickness of some one has always spoilt my hours—and now when none such troubles oppress me, it is you must confess very hard that another sort of pain should haunt me.

Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom. Will you confess this in the Letter you must write immediately, and do all you can to console me in it—make it rich as a draught of poppies to intoxicate me—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. 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. But however selfish I may feel, I am sure I could never act selfishly: as I told you a day or two before I left Hampstead, I will never return to London if my Fate does not turn up Pam or at least a Court-card. Though I could centre my Happiness in you, I cannot expect to engross your heart so entirely—indeed if I thought you felt as much for me as I do for you at this moment I do not think I could restrain myself from seeing you again tomorrow for the delight of one embrace.

But no—I must live upon hope and Chance. In case of the worst that can happen, I shall still love you—but what hatred shall I have for another!

Some lines I read the other day are continually ringing a peal in my ears:

To see those eyes I prize above mine own
Dart favors on another—
And those sweet lips (yielding immortal nectar)
Be gently press’d by any but myself—
Think, think Francesca, what a cursed thing
It were beyond expression!

J.

Do write immediately. There is no Post from this Place, so you must address Post Office, Newport, Isle of Wight. I know before night I shall curse myself for having sent you so cold a Letter; yet it is better to do it as much in my senses as possible. Be as kind as the distance will permit to your

Present my Compliments to your mother, my love to Margaret and best remembrances to your Brother—if you please so.

Having regained composure after having her breath taken away by the longing expressed in this letter it would be a cool woman who didn’t relish these words, but the intensity might also be a little frightening. Fanny was in her late teens; Keats just 24; his references to loss – the sepulchre, the death or sickness of loved ones, the draught of poppies, three days of delight as butterflies – are I think so very romantic, but quite chilling. Keats asked that all Fanny’s letters to him be burned after his death, a request his friends met. We have no idea of Fanny’s response, but there is a sense in his subsequent letters that whatever words she wrote back to him were never enough to convince him that she loved him as much in return. I believe, though, that the fact that she nursed him in the weeks before his final voyage to Rome (dealing with the consequent gossip that such an arrangement would have attracted); didn’t marry for seven years after Keats’ death; wore his ring on a chain around her neck all her life and kept every one of his letters, contradicts the insecurities Keats felt (no doubt made worse by his failing health) and I for one have always admired her.

When these letters were published a few years after Fanny’s death in 1865, Keats’ reputation was damaged – the Victorians found their sensual language and occasionally angry intensity disturbing. Fanny, until then completely unknown to Keats’ growing readership, was not seen as a fit object of his adoration. However, this view has changed in recent years and Bright Star certainly went some way, albeit fictitiously, towards giving us an understanding of the relationship. There is much we will never know, but I for one find the romance deeply moving.

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