February 24, 2021

Poetry’s Bright Star — 200 Years Later John Keats Shines On

By Stuart Mitchner

“Portrait of John Keats on his death-bed in Rome,” by Joseph Severn

Though a quarrel in the Streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine; the commonest Man shows a grace in his quarrel.

—John Keats (1795-1821)

Why begin a column about friendship, love, death, and poetry with reference to the positive energies displayed in a street quarrel? You might also question the timing of a tribute to the poet of “beauty and truth” and “fellowship divine” when America is still living in the shadow of the monumental lie that led to the January 6th insurrection, not to mention the monumental truth that more Americans have died of the coronavirus in the past year than in two world wars and Vietnam. 

The fact of the moment is that snow is falling, again, as I write, and that John Keats died in Rome 200 years ago yesterday. And the monumentally unfactual word that comes to mind when watching fresh fallen snow is poetry. If you take some liberties with Keats’s theory that the poet is the most unpoetical of God’s creatures, with no self, foul or fair, no identity, “continually in for and filling some other Body,” sun, moon, sea, then it’s easy to say the poet is the snow, that it’s freshly fallen Keats giving grace and mystery to the day.

Five hours later the morning’s poetry has turned to slush and I’m reading “Bright Star,” one of the last poems the unpoetical poet ever completed, a sonnet that begins over our prosaic heads, poetical to a faretheewell, so sculpted and lofty, with “Eremite” pulled out of the poet’s grab bag to rhyme with “night,” and the poetry of falling snow reduced to “a new soft-fallen mask” to rhyme with “task.” But all the pomp and circumstance vanishes when the poet comes down to earth with the “soft fall and swell” of his fair love’s breast, “Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, / And so live ever — or else swoon to death.”

So ends Jane Campion’s biopic Bright Star (2009), the film and the poem’s last words both beautifully, brokenly uttered by Keats’s grieving Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) as she walks into the snowy dusk on Hampstead Heath. Reading about the poet’s last hours in Robert Gittings’s acclaimed 1968 biography, I was reminded of the most striking scene in the film — the moment Fanny is told of Keats’s death. Rushing from the parlor to the stairs, she holds the bannister for support, she’s lost, she’s falling, turning one way, then another, groping with her hands, helplessly pleading, supplicating, suffocated, bent double, brought to her knees, jabbing one hand toward her chest, calling for help, choking, “I can’t breathe!” Only when she’s being held and lifted and sustained by her mother does the wrenching visceral misery of the seizure begin to resemble an actor’s performative hysteria, except that by now the force of the fit has generated so much breathless momentum there’s no relief until the abrupt cut to the next scene. Seconds later she’s a lone figure walking on the snowclad heath, whispering the sonnet so thoughtfully, so tenderly, that even the rhetorical formality of the opening lines live with love as the poet becomes star, night, nature, snow, human shores, mountains and moors.

“Bright Star” (Co-production United Kingdom-United States-Australia-France; Pathé Renn Productions, Screen Australia, BBC Films, UK Film Council)

A Deathbed Sketch

For almost a year now I’ve been in coronavirus exile from my desk in Kingston. Right now I’m forming a mental picture of the bulletin board I used to see two to three times a week. As work space bulletin boards go, it’s fairly typical — a calendar (months out of date): photos of cats, wife, son; and son’s artwork (album covers for imaginary rock groups). Less typical is the postcard of Joseph Severn’s deathbed sketch of Keats push-pinned at the bottom, in my line of sight, which is where I’ve kept it, whenever possible, even since I bought it, at 19, after visiting the house where he died.

In his biography, Robert Gittings describes Severn keeping a bedside vigil “day and night” after “stringing up a set of candles, so that as one guttered it lit the other.” At 3 a.m. on the morning of January 28, 1821, Severn sketched  Keats “to keep himself awake” and wrote below it, “A deathly sweat was on him all this night.” Keats’s head “cast a shadow on the wall in the light that flickered from the little fireplace with its decoration of marble lions.”

On the night of February 14, Keats told Severn that he wanted his gravestone to bear the words, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” All the while he was holding the large oval carnelian stone given to him by Fanny Brawne, “shifting it from one fevered palm to the other, but never putting it down.” After February 19, a calm came over him, “astonishing Severn.” The “ideal of disinterestedness” Keats had sought “all his mature life seemed achieved. As he had done in the crisis of life, he now found comfort in the face of death by identifying himself with another person …. His essential belief in the poet’s view of life saved him now in death.”

Toward the end, Keats asked Severn if he’d ever seen anyone die. If not, “well then I pity you poor Severn.” Keats was thinking of the long days and nights he spent nursing his younger brother, Tom, who had died of consumption. The experience that inspired some of the most memorable lines in “Ode to a Nightingale” (“Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies”) almost undoubtedly infected Keats with the disease that took his life on February 23, 1821.

The Fighter

The “quarrel in the Streets” epigraph is from Keats’s February 14-May 3, 1819 letter to his brother and sister-in-law George and Georgiana. Growing up in the rough and tumble East End of London, Keats was known for his “violent temperament” and “the see-saw of his behaviour … always in extremes,” sometimes taking part in fights at school, where he once attacked a teacher. According to Gittings, Keats’s taller, longer-limbed brother George would sometimes be called on to pin him down until his anger “had exhausted itself.”

Another biographer, Nicholas Roe, says Keats measured “his poetic ‘reach’ like a boxer landing a jab,” and thought of his long poem “Endymion” as a bout in the ring, the “boyish game at full-length.”

“Wherein lies Happiness?”

In fact, love and friendship were the subject of the 70 lines of “Endymion” I typed on my high-school-graduation-present Olympia, along with the Odes “On a Grecian Urn” and “To a Nightingale,” and carried in my wallet, to be read during long waits for rides on the road to and from India. The passage from “Endymion” that kept me company begins with a question, “Wherein lies happiness?” The answer is “fellowship divine, / A fellowship with essence; till we shine, / Full alchemiz’d, and free of space.” What energized me had nothing to do with combat in the ring, but the companionable spirit of lines like “that moment have we stept / Into a sort of oneness, and our state / Is like a floating spirit’s,” leading to “the chief intensity: the crown of these,” which is “made of love and friendship, and sits high / Upon the forehead of humanity.” At “the tip-top, / There hangs by unseen film, an orbed drop / Of light, and that is love: its influence, / Thrown in our eyes, genders a novel sense, / At which we start and fret; till in the end, / Melting into its radiance, we blend, / Mingle, and so become a part of it.”

The lines that had to be read aloud, where the poetry swept you up like a force of nature, begin (minus the line breaks) — “who, of men can tell that flowers would bloom, or that green fruit would swell to melting pulp, that fish would have bright mail, the earth its dower of river, wood, and vale, the meadows runnels, runnels pebble-stones, the seed its harvest, or the lute its tones, tones ravishment, or ravishment its sweet, if human souls did never kiss and greet?”

Something to Fear

At 4:25 p.m., rioters outside the Capitol building beat police officers using American flags.

Reading this sentence in Monday’s New York Times sent me back to a passage from my Halloween column on Keats’s birthday, October 31, 2018: “My wife and I had been about to take a favorite walk along the lake, it was late afternoon. As we were parking, we saw a group of people heading toward the same path, maybe as many as 20, moving in a straggling line, not quite a parade. Thinking that we’d follow along behind once they’d passed, I was on my way out of the car when my wife urgently motioned for me to get back in. I followed her gaze to a man at the rear of the procession who was carrying a huge American flag and staring right at me. He did not look friendly. The massive flag ended the notion of an innocent nature walk. I got back in the car and we drove to another lakeside spot, saying nothing about what we’d seen until much later. How strange, to think that an American flag could have become something to fear.

 In a December 1817 letter to his brothers Tom and George, Keats observes that “The excellence of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth.”

Note: Disagreeables evaporated for me a few minutes ago when I discovered that Abbie Cornish is not only a gifted actress but a rapper. If you want evidence of Fanny Brawne’s “fine energies,” I recommend a YouTube trip from Bright Star to “Dusk: Way Back Home.”