Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Re-evauating John Keats

I was fascinated by a film of Fanny Brawne, fiancee of poet John Keats - Jane Campion's touching TV drama "Bright Star".

Recent scholarship suggests that Fanny Brawne was more steadfast in her love for John Keats than even he was, for her. She was also his Muse.

Fanny seems to have been a woman of high and noble character. After grieving for Keats's untimely death at 26, for 12 years, she married, quite late, a sales agent and had children. But she always wore Keat's engagement ring - without telling her husband what it was.

By 1845, she saw her formerly unknown fiance become the world renowed Romantic Poet, regarded as second only to Shakespeare.  Nearing her death in the 1860s, she knew she owned thirty, highly valuable letters, proving their love. She made her children promise to publish them after her and her husband's death - but never to tell their father.

For me, it seems a pity that John Keats did not choose to stay in Hampstead and to die in her arms, instead of with Severn, in a still standing house on the Spanish Steps in Rome. But being a doctor, he would not have wanted her to contract tuberculosis, as he did nursing his brother, Tom.

My life was altered by reading Keat's poetry and letters, which are among the finest letters in English Literature. For me, Keats was the most spiritual of writers.  It was John Middleton Murray's observation that Keat "would have become a Christian if he had lived" (as William Wordsworth did) that was a major step on my own conversion to Christianity.

This suggested to me, then an atheist, that one moves from sensitive unbelief, to faith in Christ, as a kind of widely recognised "natural progression". Now I see that this is not necessarily true. In fact, Murray was not a Christian and what he said is not quite theologically correct.  According to the Bible, if Keats had been "going to become a Christian", he would have converted before he died.  This is the doctrine of election.

Well, who knows? I would like to think that, after he listened to the fountain on the Spanish steps through the open window, and after he said that his epitaph was "one whose name was writ in water", Keats turned to God.

If not, Keats died the highest of unbelieving souls, and for some literary types, in this modern secular age, he is still a major spiritual "stepping stone" to higher ways of seeing.

Did Fanny and impoverished Keats suspect their wider role, at their tragic parting?   Possibly, Fanny had an inkling later. Can any of us suspect the real hidden meaning, or role of our lives - and suffering?

"Bright Star" by John Keats:

Bright Star
Bright star, would I were steadfast 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 swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

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