Adding to the syllabus; John Keats and his Bright Star

by g


Letter VIII. from Bright Star by John Keats

25 College Street

[Postmark, 13 October, 1819.]

My dearest Girl,

This moment I have set myself to copy some verses out fair.  I cannot proceed with any degree of content.  I must write you a line or two and see if that will assist in dismissing you from my Mind for ever so short a time.  Upon my Soul I can think of nothing else – The time is passed when I had power to advise and warn you again[s]t the unpromising morning of my Life – My love has made me selfish.  I cannot exist without you – I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again – my Life seems to stop there – I see no further.  You have absorb’d me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving – I should be exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you.  I should be afraid to separate myself far from you.  My sweet Fanny, will your heart never change?  My love, will it?  I have no limit now to my love – Your note came in just here – I cannot be happier away from you – ‘T is richer than an Argosy of Pearles¹. Do not threat me even in jest. I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion – I have shudder’d at it – I shudder no more – I could be martyr’d for my Religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you.  My Creed is Love and you are its only tenet – You have ravish’d me away by a Power I cannot resist: and yet I could resist till I saw you; and even since I have seen you I have endeavored often “to reason against the reasons of my Love.”  I can do that no more – the pain would be too great – My Love is selfish – I cannot breathe without you.

Yours for ever
John Keats


1. A large merchant ship, especially one with rich cargo.

To add to our syllabus I read the collection of letters from John Keats to Fanny Brawne entitled Bright Star and also watched the movie by the same name. In both it became quite evident that John Keats’ poetic genius found ground to run on with the powerful idea that love to Keats was the highest of all aspirations, while poetry seemed only to try and mimic or reflect that love onto the page. While he died thinking himself much a failure as a poet, the love that he had for Fanny Brawne, and that she had for him, was not only something that calmed him down so that he died somewhat peacefully, but was also the fuel for his verse. For the syllabus I not only want to add my favorite of his letters in which he famously says that love is his sole religion, but also the actual poem that starts Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art– which is thought to be about Fanny Brawne.

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 Eremite²,

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.


2. A Christian hermit or recluse.

Both are absolutely beautiful and both speak wonders as to the abilities of Keats to express his emotions not only in the absolutes of prose but in the ambiguities of verse. It has become somewhat of a cliche to talk about the romantics from thoughts centered around their love lives, but it seems that for Keats the sublime rested in Fanny Brawne’s figure. And his love for her seems so pure and genuine that it would be difficult for me now to not read his poetry with her in mind. The common strand that runs through both of these works is one about how Keats saw himself partly dead even when he was alive. That he knew himself to be destined for a life cut short. And it was Fanny Brawne’s affections that made him the most alive in the short amount of years he was creating literature. He writes, “I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion – I have shudder’d at it – I shudder no more – I could be martyr’d for my Religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you.” This makes me feel that above all, Keats’ God (if you want to put it that way) was the union between Brawne and himself. Poetry thus becomes simply a recording of this divine emotion. At one point in the film Keats is trying to teach Fanny what poetry means so he says that the poet is the most unpoetic figure on the earth. That he is nothing. Keats saw himself simply as an empty vessel in which the poetic muse would speak for him. It becomes quite obvious when reading his work with this biographical context that Fanny was Keats’ primary muse. In the poem Bright Star, which as the movie ends is spoken by a black dressed Brawne as she walks into the British countryside, this idea is heightened to poetic terms with the final couplet; “Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, And so live ever–or else swoon to death.” Keats seemed to see himself as dead without Fanny, and the most alive with Fanny. It seems cliche to say that Brawne was the Bright Star of Keats’ short life but she truly was. The letters he wrote to her (sadly all of her letters that she wrote have been destroyed) were some of the most romantically beautiful that I have ever read. Finally, poetry is not simply a vocation, but a way in which someone can become immortal in the thoughts of those that loved him, and those readers that come to love him down the line when they see his most pure and genuine emotions. For this addition to the syllabus I transcribed the letter from the book Bright Star, and the poem from watching the movie.