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Keats lives! (for a while)

By Abigail Deutsch

John Keats Bright Star poetry

Poor fellow! His was an untoward fate:—
‘Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,
Should let itself be snuffed out by an Article.

—Lord Byron

Keats didn’t actually die because of a bad review. But if he had, how would he feel now that Bright Star, Jane Campion’s film about him, is garnering so much positive press?

Being dead, he probably wouldn’t feel much of anything. If he weren’t dead, though, his waxen cheeks would flush, his vague eyes focus, his chapped lips tremble. He’d study Entertainment Weekly and Time Out and The San Francisco Chronicle. He’d linger over the blog entries, gasping with pleasure – or horror? “O, for a glass of vintage!” he would whisper, emotions high. It would take him so long to read all the reviews that, unfortunately, he would die before he finished.

And so it is in memoriam to John Keats (1795-2009) that I offer a round-up of numerous, luminous Bright Star reviews. Your blogger found a total of 55, terminating her search only when she could no longer focus her eyes.

(Scouring the Internet for Keatsian kudos, I noted another, perhaps related phenomenon: Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, a novel about a poet, has inspired at least 38 articles, including ours. Yes, I counted those too. Perhaps the public’s supposed skittishness about poetry fades when novelists and filmmakers use non-poetic forms to enter the poetic realm?)

Out of respect for the recently departed Keats, I have focused on portrayals of the poet himself, aiming to select the most flattering commentary possible. But out of respect for Truth, which, as you know, is Beauty, I have also tried to maintain objectivity. Here are film reviewers on the poet’s latest reincarnation:

“Self-important scribbler….Keats is clearly a proto–rock star—driven, yet lovable, and always attuned to himself….Artfully tousled hair.” – J. Hoberman, The Village Voice

“Tubercular young man…who spends his days sitting with a friend in a darkened room in his house in London or wandering Hampstead Heath in a seeming trance.” – David Denby, The New Yorker

“A bit of a slacker, a little too quick to have his friends pay the bills while he gazes mopily into the distance.” – Stephen Whitty, The Star-Ledger

“Struggling with money, bad reviews, and poor health….Pallid.” – Lou Lumenick, The New York Post

“Pale, intense and faintly wasted.” – David Gritten, The Daily Telegraph

“Penniless and crumpled.” – James Christopher, The Times

“He broods; he coughs (signaling the tuberculosis that will soon kill him); he looks dreamily at flowers and trees and rocks.

“But these moments, rather than feeling studied or obvious, arrive with startling keenness and disarming beauty, much in the way that Keats’s own lyrics do. His verses can at first seem ornate and sentimental, but on repeated readings, they have a way of gaining in force and freshness. The music is so intricate and artificial, even as the emotions it carries seem natural and spontaneous.” – A.O. Scott, The New York Times

Comments (8)

  • On September 19, 2009 at 5:09 pm Terreson wrote:

    It is a good story line isn’t it? A love out of which came that extraordinary poem, La Belle Dame Sans Merci. “Everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.” That is what Keats said about Fanny Brawne in one of his last letters.

    If anybody from filmdom is here I got two other favorite stories involving poets and love. Abelard and Heloise is the first. Yes, Peter Abelard was a poet whose songs to her got sung in Parisian streets by Parisian students when the affair was ongoing, before he got castrated and shunned. And I’ve always thought the student became a greater, closer thinker than the teacher. Then there is Goethe’s last great, unrequited, love, when he was an old man, for a Polish-German 18 year old girl. A journalist would later ask Ulrike would she have married Goethe had her family, his duke, and society not stood in the way. She replied, of course. They say the poems that came from his love for her, his “Trilogy of Passion”, are Europe’s greatest lyric poems. What a notion, huh? Lyric poetry made by an old man, and not sentimental, grounded in the here and now. Come to think of it, Yeats was an old man too, and finally married and settled, when he made his best lyric poetry.

    Yep. These are also stories I would take on were I a film maker. And with plot lines so rich and layered you can’t make them up.


  • On September 20, 2009 at 6:07 pm Terreson wrote:

    Goodness. Who could possibly give my above post a thumbs down? So pernicious this practice is. So it goes.

    There was something an editor said about Goethe that sticks to me like honey on the comb. Goethe, the great man, the scientist, the hydraulics engineer, the man who took on Newton’s theory about light, the inventor of the theory of biological morphology, the discoverer of the anatomical link between humans and other primates, the statesman, the one man Napolean tipped to, the novelist, the poet. In the end, the editor said, what saved Goethe (and I think he meant what saved the poet from his Faustian self) was his willingness to love. That is what I know.


  • On September 20, 2009 at 8:52 pm Rebecca Wolff wrote:

    I cannot WAIT to see this movie.

  • On September 21, 2009 at 11:15 am EricD wrote:

    Let’s not leave out reviews like this:

    “Bright Star seems to be a lot about very little, a miniature projected to Imax size. So much goes unspoken that what remains seems almost trite.”–Hollywood and Fine

    “Writer-director Jane Campion approaches the tale with an artiste’s respectful solemnity, but it too often comes off like Twilight transplanted across oceans and centuries.”–TimeOut New York

    “A thing of beauty is a joy forever, but a thing of plodding inevitability is just two hours of my time amiably wasted.”–A.V. Club

  • On September 21, 2009 at 11:36 am Joel Brouwer wrote:

    It’s a pity Campion’s *The Portrait of a Lady* (1996) seems so thoroughly unavailable on DVD. Brilliant movie, very unfairly pilloried at the time.

  • On September 21, 2009 at 9:49 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Poems dedicated to our beloved John Keats


    The young Endymion sleeps Endymion’s sleep;
    The shepherd-boy whose tale was left half told!
    The solemn grove uplifts its shield of gold
    To the red rising moon, and loud and deep
    The nightingale is singing from the steep;
    It is midsummer, but the air is cold;
    Can it be death? Alas, beside the fold
    A shepherd’s pipe lies shattered near his sheep.
    Lo! in the moonlight gleams a marble white,
    On which I read: “Here lieth one whose name
    Was writ in water.” And was this the meed
    Of his sweet singing? Rather let me write:
    “The smoking flax before it burst to flame
    Was quenched by death, and broken the bruised reed.”

    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

    John Keats

    Who killed John Keats?
    ‘I,’ says the Quarterly,
    So savage and Tartarly;
    ”Twas one of my feats.’

    Who shot the arrow?
    ‘The poet-priest Milman
    (So ready to kill man),
    Or Southey or Barrow.’

    George Gordon Byron, Lord Byron

    The Grave Of Keats

    RID of the world’s injustice, and his pain,
    He rests at last beneath God’s veil of blue:
    Taken from life when life and love were new
    The youngest of the martyrs here is lain,
    Fair as Sebastian, and as early slain.
    No cypress shades his grave, no funeral yew,
    But gentle violets weeping with the dew
    Weave on his bones an ever-blossoming chain.
    O proudest heart that broke for misery!
    O sweetest lips since those of Mitylene!
    O poet-painter of our English Land!
    Thy name was writ in water—-it shall stand:
    And tears like mine will keep thy memory green,
    As Isabella did her Basil-tree.

    Oscar Wilde

    To John Keats

    Great master! Boyish, sympathetic man!
    Whose orbed and ripened genius lightly hung
    From life’s slim, twisted tendril and there swung
    In crimson-sphered completeness; guardian
    Of crystal portals through whose openings fan
    The spiced winds which blew when earth was young,
    Scattering wreaths of stars, as Jove once flung
    A golden shower from heights cerulean.
    Crumbled before thy majesty we bow.
    Forget thy empurpled state, thy panoply
    Of greatness, and be merciful and near;
    A youth who trudged the highroad we tread now
    Singing the miles behind him; so may we
    Faint throbbings of thy music overhear.

    Amy Lowell

    For the Anniversary of John Keats’ Death

    At midnight, when the moonlit cypress trees
    Have woven round his grave a magic shade,
    Still weeping the unfinished hymn he made,
    There moves fresh Maia, like a morning breeze
    Blown over jonquil beds when warm rains cease.
    And stooping where her poet’s head is laid,
    Selene weeps, while all the tides are stayed,
    And swaying seas are darkened into peace.
    But they who wake the meadows and the tides
    Have hearts too kind to bid him wake from sleep,
    Who murmurs sometimes when his dreams are deep,
    Startling the Quiet Land where he abides,
    And charming still sad-eyed Persephone
    With visions of the sunny earth and sea.

    Sara Teasdale

    What Kisses Had John Keats?

    I scanned two lines with some surmise
    As over Keats I chanced to pore:
    ‘And there I shut her wild, wild eyes
    With kisses four.’

    Says I: ‘Why was it only four,
    Not five or six or seven?
    I think I would have made it more,–
    Even eleven.

    ‘Gee! If she’d lured a guy like me
    Into her gelid grot
    I’d make that Belle Dame sans Merci
    Sure kiss a lot.

    ‘Them poets have their little tricks;
    I think John counted kisses for,
    Not two or three or five or six
    To rhyme with “sore.”‘

    Robert W. Service


    Writing a poem about sunset
    in the burning ochre light
    about the victory at twilight that
    proves the value of our fight.
    Unexpectedly, the light was gone
    and I couldn’t see to write.
    Then night, and I never finished
    the poem.

    Gary B. Fitzgerald

    To John

    “Who most inspired your poetry?
    What poets were you influenced by?”

    Well, I replied, I’d have to say
    it was Jackson Pollock. And sea gulls.
    Sailing ships and timber wolves
    and everyone who ever died.

    (Reality itself is not poetic,
    just its origin and fruits)
    The seed and the flower.

    I don’t understand, you said.

    Being, my friend! Being dead!
    Just this. Who cares why?
    That’s what inspires!
    The physics of quantum,
    the quality of light,
    all the tears that were ever cried,
    the emptiness and the power.
    The beauty of the mystery.

    I still don’t understand.

    That’s it! Not understanding!
    Negative capability.

    Gary B. Fitzgerald

  • On September 24, 2009 at 8:16 pm Terreson wrote:

    Good on you, Gary.


  • On September 25, 2009 at 1:50 am Eileen Myles wrote:

    As he wrote in a note, “I think I shall be among the English poets after my death.”

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, September 18th, 2009 by Abigail Deutsch.