A few years ago in a bar, I proposed marriage to a man after he recited a Keats poem to me. An AC/DC cover band played loudly to a happily inebriated crowd and I stood there in the middle of it all and fell in love with an English professor from somewhere in the midwest who understood my love for English Romantic poets. Of course, he laughed off my antics and reminded me that he had a girlfriend (and my sister reminded me that I had had more than several gin & tonics that evening while easing me away from the scene).
Keats has always had a strange power over me and the ability to melt all sensibilities with a few words. I first read “The Eve of St. Agnes” in a college English class and immediately was intrigued by the passion of the language and intensity of the story. “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and especially “When I Have Fears” are, to me, some of the most intensely beautiful words ever crafted.
But Keats’ letters are what most capture my heart. Living in the early 1800s, plagued by the constant fear of disease and death, Keats’ words are fueled by the fear that he may not be able to get everything out of his head before he is stricken down. There is a sense of immediately and impatience that permeates his writing. Even in his love letters to his neighbor and love, Fanny Brawne, he senses that time is short between them. Perhaps it was this notion of impending death that served as the foundation for his genius. This man had no time to waste, and the determination to fit a lifetime of writing into 25 short years.
Just last year, Jane Campion directed an incredible film about Keats’ love affair with Fanny Brawne. Bright Star perfectly and brilliantly captures the intensity of Keats’ passion, both for this woman and for his art. It was amazing to me to watch this film. I was so familiar with the story and the characters involved, it was almost as if I was watching old friends come to life on the screen.
Any time I’m in London, I make a pilgrimage to visit the Keats House in Hampstead, where he lived from 1818-1820. I’ve been there four times now and have found it different each time. I’ll explain more in my next entry . . . for now I leave one of my favorite poems:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;–then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink