Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
* * *
7Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house,
it would be utterly scorned
Song of Solomon 8:6a & 7
Poet John Keats could be the poster boy representing the popular cliché of the starving, short-lived artist (he died at the age of 25). The story begins in Hampstead England in 1818, a time when such poets as Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley were creating the poems we read in high school or college. Only Keats has not benefited from his first book of poems, hardly anyone buying it.
He lived with his devoted friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) in half of a duplex cottage, his landlady Mrs. Brawne (Kerry Fox) and her daughter Fanny (Abbie Cornish) living in the other half. Their first meeting is not auspicious, Fanny being outspoken and not caring for poetry, her interests being more in following fashion. However, she is drawn to him during the period when he is caring for his sick friend, their feelings for each other soon warming up. But not to the torrid level, this is early 19th century England. There are no bodice-ripping encounters so dear to the hearts of lovers of romantic fiction. The rigid rules of the age, as well as their consciences, are far thicker and higher than the thin wall separating them in the cottage. Keats is without any means of supporting a wife, as Mrs. Brawne is well aware of when she tells her daughter that the relationship is hopeless because he has “no living and no income.”
New Zealand director Jane Campion and the consummate actors, aided by photography that matches the beauty of Keats’ words, bring the story of star struck lovers beautifully to life in a film that deserves to reach an audience beyond the art house circuit. It is hard to accept now that few people in an age that prized poetry bought his book, even though its first poem begins with the memorable line “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”
The two live in hope until the consumption that has been plaguing him forces him to agree to the plan of his generous friends that he should travel to the better climate of Italy. Because of the etiquette of the day, it is not Fanny, but the faithful Brown who accompanies him. The night before his departure, Fanny says to him, “You know I would do anything,” to which Keats replies, “I have a conscience.” Wow, how is that when compared to the typical Hollywood romance film? (To which Jane Campion’s restrained filmmaking gives not an inch.)
Thus the lovers are unable to consummate their love, making one believe that the lines from his “Ode to a Grecian Urn” grew out of their bittersweet experience. Be sure to stay for the end credits to listen to the words of this immortal poem.
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, Though winning near the goal — yet, do not grieve; She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Thanks to this beautiful film many who have not yet read the poem will be aware of two fine people who “cannot fade” and ever will “be fair.”
1. How do you feel that such a gifted person should die so young? How is this a part of the mystique of artists of the Romantic era? What other talented persons that you know of died at an early age?
2. How do the works that they left behind validate Martin Luther king, Jr.’s famous words about it is not how long a person lives, but what the person accomplished that matters?
3. How is Charles brown a person of grace? Apparently a would-be poet himself, what does he apparently recognize as he spends almost all of his time and energy in serving his friend?
4. How does Keats bring Fanny out of her narrow interests in fashion and other lady-like interests? Despite a broken heart, how is she a better person for having loved the poet?
5. Where do you see the hand of God working in their lives, even though their hopes and dreams are not fulfilled?