Bright Star: Love Letters and Poems of John Keats to Fanny Brawne

Bright Star: Love Letters and Poems of John Keats to Fanny Brawne

John Keats (31 October 1795 – 23 February 1821) is regarded as one of the key figures of the Romantic Movement. During his short life, the poet produced a series of odes, which remain “among the most popular poems in English Literature”. However, he received several critical attacks from his contemporaries and it was not until the latter part of the nineteenth century that his work began to be recognized. Keats had a major influence on poets such as Alfred Tennyson and Wilfred Owen and his letters are “among the most celebrated by any writer”.

Bright Star contains 13 poems and 37 letters that  bear witness to the love between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. Their passionate love affair began in 1818, when Keats was twenty-three years old and Fanny just eighteen. It was an intense love story, but unfortunately, it had a tragic end, as Keats died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five.

Keats and Fanny both lived in Hampstead and in 1819, they began living in the same house, which was divided into two separate living quarters (Fanny’s family moved into the same house where Keats lived with his best friend, Charles Brown). Thus, they saw each other quite often and they “shared the same garden and many meals as well”. In the early summer of 1819, Keats and his best friend left Hampstead for a writing retreat on the Isle of Wight, so Fanny and Keats were separated. Thus, the poet wrote his first letter to his beloved, pouring out his heart:

“…Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammeled me, so destroyed my freedom…I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days – three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain…”

Nevertheless, they both knew that their situation was difficult, as Keats had no money to marry Fanny. His first book of poetry had sold poorly and had earned ruthless reviews. Furthermore, Fanny’s mother and Keats’s friends disapproved of their relationship. Still, Fanny and Keats could not live without each other and when Keats returned to Hampstead, he gave Fanny a ring and hoped that his next book of poems would be successful enough so they could marry.

In 1820, Keats began showing signs of tuberculosis, so the doctors suggested that he should move to Italy and leave the cold airs of England behind. Fanny and Keats knew that they wouldn’t see each other again and the poet’s departure was unbearable for both of them. While in Italy, Keats did not write to Fanny again and the letters Fanny wrote to her beloved in Italy were buried with him, unopened. When twenty-year-old Fanny heard of the poet’s death, she was devastated and she spent three years in widow’s black. She married at the age of thirty-three and had three children. Nonetheless, she could never forget her first love and would wear the ring he had given her until her death.

Although John Keats died at such a young age, “he left behind some of the most exquisite and moving poetry ever written”. The young poet feared that he would be forgotten, but he has been rediscovered by many people and his place in English Romanticism is now fully and rightly recognized.

Bright Star contains Keats’s remarkable poems and letters to his beloved; this volume is a testament to love and “a dazzling display of a talent cruelly cut short”.

Here’s one of his poems:

Bright Star by John Keats

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 steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillowed 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.

Bright Star was made into a film and you can find out more about it and watch the trailer here.

I would like to thank Gabrielle Gantz from Penguin Group for sending me a copy of this beautiful book!