Recently, a film with the same name came out.
The film is based on a biography of Keats by Andrew Motion, the British Poet Laureate. The job of Poet Laureates is to write poems for the royal family. That sounds pro establishment rather than rebellious. It is true in Motion’s case. There is an idea that a Poet Laureate should not just be a faithful servant of the monarchy, but a good poet as well. So, the job was first offered to Benjamin Zephaniah. Zephaniah refused it, being an opponent of the British empire. Then, it was offered to Tony Harrison, who refused as well, being a republican. Finally, it went to the “safe” Andrew Motion.
Motion is not a total reactionary, as even he “the respectable, establishment choice in 1999—has voiced his anxieties and ambivalence for the British government’s support for the war in Iraq.” However, looking at the film Bright Star now, some of Motion’s weak points become visible.
Keats lived at a time when most people in Britain were poor, and when the ruling class and the Conservative government were doing their best to make them even poorer and keep them down. Keats, and his fellow poets like Shelley and Byron, were opponents of that government. That was why their poetry was so sharply attacked by pro-government literary critics. Byron and Shelley left Britain as political exiles to Italy. Keats joined them there a few months before his death, as poverty had given him tuberculosis and a warmer climate was prescribed by a doctor.
How much of this social, economic, and political background of John Keats do we find in the movie? Some, but not enough. Keats’ personal poverty, which prevents him from marrying his love Fanny Brawne, is a theme in the film. In a short scene, we see something of the dire poverty in the slums of London. However, we never hear about the Peterloo Massacre which Shelley wrote about.
The movie does offer fine filming and acting. In the final scene, after she has learned of Keats’ death in Rome, Fanny Brawne walks to the Hampstead Heath, crying, and reciting Keats’ poem Bright Star.
Several poems are recited in the movie, including “The Eve of St. Agnes” and “Ode to a Nightingale“. Keats wrote the latter poem when a nightingale nested near his house. It is the last part of the film, recited as the list of actors and other workers of this movie scrolls down the screen.
We hear a nightingale sing during the film, but never see it. As usual with nightingales.
- John Keats-Biography (maxec07.wordpress.com)
- The Works of John Keats (spr07.wordpress.com)
- Ode to a Cumberbatch (anniecardi.com)
- Great (and graphic) Keats (timescolumns.typepad.com)
- Andrew Motion: ‘The Treasury are pouring concrete on England’s beauty’ (thetimes.co.uk)
- Forging Words (dish.andrewsullivan.com)
- The Reading Part (matildarose2252.wordpress.com)
- 3/22 SAT Dose of the Day (ranchohub.wordpress.com)
- Cockermouth poets tell a watery tale (guardian.co.uk)