Bright Star, film about poet John Keats

In 1819, British romantic poet John Keats wrote a poem, called Bright Star. A comment on that sonnet is here.

Recently, a film with the same name came out.

It is about the romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, during the last three years of Keats’ life, until he died on 23 February 1821.

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.

Another review of this film is here. Yet another one is here.

8 thoughts on “Bright Star, film about poet John Keats

  1. One of the best dramas I’ve seen all year! The cast was amazing, and the music haunting. You should check out the film Bright Star’s official site, where they’ve announced the Love Letter Contest. Those who enter will have to submit a hand-made love letter or love tweet for their chance to win two unique diamonds from A Diamond Is Forever. Find more details here:
    Follow Keat’s Tweets here:


  2. Keats-Shelley House to offer taste of England

    Visitors to Rome foundation will be able to order tea

    15 November, 18:49

    (ANSA) – Rome, November 15 – Visitors to Rome’s Keats-Shelley House, memorial to two of the most famous poets of English Romanticism, will be offered a “real taste” of England next time they come round.

    Curators to the house, where John Keats briefly lived when he came to Rome in 1821, are preparing to open a small cafe’ so whoever visits will be able to sip a cup of English tea and treat themselves to a piece of carrot cake or banana bread.

    “We didn’t want to do the usual Rome cafe’ fare such as espresso and cornetto (croissant),” Sarah Morgan, Assistant Curator to the museum, told ANSA.

    Sometime in 2011 the memorial will also swing open up the doors to its terrace so visitors will be able to sip their tea while enjoying a spectacular view of Baroque Rome, since the house adjoins the Spanish Steps.

    The Memorial has been home to the collections of both Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley since the early 1900s when a group of American literati in Rome decided to heed an appeal by poet Robert Underwood Johnson to save the house.

    With its display cases of letters, clothes worn by the poets and a reliquary with locks of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s hair, it now celebrates the time when Italy was home to Byron, Shelley and Keats.

    Keats had travelled to Italy in search of a cure to tuberculosis, the disease that had killed both his parents.

    The poet died in 1822, aged 25, and was buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome where he still lies.

    Unlike the other Romantic poets, Keats did not write anything in Italy.

    Byron and Shelley, on the other hand, were both inspired by Italy. Byron lived here from 1816 to 1824 before going to Greece where he died of a fever, Shelley in 1816 after his elopement with Mary Godwin and her sister, and from 1818 to 1822, when he drowned in a storm off the Tuscan coastal resort of Viareggio, aged 29.

    The foundation is entirely self-funded, revenue mainly coming from rent paid by an Italian shoe shop on the ground floor and from visitors, many of whom are Italian school groups.

    A small gift shop is a recent addition and it will soon be selling umbrellas with the house’s ceiling motif on the inside, wrapping paper, notepads, postcards, glittery bouncing rubber balls, and tote bags.

    By Christmas, the store will also have greeting cards with a quote from Keats. The collection of memorabilia and original pieces continues to grow as curators are keenly on the lookout for possible acquisitions.

    The Memorial managed to pick up the first edition of Shelley’s ‘Hellas’, published in 1822, the first English edition of ‘Adonais’ published in Cambridge in 1829 as well as a two-page Jorge Luis Borges manuscript entitled ‘John Keats 1795-1821’ at a recent auction in London by Sotheby’s. “This was actually the very first time we ever had money to buy things,” said Morgan.

    She was particularly pleased about the acquisition of Hellas, which was to be the last work published by Shelley in April 1822, three months before he drowned.

    The copy of ‘Hellas’ picked up by the Memorial is particularly precious as it still has its original wrappers, printed label and bookseller’s label. Shelley’s elegy for Keats, ‘Adonais’, was written in 1821 and first published in Italy.

    The first English edition was privately printed, in a run of 500 copies, by a group of admirers of Keats and Shelley. The Borges manuscript, which dates from the early 1950s, contains the author’s notes on Keats in preparation for his essay ‘El ruiseñor de Keats’ (Keats’s ‘Nightingale’), which first appeared in ‘La Nación’ on 9 December 1951, and was reprinted the following year in his collection of essays ‘Other Inquisitions’. Morgan said curators had also considered bidding on a first edition of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and followed the auction on-line as it happened.

    “It was exciting,” said Morgan who stressed that curators decided to withdraw from the auction because the 80,000 pound starting price was too steep.

    She explained that it was thought best to wait for better opportunities in the future.

    “We really like to pick what we’re keen to have. And what if a new letter of Keats appears on the market? We want to be ready for that,” she confided.


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