Monday, February 15, 2010

A Guiding Star

Imagine a scraggly wide-eyed boy in his early teens, and you will imagine me when I first encountered the poetry of Keats.

Most often it is by accident we stumble upon those things which change our lives and put us on a different course. Perhaps I’m being overly romantic, but I would like to believe it was so with me as it was with the young poet who wrote “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” after spending a night of enraptured reading and discovery. The idea of Keats’s friend John Clarke rising to find a literary masterpiece awaiting him at his table, has long lodged in my imagination. Poetry: the breakfast of champions.

In Jane Campion’s new film Bright Star, we find many similar recreations. Perhaps more controversially, the composition of his “Ode to a Nightingale”, the veracity of which is somewhat disputed, but to the lover of this poet it is of little matter. What does matter is its correspondence to the image many of us have of Keats in our head’s. For those who have seen the famous paintings by his good friend Joseph Severn, the images supersede the facts: "Beauty is truth...."

Of all the Romantics Keats, in my opinion, was the most authentic. He had none of the flamboyance of Byron, nor was he all too concerned with politics as was Shelley. He had no world-changing utopian dreams, his simple wish was the honor of writing a few "verses fit to live", as he charmingly put it in a letter to a friend. Since childhood his life was plauged by a series of misfortunes that occurred with almost laughable regularity. First his father dies after a fall from his horse casting his family into poverty, his mother following, then finally his youngest brother Tom of the same illness that would one day take his own life.

The greatest torment, his never to be consummated romance with Fanny Brawne, on which the movie is based, might round out the absurdity of existence for any other human soul, and cause us to reflect badly on what life promises but fails to give. However, Keats was no ordinary human being. He had given his all for poetry and, in this one case if rarely another, poetry repaid her disciple with the gift of immortality. To read the earnest letters of the man is to know not every good and noble soul goes unrewarded. We can see his legacy extending now farther than the wide Pacific from that peak in Darien.

"Good-night, sweet prince; and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."