This is one of John Keat's most famous lines, at the beginning of his first epic poem. And it expresses Keats' obsession with beauty, with an ideal of romance that is pristine, perfect, untouchable and eternal. It is steadfast, allowing no diminishment, no fault, and no limit. And it is this perfect ideal that most troubled me about Keats.
I read Keats in school, along with many other great poets. And I cannot find a single blemish in Keats' wordsmithing, yet compared to others of his ilk-- such as Donne, Pope, and Shakespeare-- Keats seemed conceptually shallow. Keats is the finest champion of beauty and the romantic ideal, and yet those in and of themselves, I have always found lacking.
|Keats, bemused at my complaint
Is "beauty, truth and truth, beauty"? Perhaps so, for no one can even agree on what these two terms refer to. But beauty is even more intangible, more ethereal than truth. Truth can be a rock to build upon, even if one's truth is not the same as another's. But what can be build upon beauty? Beauty, on its own, without the rock of truth, is a phantom, giving the semblance of reality but never the substance.
These have been my problems with Keats from the time I was a teen, and yet Keats seemed to remain perpetually hopeful, perpetually unsullied, forever the youth. And that is the promise of dying young. Keats can always be the champion of beauty and romance, because for him, it never became complicated with jealousy or a baby screaming in the night. Keats is always the perfect lover, the perfect poet. Death does that.
So I avoided Bright Star, the film by Jane Campion about Keats' deep and unconsummated romance with Fanny Brawn, because I figured it would have the limitations of Keats. (But a friend forced me to watch it.) And so it does. It celebrates him as the knight of romance, completely chaste, eternally faithful, speaking praise of beauty and demonstrating it perfectly in his relationship of his one true love, Fanny Brawn. And yet, in this context, in cinema, Keats is fleshed out and the very beauty with which he sees the world is perfectly realized.
Every frame is ideal. It is as if Jane Campion determined to make each scene its own romantic poem. The true essence of love is celebrated. Although the events are all historical and well-researched, yet between the poet, the writer and the director we are not just given a bio pic, but a distillation of perfect love.
Beauty is not a joy forever. Unless that beauty is burned and hammered and forged into a poem. Or into a film. Because while complete human lives are sticky and juvenile and weak and petty, within a great poem or within a film under a master director, a singular beauty can endure without end.