Saturday, June 23, 2012

Beauty in Jane Campion's Bright Star

A thing of beauty is a joy forever

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
A thing of beauty is NOT a joy forever.  In the real world, beauty is sullied, trampled, eroticised, cheapened.  Beauty is limited to a beholder's eyes and when those eyes die, so does the beauty.  Human beauty changes and fades and while a beauty may be replaced with a new beauty, should it not be ruined by disuse, yet the old beauty, the original beauty is gone forever.  A romantic love cannot last, but must change.  Those who require romance to abide eternally are eternally doomed, for romance is fated to fade.

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.

And one cannot say that it is unsullied by life, for real life has its sway in this film, especially by that which warps the most: sickness and death.  Yet here, in this film, sickness does not limit love, but initiate it.  Sickness does not extinguish love, but provide the obstacle that demonstrates loves power.  And here, love is truly stronger than death, and love is found perfect because life can hold it no longer.  Bright Star is not just a film, it is the frame within which Keats is completed.  In this world, all Keats said is true and we can see, if only for a singular moment how beauty and truth may be perfectly entwined.

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.



  1. "Beauty is not a joy forever. Unless that beauty is burned and hammered and forged into a poem. Or into a film. "

    ... or into a blog post. I'm a little late but I'd just like to say how much I enjoyed your post. I watched this too recently and was just as captured by its beauty. It's truly a poem. I thought I wasn't a poetry reader but perhaps I am after all.