How is a conversation shaped between John Keats poems and Jane Campion’s film The Bright Star?

The film uses the motif of sewing to highlight a sister art to Keats's poetry and emphasize that while Keats has much to teach, Fanny has much to offer in return. This conversation between the two art forms is underscored by Campion's use of Keats's poetry throughout the film.

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In Bright Star, Jane Campion introduces a sister art to Keats's poetry in Fanny Brawne's sewing, a motif throughout the film that establishes a dialogue about art and inspiration.

The film opens on the image of a needle threading through fabric, revealed to be commanded by Fanny's hand. The camera lingers on the precise craft, Fanny's steady stitches setting the tone for her initial contrast with Keats. Her art and interests are studied and precise, from fashion to flirting, and although she has much to learn about poetry from Keats, her character and craft have their own worth as well, a counterpoint to the poet that Campion threads throughout the film. In this, Fanny represents the reader of Keats's poetry, and the film shows that while Keats has much to teach, the reader has their own capacities to bring to the table.

Early in Bright Star, Fanny and her family visit Mr. and Mrs. Dilke for tea, where they are to meet Keats for the first time. The poet's friend—and Fanny's nemesis—Charles Brown is also in attendance, and he greets Fanny with a mocking tone toward both her clothing and her person: "Ah, the very well stitched little Miss Brawne in all her detail." The two exchange insults, as they do throughout the film, with Fanny recalling some of the things Brown has said about her behind her back:

Fanny: All right, your offense is to my fashion to which I am "so helpless slavish!"

Brown: I didn’t say that, Mrs. Dilke? I never would say such nonsense. I have been ill quoted.

Fanny: "Her obsession with flounce and cross stitch?"

Brown: Cross stitch? Miss Brawne, I don’t even know what it means, I have been wrongly used.

Fanny: I feel the same about your poems, Mr. Brown; I know nothing of what they mean. In fact, they have the quality of your cigar, they puff, smoke and dissolve, leaving nothing but irritation...

Brown sees Fanny's interest in fashion as superficial, even as his insults highlight the level of dedication and craftsmanship that go into her sewing and clothing. Fanny, on the other hand, finds poetry to be confusing because it is not as orderly as her stitches. She sees beauty in her chosen form of art, but she does not find it so easy to see when she encounters poetry. Her meeting with Keats is delayed because he has locked himself away to focus on his poetry; where Brown sees Fanny as flaunting her fashion, he respects Keats's more withdrawn genius.

When the two finally are introduced, Fanny comments upon Keats's clothing, advising he have a new jacket made; rather than dismissing her interests as Brown does, he invites her commentary, inquiring as to how she knows he would be best best suited by a velvet jacket in particular:

Keats: Tell me, Miss Brawne, how are you so sure?

Fanny: All that I wear I have designed and sewn myself. Is it not well done? I am often told I am clever to exception about design, I have originated the pleated edge upon the ribbon. It is charming and it has been copied.

Before they can converse further, however, Brown interrupts, shooing Fanny out of the house by claiming that he and Keats must use the space as a "men's room" for writing poetry, excluding her from the privileged realm. Keats doesn't join in with Brown's taunting, but neither does he defend her. Not to be outdone at Brown's urging that she "get out," Fanny's parting words to the men highlight her pride and wit, as she remarks, "My stitching has more merit and admirers than your two scribblings put together. And I can make money from it!"

Keats is amused, despite how very close to home she strikes, poor poet that he is. Fanny's "women's work" offers her an income and a means to express herself, and Campion's continual reference to it throughout the film serves to highlight the importance of different modes of expression. Rather than a solitary genius or an elite man's man, Campion presents Keats as a person whose interactions with Fanny challenge and inspire him, just as he does her.

Fanny is first introduced to Keats's poetry when her siblings interrupt her sewing with news of the purchase of a copy of Endymion. They read the beautiful first lines of the poem aloud to her as she continues to sew, her threading of the needle becoming notably faster and less precise as she listens, entranced:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth.

At those last two lines, so reminiscent of her own work, Fanny stops sewing and takes the book from her sister, declaring in wonder how lost she is, and reads aloud the lines "yes, in spite of all, / Some shape of beauty moves away the pall / From our dark spirits." The shift in Fanny begins here: she desires to understand the different kind of beauty that poetry offers, one that is harder to grasp than her fashion but promises to touch the soul.

Not long after this, Fanny requests Keats provide her with poetry lessons, which Brown mocks, accusing her of merely "acting" interested, stereotyping her as an untrustworthy and unintelligent woman, to which she challenges that she has a desire to learn, and Keats is willing to teach her. In her lessons, however, Keats is careful to distinguish between the craft of sewing and the art of poetry. When she asks to be taught of "the craft of poetry," he scoffs at the term, differentiating between careful labor and being open to inspiration:

Poetic craft is a carcass, a sham. If poetry does not come as naturally as leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.

This quotation comes from Keats's actual letters, but Campion's film offers it own further dialogue that captures the spirit of Keats's philosophy of art when Fanny worries that she does not "know how to work a poem out well." Their resulting conversation opens Fanny up to new possibilities in how she views the world:

Keats: You do not work out a poem. That would undo its magic. Poems need understanding through the senses, they develop your negative capability not rational capability.

Fanny: And what is negative capability?

Keats: Your capacity for being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. The point of diving in a lake isn’t immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.

As the film continues, their romance develops alongside Keats's illness. Keats's poems are threaded throughout, complemented by the motif of Fanny's sewing, some of his most famous works framed as inspired by his interactions with Fanny. While his conversations and flirtations with her serve to ignite the passion in his work, Fanny's own approach to life and art is highlighted too. Her highly empathetic nature is sparked by the death of Keats's brother, Tom, and she seeks to pay tribute to him and to comfort Keats in crafting a pillow slip, its design mirroring the nature so often evoked in his poetry. The Bright Star script describes her craftsmanship, drawing attention to her work as often the film portrays scenes of Keats writing:

Fanny pulls out a piece of IVORY SILK. She slices through the material with SCISSORS. Mrs Brawne enters the room. She watches Fanny sobbing loudly as she works, then bends to help Fanny pin TWO rectangles of the silk together. Fanny’s needle is thread with a light GREEN COTTON. Her needle flies in and out making a line of grass. Out of the grass she sews stems and wild flowers.

Keats, touched by her expression of emotion through her own art form, declares that he will "rest Tom's head upon it." Before Keats departs to Italy, hoping to recover from his own illness, Fanny sews him a silk lining to his travel cap, which his letters read in the film indicate he wore until close to his death. As the news of his passing reaches Fanny, the film lingers on shots of her sewing her black mourning clothes, one last form of her craft that she can give to him, an orderly task that keeps her emotions from overwhelming her. The film ends with her giving into impulse, however, moved by the moment, passionate rather than precise—Fanny uses her sewing scissors to cut her hair short, and she gathers her collection of Keats's letters and poetry with her to walk the fog and darkness of Hampstead Heath, reading "Bright Star" aloud as the stars shine above her.

Bright Star, in creating an exchange of inspiration and dialogue between Keats and Fanny, engages with Keats's poetry in an unexpected manner. The film begins and ends with Fanny and her scissors, a careful craftsman and an appreciator of beauty initially unaccustomed to the mystery of poetry like Keats's. Students of poetry, like Fanny, can approach Keats's work with a desire to learn and to study his craft, but ultimately they are encouraged by the film to surrender to the darkness and mist, allowing for places of uncertainty where the real beauty of his work can emerge. Campion's film, in its emphasis upon Fanny, creates a dialogue between reader and poet, showing that anyone can engage with poetry and that while there is more to art than just craftsmanship, there is room in conceptions of art for more than just the figure of the solitary and tragic male genius whose inspiration is singular and unfathomable.

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Jane Campion's film Bright Star takes its title from a sonnet by Keats and includes many quotations from his poems and letters. Although the film is a love story, it is also an exposition of Keats's ideas about poetry. The framing device for this didactic purpose is that of Keats giving Fanny lessons in how to read and appreciate poetry.

This is where the conversation comes in. A conversation is a two-way process, whether we are thinking of the conversation between Keats and Fanny or the conceptual conversation between the film and Keats's poems. What the poems say to the film is obvious—poems and letters are quoted all the time throughout—but what does the film add to the conversation? One example comes when Fanny asks about the "craft of poetry." Keats dismisses the suggestion outright. Poetry is not a craft, he says: it must come naturally. Then he offers a metaphor to explain his thoughts:

A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it's to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.

This is such a fine piece of prose that many viewers have assumed it to be a direct quotation from the letters of Keats. The lines, however, are original to the film, a response to and illustration of Keats's famous concept of "negative capability." In this way, by mixing original exposition with quotation, the film discusses both the poems and the poet's ideas about his art.

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In Jane Campion’s film Bright Star, John Keats’s poems are woven intricately into the story of the relationship between Keats and his great love, Fanny Brawne. The movie begins when Keats comes to stay with a neighbor of Brawne’s in the English countryside. After Fanny reads Keats’s long poem Endymion, she begins their first substantive conversation by quoting some of its lines back to him. She tells him she wished to love it, but she couldn’t—although she thought its beginning “something very perfect.”

Their relationship grows deeper as Fanny offers sympathy for Keats’s dying brother, Tom. At Christmas, Keats comes to Fanny’s house at her invitation, and at dinner her family begs him to recite a poem. He begins reciting a sonnet, “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be,” but loses track of the words when he looks at Fanny, as they both become aware how much they have come to care about each other.

Fanny begins coming to Keats for lessons in how to read and understand poetry, much to the dismay of Keats’s friend and fellow poet, Charles Brown, who thinks she is distracting Keats from their work. As Keats and Fanny fall in love, he writes some of his most famous poems, many of which are quoted in the movie. Brown praises Eve of St. Agnes as extraordinary, and perfect, and quotes lines back to Keats from memory—even as he warns Keats about his relationship with Fanny.

Knowing he doesn’t have the money to support Fanny, Keats tries to stay away, even as her mother warns her against continuing the relationship given his lack of prospects. But he returns from London to see her, and their reunion (in the film) inspires him to write the famous sonnet beginning “Bright star, would I as stedfast as thou art.”

Soon after this, Keats becomes seriously ill (like his brother, he suffers from tuberculosis) and Fanny nurses him, as he works on his new book of poems. She thinks it will be his best, and quotes back to him lines from the ballad “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”

For his health, it is decided Keats must travel to Italy. Telling Fanny she cannot go with him, that they must cut ties between them for her own good, Keats quotes lines from “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” one of his most famous poems. After Keats dies in Italy, the film ends with a scene of Fanny walking the snowy countryside, reciting lines from “Bright Star,” the poem directly inspired by her.

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