Featured Poem: Bright Star! Would I Were Steadfast as Thou Art by John Keats

The relationship between literature and film can be much like that of passionate but warring lovers – the two will forever be linked but are not always a heavenly match. I confess to being cynical when words and stories I treasure are transformed for the big screen, fretting that the parts I love will be sacrificed for the sake of cinematic spectacle. But when adaptations are successfully carried from paper to film, it is a joy to behold. A really great book-to-film crossover inspires audiences across the board, adding new levels of insight and meaning into the original works for those of us already familiar with them while encouraging people who don’t consider themselves literature buffs to begin enjoying and embracing it.

One such film which seems to be placed very firmly within the ‘good’ category is the newly released Bright Star, which puts the focus upon one of our most famous and beloved poets – John Keats. Written and directed by Jane Campion (The Piano) and partly based on Andrew Motion’s biography of Keats, the film centres on the famed romance between Keats and his muse Fanny Brawne and has attracted glowing reviews (here’s another) since its premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. In many ways, Keats could be considered the perfect subject for a dramatic and intense narrative – Keats’ poetic talent, growing body of work and personal love affair were all tragically cut short by his premature death at 25.

Despite the temptation to over-sensationalise, Bright Star appears to do justice to the beauty, elegance and soaring wonder expressed in Keats’ poetry. Just watching selected clips from the film, you cannot help but feel instantly overwhelmed by the breathtaking scenery which provides a visual counterpart to Keats’ sensual word imagery. A number of Keats’ poems feature throughout the film, woven carefully into the narrative rather than thrown in for effect, making them all the more moving.

To celebrate the release of the film, as well as to commemorate the recent anniversary of Keats’ birth, it seems fitting that this week’s featured poem come from the man himself. Choosing just one poem from the many superb ones on offer is not an easy task, so why not look to the source of inspiration for the title of the film itself? The sonnet expresses the notion that love and desire to love can transcend our time on earth, which is appropriate considering the fact that Keats’ work, love for Fanny Brawne, and indeed life transcended his own existence.

Bright Star! Would I Were Steadfast as Thou Art

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art–

Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night

And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priestlike task

Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask

Of snow upon the mountains and the moors–

No–yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,

Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,

To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever–or else swoon to death.

John Keats (1775-1821)

3 thoughts on “Featured Poem: Bright Star! Would I Were Steadfast as Thou Art by John Keats”

  1. I don’t know, I watched this at Fact yesterday (my day off). Admittedly I allow myself to get distracted by others around me (in public cinemas), this time it was a man’s wet jacket constantly touching my arm and a woman fiddling with her coffee cup and giggling to her companion aaaghhh. Still I was looking forward to another Jane Campion film, but again I would have to say that her last was most memorable for me because of the music.

    From the exuberance of Fanny’s ruffled collars and brightly coloured hats, to the couples stepping out onto Hampstead heath (via the back door and through the washing lines, note) I revelled in their youthful vitality, not to mention the visually compelling seasonal changes. Campion’s gift for bringing to life their growing friendship amidst the altering course of time was magnificent; her seasons were brilliantly lit, bursting onto the screen, strong yet vulnerable to each change but like youth also, never quite acknowledging the dying of one into another. I think that was the most important effect for me – that they were moving inevitably towards death but with an energy for life that was a gift.

    I could not take to some of the lines of poetry Keats spoke though when with Fanny. For me they belonged to those concentrated moments of his after the event, powerfully re-created as poetry. Those parts, I winced at a little and began to get irritated with the man’s wet jacket again. Plus I don’t like being faced with a screen of credits etc when a poem is still being recited.

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