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The Romance of a Poet: John Keats

One of Keats’ most notorious poems, “Bright Star,” was written to his muse, Fanny Brawne. He revised the poem until the last months of his life, when he died in 1821 from consumption in depression and darkness. But, his odes to his lover remain a fascination to this day.

Keats and Brawne met in 1818 at the Dilkes’ home, mutual friends and neighbors, at Wentworth Place, which was split into two quarters. The other half of the house belonged to a Mr. Brown. Remember this detail.

Fanny, on her first impression of Keats, remarked on him being of exceptional intelligence, though downcast at his ailing brother, Tom. The two parted from the evening with little indication of an attraction. Keats’ brother died on December of that year from consumption, but the poet soon had an invitation from Mr. Brown, his friend, to live at Wentworth Place along with him. Keats paid for his lodgings and often visited the Dilkes, his now mutual neighbors with Fanny.

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Keats in all his brooding glory.

Fanny and Keats saw more of one another. Keats soon realized his attraction to her, which was in his inability to understand her. In one letter, Keats described her as “beautiful, elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable, and strange.” Poetry soon overwhelmed him, though. He spent the winter of 1819 focused on his work, with only passing mentions of Fanny in his letters to friends.

However, in April 1819, fate brought the two even closer. The Dilkes decided to take up residence elsewhere and rented their quarters at Wentworth Place to Mrs. Brawne, Fanny’s widowed mother, and her children. He began to grow closer to Fanny not that they were neighbors. He lent books to her and wrote sonnets in her name. He’d found a muse, and his poetry entered into a new maturity.

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Fanny Brawne and John Keats.

Their relationship continued to blossom, soon taking notice by family and friends. Mrs. Brawne was, at first, skeptical. Keats, being a poet, had little income and little chance at a successful future. However, with his gentleness and intelligence, she grew to like him. She even nursed him in his bouts of sickness during these last few years of his life.

However, Mr. Brown and other friends of Keats’ disliked Fanny. They noticed her teasing and flirtation with other men, which incensed Keats. They thought her attachment more trite, but love letters from Keats to Fanny during his summer at the Isle of Wight reveal the intensity of his love. During his separation from her, he wrote lines like “the very first week I knew you I wrote myself your vassal” and “write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been.’

Upon his return in October 1819, the two had an understanding. Not an engagement, as Keats lacked money, but an agreement to one day be so. But poverty and illness threatened any chance for the lovers. Keats sought to publish a book of poems and sought aide rom his publishers in November. He even endeavored to write plays, his first about Elizabeth I’s lover.

Yet, Keats’ health declined. Mr. Brown uncovered his use of laudanum, which he’d been taking for pains. Keats promised to stop taking it, but tragedy soon struck. Keats’ consumption became apparent. He was often bound to his bed. Fanny wrote notes to him every night and visited him against the warnings of Mr. Brown and the doctor, as well as her mother’s advice.

Keats was soon moved to different lodgings and saw Fanny less He accuse her of straying in his jealousy-fueled letters, but she always responded with reassurances. However, separation and envy darkened his moods. These behaviors continued until his death in 1821.

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One of the love letters from Keats to Fanny.

Fanny held onto Keats’ love letters, even after she married another. She confided in her children of her romance, but had them swear to never tell their father. Fanny entrusted the letters to her children upon her passing, but her secret was kept until her husband, too, passed twelve years after her. Her children published and profited from the letters, bringing the then famous Keats’ love affair to the public. His love for Fanny Brawne continues to live on in his poems, such as “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on Melancholy,” and “The Eve of St. Agnes.” But, the poem to most immortalize their love is “Bright Star.” Arguably his most famed and brilliant work.

 

Bright Star

By John Keats

 

Bright star, would I were stedfast 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 stedfast, 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.

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