An excerpt from
Keats, Fanny Brawne, and his poem “Bright Star”
keats reached london three weeks after abandoning “The Fall of Hyperion” and only one week after asking [Charles Wentworth] Dilke to find him rooms. The lodgings that his friend arranged for him, in 25 College Street, had a comforting air of continuity. They were near Dilke himself, who lived in Great Smith Street, and their surroundings—overlooked by Westminster Abbey—seemed to recreate the calm of Winchester. He was living alone in London for the first time, but he was sequestered.
He still had to collect his belongings from Wentworth Place. He had not seen Fanny since June, and had been in touch with her only once since 16 August, nearly two months previously. At their last meeting, they had shown each other an equal tenderness, even though Fanny had all the uncertainties of youth, and he had his own doubts about commitment. In the interval, his reservations had grown as his desire increased, resulting first in tormented accusations, and finally in a self protective silence. This had confused and hurt Fanny, and had also made her resolve her own feelings. When she opened the door to Keats on 10 October, two days after he had arrived in town, she was no longer the half-adolescent whose affection might be mistaken for flirting. She was a suddenly mature young woman who had been pained by the threat of losing her love. Uncertainty had persuaded her that she wanted to devote herself to Keats.
Keats fell immediately into a “complete fascination”. He was “dazzled” by Fanny’s beauty and tenderness, and when [his friend Charles] Brown teased him “with a seemingly true story against [him],” he could not help exonerating himself in a way which showed his true feelings. Inevitably, the revelation meant reviving his old worries about independence. As he and Fanny snatched a few moments alone, his reasons for hesitating were dissolved. “When shall we pass a day alone,” he wrote the following morning. “I have had a thousand kisses, for which with my whole soul I thank love—but if you should deny me the thousand and first—‘t would put me to the proof how great a misery I could live through.”
Referring to Fanny’s “threat[s]” in this way, and admitting that he was “at [her] mercy”, meant rekindling the argument of their mid-summer letters. In two poems he wrote around the same time as he first saw Fanny again—poems which inaugurate a short series of lyrics—Keats returned to it more openly. The first, a sonnet beginning “The day is gone …”, dwells on the delicious pleasures of the moment: “Sweet voice, sweet lips, soft hand, and softer breast, / Warm breath, light whisper, tender semi-tone, / Bright eyes, accomplished shape, and languorous waist!” The second poem, “What can I do …”, describes more familiar territory. While he insists that his “liberty” as a poet depends on his remaining “above / The reach of fluttering Love,” he connects his own situation to broader issues of independence. Particularly the independence of his brother and sister-in-law. The highly strung, irregular couplets abruptly became horrified as he contemplates their life in America:
Where shall I learn to get my peace again?
To banish thoughts of that most hateful land,
Dungeoner of my friends, that wicked strand
Where they were wrecked and live a wrecked life;
That monstrous region, whose dull rivers pour,
Ever from their sordid urns into the shore,
Unowned of any weedy-haired gods;
Whose winds, all zephyrless, hold scourging rods,
Iced in great lakes, to afflict mankind;
Whose rank-grown forests, frosted, black, and blind,
Would fright a Dryad; whose harsh-herbaged meads
Make lean and lank the starved ox while he feeds;
There flowers have no scent, birds no sweet song,
And great unerring Nature once seems wrong.
There are moments when “What can I do …” seems more like a private act of self-scourging than a fully achieved work. This central section is exceptional, drawing a picture of Keats’s anxieties which is unrivalled anywhere in his work. It also gives a fascinating glimpse of the “other sensations” he wanted to encompass after giving up “The Fall.” It contains a despairing appeal to the Classical order he had always espoused, but shows his old loyalties had been eroded. “Enough! Enough!” it ends in anguish. “It is enough for me / To dream of thee!”
Keats left Fanny on 10 October knowing that his plans for the future had failed. He spent the next several days trying to revive them. He arranged his rooms in College Street. He tried to persevere with his reading. He made fair copies of his new poems. He possibly went to see Hazlitt in York Street to inquire about writing for liberal magazines. If he did, he would have found the “dark-haired critic” confirming the impression he gained elsewhere. Hazlitt only needed to point to his own predicament to prove that journalism was a thankless task. In recent months he had been “muzzled, libelled, underpaid and unceremoniously dismissed”
When [William] Hazlitt later recorded his impressions of Keats, he said that he lacked “masculine energy” and “hardy spirit.” Given the emphasis that Keats’s other friends place on his pugnacity and resolution, the description seems unjust, unless we suppose that Hazlitt was only remembering how Keats appeared at this particularly agonised time. During his weeks in Winchester, he had made significantly few references to his health. Was he feeling better than he had done all summer, or was he simply hiding the truth? Severn, who also saw him during these College Street days, was struck by his weakness. When they met on 24 October, to discuss the submission of [Joseph] Severn’s painting “The Cave of Despair” for the Royal Academy historical painting competition, Severn said that Keats seemed “in high spirits” but had not been done “much good” by his absence from London. In the coming weeks, Keats continued to avoid mentioning his health. His mood suggests it was deteriorating fast. He was almost continuously depressed and distracted.
The harder Keats tried to concentrate on his work, the more consumed he felt by Fanny. His letters show that she had even begun to dominate his most sacred loyalty: to “the principle of Beauty in all things.” He uses her looks as an absolute (seeking to “assure you by your Beauty”), and he tells her: “The Beauties of Nature have lost their power over me.” The result was not so much a sense of eclipse as of collapse, and his fretting about “liberty” soon turned into complaints about imprisonment—about being the “emprison[er]” of Fanny, and of living in a kind of gaol himself. As his illness grew worse, this conceit grew into a dreadful reality. Fanny became confused in his mind with the reasons for his approaching death.
On 11 October Keats told Fanny that he had arranged for Mrs. Dilke to accompany him on his next visit to Hampstead, so as to lend an air of propriety to their meeting. If he hoped that this would help him to control his feelings, he soon realised he was helpless. “I cannot exist without you,” he told Fanny in his next letter, recalling the words of the poet before Moneta’s shrine in “The Fall”. “I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again—my Life seems to stop there—I see no further. You have absorb’d me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving.” In their extreme frankness, these phrases come perilously close to sounding histrionic, and as Keats continued writing he obviously feared as much. Briefly restraining himself, he introduced a new element into his letter, one which gives it an apparently more solid framework, but in fact only emphasises Fanny’s dominance. “Do not threat me even in jest,” he told her. “I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion—I have shudder’d at it—I shudder no more—I could be Martyr’d for my Religion—Love is my religion—I could die for that—I could die for you. My Creed is Love and you are its only tenet.”
The language here echoes the religious references of his two recent poems, which speak of “love’s missal” and of “heresy and schism”. It has led one biographer to speculate that Keats was “contemplating a formal engagement leading to the sacrament of marriage.” This is reasonable, as long as we realise that Keats still did not view marriage as a safe haven. He had regarded it suspiciously for many years—along with the other “pious frauds of religion.” Now there were better reasons than ever for doing so. Given this, the letter seems to say more about the contraction of Keats’s world than it does about the contract of marriage. Not only was Fanny the focus of his faith in Beauty, she was also replacing other systems of order and control. She was becoming his whole universe in miniature.
Two days after writing this letter, on 15 October, Keats returned to Wentworth Place for yet another visit. Rather than helping to clarify his thoughts about the future, it only complicated them. Whether Fanny realised it or not, his recent remarks about the church had awoken deep memories which were connected with his love for her. When Tom had died the previous winter, a few hundred yards away from where they were talking, Keats had angrily refused to “enter into any parsonic comments on death.” And when he had recently thought of George in America, he imagined him without even the consolations of myths or nature. Whirling “in a tremble,” he told himself again and again that Fanny was bound to make him suffer, as well as succouring him. Writing about Moneta, he had confronted the image of his dead mother. Adoring his lover, he could not help envisaging absence and loss.
Several years after his death, Fanny was asked whether “Keats might be judged insane” during the last year or so of his life. She was at pains to say that “he could have never addressed an unkind expression, much less a violent one, to any human being.” But she also admitted that while giving himself to her, he “seemed … to turn on himself.” It is striking that she never seemed to have felt intimidated by this. Perhaps the part of her that enjoyed “trumpery novels” made her feel that any love affair was likely to seem a little unreal—like the plot of a romance come to life. Perhaps the strong current of her own feelings simply swept away the thought that there was anything excessive in Keats’s protestations. In any event, her steady acceptance was remarkable: a proof of her devotion, and also of her mature composure. By remaining in one mind herself, she guided Keats through the contradictions of his own thoughts towards a final decision. Returning to College Street after the “three hours dream” of his visit, he told Mrs. Dilke that he would soon not be needing his lodgings any longer. He was planning to return to live with Brown in Wentworth Place.
the decision did nothing to solve his “mess.” On 19 October, shortly before leaving College Street, Keats ended a letter to Fanny by saying “I cannot tell what I am writing,” then began a sonnet which breathlessly combined an appeal for “mercy” with a demand for complete possession:
O! let me have thee whole,—all, all, be mine!
That shape, that fairness, that sweet minor zest
Of love, your kiss—those hands, those eyes divine,
That warm, white, lucent, million-pleasured breast Yourself
—your soul—in pity give me all,
Withhold no atom’s atom or I die.
The sonnet seems set on extending its catalogue until the final full stop. As the conclusion approaches, Keats recognises that if Fanny does not return his feelings she will make him, like the knight in “La Belle Dame,” her “wretched thrall.” It is a prospect which breaks his rush by turning desire into despair. He realises that he risks being neither a satisfied lover nor a self-fulfilled writer:
Or living on perhaps, your wretched thrall,
Forget, in the mist of idle misery,
Life’s purposes—the palate of my mind
Losing its gust, and my ambition blind!
It is likely that Keats wrote another and much better known poem within a short time of completing this sonnet: “Bright Star.” Precise dating is difficult, but among the various possibilities, at least one fact links it to October 1819. In lines 7/8 the sonnet refers to “the new softfallen mask / Of snow,” and on 22 October an unusually early and heavy snowstorm had swept across London. The other reasons for supposing that Keats wrote it this month are equally persuasive. The poem resonates with phrases and ideas that Keats had used in his recent letters to Fanny:
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,
Pillowed upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.
The poem’s longing for steadfastness develops the appeal of “I cry your mercy ….” Its reference to the waters” “priestlike task” reminds us that Keats had recently called love his “religion.” The “ripening” breast, at once erotic and maternal, recalls the “dazzling breast” in “What can I do …,” and “That warm, white, lucent, million-pleasured breast” in “I cry your mercy ….” For all these similarities, “Bright Star” is crucially distinct from other poems written to Fanny. Instead of panting and gasping, filling its lines with irregular rhythms and snatched glances, it struggles to maintain the discipline of a strict form, a steady antithesis, and an evolving idea. In these respects, it is a poem which at once recognises and masters Fanny’s destabilising power—so long as Keats keeps his attention fixed on the heavens, where “great unerring Nature” is exemplary and conciliatory. In the sestet, though, where Keats switches to Fanny herself, the poem’s control begins to loosen. The “steadfast” and “unchangeable” attributes of the star can only be maintained in “lone splendour.” Once Keats is “pillowed” on his lover, he is condemned to “sweet unrest,” as the nervous and triple repetition of “ever” cannot but emphasise. This raises a troubling question. Do the star’s qualities in fact “matter” to Keats as much as he implies? Or rather, do they matter because they describe a condition he cannot emulate? At the beginning of the poem, they trigger a line of thought which is not completed, and at the end they seem admirable but remote—neither intimately supportive nor integrated. This is why the last phrase of the poem, “or else swoon to death,” seems to carry more weight than all the accumulated reassurances of the preceding lines. Even if “death” punningly connotes sexual satisfaction rather than actual mortality, it still suggests that the “ever” Keats wants is an impossibility.
keats finished “Bright Star” knowing that one kind of steadfastness had gone, and another kind had yet to be confirmed. On 18 October, twelve days before his twenty-fourth birthday, he finally asked Mrs. Dilke to let Fanny know that he was returning to live with Brown. The following day, he told her himself, asking soon afterwards that their “understanding” should now become a formal arrangement, and probably giving her a garnet ring. It was a momentous decision, but they did their best to keep it secret, and agreed that Fanny should not wear the ring in public. They had several reasons. Keats knew that he could not afford to get married in the foreseeable future. He also realised that Mrs. Brawne did not approve. She still liked Keats, but understood that his prospects were dismal, and hoped that the plan would “go off” in due course. Moreover, he distrusted the reaction of his family and friends—rightly, as it turned out. He said nothing to his brother and sister, or to Brown, Taylor, Woodhouse, Severn and Rice. Dilke and Reynolds both soon discovered what had happened. Dilke wrote in private, “God help them. It’s a bad thing for them,” and Reynolds jealously disparaged the “unhappy … connection.”
It was not only the disapproval of others that troubled Keats as he settled back into Wentworth Place. Living under the same roof as Fanny brought obvious “pleasures;” it aggravated his “torments” as well. He had already told Fanny that he “must impose chains” on himself if he was to endure living so close to her, and now he was as good as his word. Following the advice of Burton’s Anatomy, which insisted that meateating increased physical desire, he put himself on a vegetarian diet, telling his sister that he hoped it would mean “my brains may never henceforth be in a greater mist than is theirs by nature.”
Brown was only a little reassured by these signs of self-discipline. Keats seemed more decided than he had done in Winchester, but he was still demoralised and introspective. His plans to live as a journalist had come to nothing, and his poetry was stalled. Brown did all he could to encourage him, seizing eagerly on a report in the Examiner which revealed that Kean had decided to honour his contract with Drury Lane, and would be remaining in London throughout the winter. He urged Keats to make a few small revisions to Otho, and said he would send it to Elliston, the theatre manager. Keats agreed to make the changes, though gloomily refused to give his name as author, fearing that his low reputation would damage the chance of getting a fair reading. He was equally pessimistic about other possibilities. He temporarily set aside the thought of publishing a new volume, discouraged, perhaps, by Taylor’s angry reaction to Woodhouse’s report of his revisions. (“If he will not so far concede to my wishes as to leave the Passage [in “The Eve of St Agnes”] as it originally stood,” Taylor had written, “I must be content to admire his Poems with some other Imprint.”) He got out the manuscript of King Stephen and abandoned it after a few scenes. It is probable that the fragment beginning “This living hand …” was part of his effort, and it gives a bleak glimpse of his mental state. Spoken anonymously, the lines turn their appeal for sympathy into something like blackmail:
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.
Nothing that Keats tried, and nothing that Brown suggested, made any difference to his mood. On 10 November he described himself to Severn as being still “lax, unemployed, unmeridian’d, and objectless,” knowing that however he might blame the world at large for his plight, the source of his greatest misery lay very close to home. He was living only a few feet away from Fanny, yet prevented by circumstances from marrying her, and by convention from making love to her. Every day was filled with excited frustration—frustration that Brown, in spite of his kindness, continually made worse. During the summer a new live-in maid had come to work at Wentworth Place: a pretty, fiery, semi-literate young woman named Abigail O’Donaghue, whose family came from Killarney in Ireland. Shortly after returning from Winchester, Brown began sleeping with her, and soon made her pregnant. Normally, with the manners of the age, this would be something that Keats would have no difficulty in accepting. He had, after all, recently joked about Severn “either getting a bastard or being cuckolded into accepting one as his.” Now it only fuelled his rage and disappointment.
Keats’s sexual longing dramatised his other feelings of failure: poetic as well as professional and financial. Shortly after moving back into Wentworth Place he borrowed some more money from Brown. This soon ran out, forcing him to ask for loans from Haslam and other friends. How was he to help his brother, let alone himself? Making a reluctant visit to London, to see Mrs. Wylie, he once again managed to conceal the extent of his difficulties. In a letter to his sister he admitted that “George’s affairs perplex me a great deal,” and accepted that he would soon have to start visiting Abbey again. When the first of these visits took place, it only brought further discouragement. Although Mrs. Midgley Jennings’s appeal to Chancery had recently been dismissed, the value of stocks was very low. Abbey advised him not to sell.
Then at last came better news. Fry, the co-trustee of Tom’s estate who was living in Holland, wrote to Abbey and gave Keats the power of attorney he had recently requested. Although the market was still performing badly, Keats knew where his duties lay. He sold a part of Tom’s inheritance, realising £100 which he sent to America immediately. He closed the deal feeling that he had at last done something valuable—but within a few weeks it became clear that even this success was a kind of failure. The ship on which the money travelled across the Atlantic, the William, was delayed by storms and did not reach its destination until the New Year. By this time George had decided that his brother needed help in sorting out their affairs, and had left for England. The round trip would cost him almost £200; he felt it would be worth it if he could return home with even double that amount.
Keats’s efforts to improve his own situation were not so unlucky. Realising a further £200 of Tom’s money (it was the first instalment that he had collected since his brother’s death), he paid off his debts, sent £100 to his sister, and squared his lodging arrangements with Brown. This gave him a breathing space—for a little while, and in a limited sense. Through no fault of his own, his recent transactions had increased the distance which was opening between himself and his friends. When he next saw Dilke, for instance, at the Naval Pay Office in Somerset House, he impatiently denied that George would have done better to join Birkbeck’s settlement than set up business in Louisville. Dilke, who was doing his best to support Keats by concealing his doubts about Fanny, was put out. “The very kindness of friends was at this time oppressive to [Keats],” he said later. “From this period his weakness & his sufferings, mental & bodily, increased—his whole mind & heart were in a whirl of contending passions—he saw nothing calmly or dispassionately.”
Keats sank further and further into himself, fidgeting with Stephen
and adding only a few lines, desperate for news of Otho and hearing
nothing. When Hazlitt began a new series of lectures, on Elizabethan
drama, at the Surrey Institution in early November, he did not attend.
He could not face the seven-mile tramp from Wentworth Place, or the
pitying faces he would see when he got there. When Severn invited him
to see his painting hung in the Royal Academy, he deflected him
awkwardly. When he wrote to George and Georgiana he was unable to
give news of his sister (“I have not been to see [her] since my return from
Winchester”), and supplied only the sketchiest information about
mutual friends. “Our Set,” he said, “still continue [to] separate as we get
older, each follows with more precision the bent of his own mind.” Rice
was ill, he added, and Reynolds “in Lodgings … and … set in for the
Law.” As he went on to mention Dilke and Severn, he could not avoid
giving the impression that he, and not they, had become solitary; his
“cavalier days” were long gone. It was the kind of confession that he had
previously spared his brother, and which soon became explicit. “I have
been endeavouring to write lately,” he said pitifully, “but with little
success as I require a little encouragement, [and] little better fortun[e] to
befall you and happier news from you before I can wr[i]te with an
untrammell’d mind. Nothing could have in all its circumstances fallen
out worse for me than the last year has done, or could be more damping
to my poetical talent.”