Subscribe to Christianity Today
Bright Star: Love Letters and Poems of John Keats to Fanny Brawne
Penguin Books, 2009
144 pp., $16.00
Letters as a literary form—not to mention as documents between living, breathing people whose relationship they preserve—seem in decline. One easily imagines that fewer writers, blogging and maintaining their websites, busy themselves with such a quaint practice. Now they have electronic means of commenting on daily events or making announcements to a circle of acquaintances, and thus neglect the composition of what Garrison Keillor calls "a sweet gift— a piece of handmade writing, in an envelope that is not a bill." The artifact Keillor describes can hardly compare (right?) with the efficiency and portability of emailing or texting. When future literary biographers ply their trade, will these digital records be as valuable as letters are in revealing writers' lives? And even if a writer composes letters that are eventually published, I worry they are bound to be increasingly overlooked, if not yet bound for readers' or critics' dead-letter office. Our own swiftly changing habits of communication risk making us less attentive to others' missives. Sure, there is always Lord Chesterfield or Virginia Woolf or John Cheever, and the recently published correspondence of American poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell seizes our attention; theirs are often letters about the arts of letters. Nevertheless, we need occasions and advocates for appreciating anew the best letters of the past, along with the minds and hearts still revealed there.
The Oscar-winning filmmaker Jane Campion sensed the letter's artistic value when reading mere extracts of John Keats' correspondence with Fanny Brawne in the poet Andrew Motion's biography of his great Romantic predecessor. She was "completely unprepared by how passionate and intimate the story was," she explains in an interview on the DVD of Bright Star, which she wrote and directed. Full of cinematic beauties, her film tells the story of Keats' and Brawne's first meeting as neighbors in Hampstead, in the fall of 1818—he ...