Module A Textual Conversations – John Keats and Bright Star Study Guide

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Module A Textual Conversations – Keats, John, The Complete Poems vs Campion, Jane, Bright Star

Initial Considerations

As with beginning any HSC English text, it is crucial to first begin with establishing a foundational understanding of the rubric and its requirements. This includes grasping a detailed understanding of each key syllabus term, as well as familiarising yourself with the rubric’s requirements as a whole. It is worthwhile summarising, and perhaps learning key phrases and idea in the rubric when commencing each module so as to be best equipped for answer HSC Exam Questions that will likely use similar phrasing.

Textual Conversations

Textual conversations refers to a form of comparative study in which, at its most fundamental, appreciates the similarities and disparities between a pair of texts. You are invited to consider the ways in which a comparative study of texts with so much in common may shed light on the stark differences in which context, composition and medium offer. In this way, you are not only expected to find shared thematic concerns, but too consider why each respective composer may have chosen to  include or omit certain ideas, or perhaps approach them from divergent perspectives.

Bright Star (2009)

Australian director Jane Campion’s 2009 film Bright Star is a speculative film based on the very much real love letters and poetry of John Keats. By her unique capacity to imaginatively turn letters into big-screen cinema magic, Campion tells Keats’ tale from the perspective of Fanny Brawne, the poet’s love interest. Bright Star may be studied as a contextual approach to Keats’ life and his manner of thinking – an anatomisation of the ideals of Romanticism. it should be appreciated as a film that makes use of the stylistic and technical dimensions of its medium to breathe new life into the life of John Keats.

Jane Campion

Campion has always strived to criticise the sheer over-representation of cinema’s straight white male typecast. Her work takes a stern approach to challenging audiences’ understanding of gender, race and notions of femininity as well as masculinity. Women aren’t quite the damsels-in-distress that we may expect elsewhere when it comes to Campion’s work no matter the time period. Instead, they take destiny in to their own hands offering a shift in perspective for audience’s when they may anticipate quite the opposite. Campion believes that films have become over-capitalised. She believes that audience approval has become the sole focus of the cinematographer and the surrounding culture of modern-day filmmaking. Campion seeks to challenge this by ensuring her purpose exudes her creative pieces in invigorating and thought-provoking ways.

Campion’s work is fundamentally feminine, exploring even the most un-filmable dimensions of what it means to be a woman. In an interview with The Guardian, she explains “I wanted to bring my interests and concerns into the cinema,” she explains. “Psychologically, women are forced to look at the world through men’s eyes. I wanted to put the other point of view: what it felt like to be a woman expressing yourself, being free, doing your human stuff in what is a pretty patriarchal society.”

Bright Star (2009) – Role of the Feminine

Jane Campion’s 2009 film Bright Star may surprise audiences by the strength in which it bestows upon its female characters in the realms of not only sensuality and sexuality, but dually power and privilege. While the film rotates about the life of 19th-century Romantic poet John Keats, the film too takes a particular interest in the love affair between Fanny Brawne and the bard himself. It would be overtly arguable that Brawne becomes not only the object of fascination in the film but too the plot’s central protagonist. ‘Bright Star’ (2009) – whose title borrows from Keats’ own poem to Brawne cited in the film –  navigates the life of Keats from the perspective of his stern and commanding love who must not only endure his madness but too his ultimate demise. Despite the turbulence in Keats life, Brawne remains “stedfast”, as per the eponymous poem’s proclamations. In such a way, Brawne’s subject position is configured so highly that she exceeds Keat’s in being his senior by the perspective of the audience: remaining his steady arm and concurrent muse.

John Keat’s Poetry

John Keats is a poet well known for his contribution to the well-known literary revolution that was British Romanticism and Romanticism as a genre broadly. With his distinctive style, Keats contributed very much to the way in which nature and the sublime held a signature stance in literature movement that characterised the Romantic works. Jane Campion’s film aims to borrow much from Keats’ musings and stylings to the point that the film may be viewed as a manifestation of Keats’ own mind.

‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’

‘Courtly love’ was a medieval literary notion which encapsulated a form a love typified by an incessant pursuit and demonstration of nobility and chivalry. In ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ – a title which translates to ‘A beautiful lady without mercy’, Keats takes to the ballad form to expound upon some of the ideas established by Alain Chartier’s poem (1424) with the same title, although this time with a far more mystic and romanticised spin. He first composed the poem in letters to George and Georgiana Keats, Yeat’s brother and sister-in-law in 1819. The poem centres around a persona who begins his ballad by telling us of an encounter with a knight, introduced to us as wallowing in his own as nears the end of his life in an open field. The personal inquire as to what is ailing the knight to which he responds with an extended anecdote reflecting on a lady who he had professed that “(he) loved thee true.” After courting her and admiring her, the knight was brought to her cave where they kissed a fatal kiss which “lulled” the knight to sleep, before having vision of all the temptress’ past victims.

The poem in its entirety could be read as a dream sequence, a mystical realm in which fairies entice and excite the persona. In what ways does the film manage a dream-like sequence? Consider the ways in which you may parallel Fanny Brawne and the central women in this poem. Make note of the ways in which Campion’s lens has mimicked Keat’s own romantic reverie in this ballad. How does the craftmanship of Keats manifest in the cinematic stylings of Campion?

‘To Autumn’

An anatomisation on the imponderable aspects of death, ‘To Autumn’, this poem remains simplistic as it does ambiguous in its agenda. On its surface, it may be rendered an ode to a season, but upon closer inspection, we reach new understandings regarding a deeper layer pertaining to progression, degradation and the inevitabilities of life. Departing from lighter thematic concerns, the narrators voice drifts to directly invite the audience to reconsider the world around them through the vice of rhetorical questions. “To Autumn” is one of Keats’ final poems. The poetry renders typical imagery of autumn in a manner that conjures up a feel of finality; of tranquilised maturity. Autumn has come alive and been personified as a friend to greet mankind to walk them towards a beckoning end: winder, or for Keats, death. It is typical to find an ode that valorises inanimate objects or concepts, particularly rendered as feminine in quality.

‘Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art’

The eponymous title of Jane Campion’s film, “The Bright Star” is a love sonnet and is believed to be Keats’ ultimate ode to his love and fiancé Fanny Brawne. Keats writes the poem in iambic pentameter, revolving around his admiration for stars and the awe-inspiring beauty of nature, a fundamental Romanticist concern. The poem is addressed to a star, Keats wishing he were as ‘steadfast’ as the cosmic entity. He is likely referring to the North Star, a star which remains stagnant as a guiding means of navigation for sailors. His desire to be still and permanent juxtaposes the transiently mortal life of humans. The speaker conveys shows his wit from the beginning of the poem in wishing to be like the star; Keats explains that he would rather not be like the star, as he does not, in fact, wish to spend an eternity in isolation and loneliness.   Keats wishes to be unmoved by the grandeur of natural phenomena that occur across the Earth’s landscape, despite the reality that the poet loves to watch the melting and formation of snowcapped mountains, the running water and other natural processes. This poem is rather self-contradictory: the poet wishes to cherish this moment, gleaming at Brawne/the star, all while wishing for death if his wish for eternal love is not fulfilled.

’Ode to a Nightingale’

“Ode to a Nightingale” is a self-reflective poem detailing and recounting Keats’s journey into the state of negative capability. Negative capability refers to the pursuance of artistic beauty even when it may lead to demise by intellectual uncertainty and confusion, as opposed to a preference for sound philosophy and reason. The poem explores the themes of nature, transience and mortality, the latter being particularly personal to Keats. This is in stark contrast to his more optimistic, earlier works. The poem begins with the speaker feeling disoriented from listening to the nightingale as though he had become overwhelmed and intoxicated. The persona describes a bittersweet happiness I considering the nightingale’s nonchalant life. The speaker desires a particular wine distilled from the earth. He wishes to drink the wine and fade away into the forest with the enchanting nightingale. In escapist fashion he seeks to run from the concerns of aging and the fearful results of time. Poetry allows him to enter the nightingale’s enchanting night-world. Taking in the smell of the flowers, he consoles himself with the thought of dying in the night without a trace. The night is encroaching and inescapable, much like the nightingale itself – it has been a historical reality. Eventually the nightingale leaves the speaker. He is left bewildered and disappointed, returning to his initial state of being unable to differentiate between reality and the dreaming state.

‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’

This particular poem of Keats’ details at length with particular precision the apprehension that the poet has in leaving this world without gathering all his thoughts on paper. A popular Romantic concern, Keats seeks to explain his woes in a symbolic account of the transience of human experience, effort and purpose. Keats’ trepidation not hard to anatomise in the suite of Keats’s poems provided in your HSC prescriptions, not to mention his famous letters to family and friends. However, this sonnet sets itself apart compared to others by its author because it carves a more nuanced detailing of death. Keat’s fear is no longer purely the natural condition of mortality. Instead, it stands for much more, encapsulating a fear of failing to achieve love and fame within the split-second of his existence in this reality. Alternatively, this poem may be read as hopeful: that this mortality is ultimately what provides this suffering Keats with the release he ultimately desires.

’The Eve of St Agnes, XXIII’

This very brief poem is widely regarded as one of Keats’ finest works. The eponymous St Agnes was a patron saint of virgins and died a martyr in 4th century Rome, and hence the poem’s title refers to the eve before her feast day, the 21st of January. St. Agnes of Rome is a venerated saint in the Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism and Lutheranism. She is a highly venerated virgin in many Christian churches alongside the Virgin Mary in her own right. She was condemned to be raped in a brothel and executed but; however, a miraculous thunderstorm saved her from rape.  Keats centres his poem on the superstitious basis that a girl could see a prospective husband in a dream-state if she carried out particular rites on the eve of St. Agnes. For instance, one superstitious means of securing vision of her lover would be for her go to bed without looking behind her, laying on her hands which would be placed beyond her back, allowing her husband to kiss her in her dreams.

The poem is set in a medieval castle, on the night of the feast day. Young Madeline is assured that if she performs her special rites, she will meet her destined lover. During the same evening, Porphyro, the lover of Madeline, comes to the castle quarters despite being an enemy of the family. He meets Angela’s nurse who helps spur on a plot to place Porphyro in Madeline’s room to dupe the young maiden into thinking she appears to him in a dream state. On this same evening, Porphyro, who is the lover of Madeline, comes to her castle without being noticed. Porphyro is regarded as the enemy by Madeline’s family and they want to kill him on sight. Luckily he meets Madeline’s old nurse, Angela, who is friend to Porphyro. She tells him the plan of Madeline and her belief on the ritual. He suddenly thinks of making Madeline’s dream a reality by his presence in her bedroom at midnight.  He requests Angela to help her and also makes her believe that he will do no harm to her. Then she leads him to Madeline’s chamber and hides him in a closet. Porphyro attempts to wake the sleeping Madeline, but her slumber is too deep. He takes up a lute and she suddenly awkaens. Madeline is displeased that Porphyro’s presence does not meet her expectations yet she fears being left alone. Porphyro hastily convinces her to run away with him. The two escape from the castle. Angela dies.

The original draft of this poem was far more eroticised, yet due to the young age of the lovers inferred here, publishes feared public criticism and reduced such undertones. What does remain intact, however, is a very strong suggestion of predator-prey undertones by which– despite the poem opening by the depiction of destined lovers – the poem ends with an inference to subsequent rape in a ‘volta’ (poetic turn) that stuns responders.

‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’

“Ode on a Grecian Urn” was composed in 1819, the year in which Keats contracted the fatal disease tuberculosis. He had described himself as a ‘living ghost’ to his dearest friends, a description which finds itself haunting the spaces between the lines of this poem. The persona in this ode gazes at a Grecian urn and meditates on the nature of truth and beauty: key tenants found in Romantic literature, often side-by-side and discussed interchangeably. He marvels at the detail and the artistry of the urn. Keats would have encountered many Greek urns (marble pots) in the British Museum, which was an instruction known at this point in history as having taken many artefacts from their Southern European neighbour. The carvings on the side of the urn detail sex, nature, love and mortality. The poet seems to envy the figures fixed depicted the pottery, characters whose happiness and love will remain etched and stagnant through time. There exists here an ‘ekphrasis’ (meditation on a visual work of art) in literature from the classical to the modern. The persona details his fascination by the antiquity of the urn yet remains puzzled by the exact tale being told through the artistry. The urn depicts men chasing women, musical instruments and sacrificial ceremonies. He remains frustrated and agonised by the urn’s inability to respond or to explain itself, despite being a mere artefact.

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