Old Love Stories Retold: John Keats and Fanny Brawne, Page 1|
by Richard Le Gallienne (1904).
It is surprising that the love stories of great poets should so often disappoint the romantic—and, one might add, the aesthetic—sense. From such lovers of love, and such passionists of beauty, one naturally expects not only the ideal passion, but the ideal object. Of all poets one would say this of John Keats, the one poet whose name has come to be synonymous with beauty; and it is certainly a particularly ironical paradox that the lady irritatingly associated with his name should be the least congruous of all the many commonplace women transfigured by the genius they could not understand, and the love of which they were not worthy. Most women honoured by the love of great poets have at least been inoffensive, placidly pretty, domestically devoted. They have been that, or they have been—devils. To both statements, there are, of course, exceptions. Generally speaking, they have been neither beautiful nor intelligent. The poor poet, of course, thought they were both,—because he was a poet. A poet would hardly be a poet if he did not make such divinely absurd mistakes, and one might almost state it as the first necessity of his being a poet at all that he should make that grand mistake about the woman he loves. In this respect, the English poets have been particularly fortunate. Beatrice and Laura were indeed graceful nonentities, but there is something dainty and distinguished about their names that allows us to think of them without impatience as decorative and docile adjectives to the great names with which they are pathetically linked. One could mention no few poets or other nations who have succeeded in giving the names of the women they loved a significance hardly second to their own. But with such exceptions as, say Shelley and Browning, Rossetti and William Morris, the English poets have proved singularly unable to sing their loves up among the stars. Of course, there is—Ann Hathaway. And there is also—Fanny Brawne.
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Probably the reason of this is that most English poets have sprung from the middle classes, were born in the provinces, or lived in the suburbs. Beautiful women are born either among the very rich or the very poor. The English poet, as a rule, has been born between these extremes, and his lines have fallen neither in Mayfair nor Whitechapel—but in Clapham. He has come in contact neither with the noble lady, nor the beautiful peasant. His German-silver fate has been the water-colour miss of the academies for young ladies. Shelley met such a fate in silly little Harriet Westbrook, and Keats met another in the still sillier Fanny Brawne.
Fame, that loves to humour its poets, has consented to glorify the names of many unimportant poor relations of genius, but there has never been a more insignificant name upon its lips than the name of Fanny Brawne. But John Keats loved a suburban miss of that name—and, perforce, Time, and perhaps even Eternity, must do her honour. One writes so, remembering not only the tortures to which she subjected a noble spirit with her dancing-class coquetries, but remembering too this passage in Sir Charles Dilke's Memoirs of his grandfather:
"Keats died admired only by his personal friends, and by Shelley; and even ten years after his death, when the first memoir was proposed, the woman he had loved had so little belief in his poetic reputation, that she wrote to Mr. Dilke, 'The kindest act would be to let him rest for ever in the obscurity to which circumstances have condemned him.'"
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