Old Love Stories Retold: John Keats and Fanny Brawne, Page 4|
by Richard Le Gallienne (1904).
In the fifth letter, dated Winchester, August 16th, however, we find that John Keats has been at Winchester four days, and yet has not written to his lady. With almost clumsy frankness—even harshness, as he admits—he confesses that poetry has got hold of him, with so imperious a preoccupation that he could at the moment no more write "soothing words" to Fanny Brawne than if he were "engaged in a charge of cavalry." Continually afterwards we find him placing his work on his poems before her. He dare not see her lest she should distract him from his masterpiece. And later, when he falls ill, we find him, for a lover, curiously cautious. He seems indeed to have been as careful of his health as of his poetry; for, although the two lovers lived next door to each other at Hampstead, Keats was so afraid of the perturbation of his lady's presence, that days and days went by without his venturing to allow her to pay him a brief call; and he seems well content to have her written "Good-night," or to see her from his window. The only apparent vitality of his love was his unreasonable jealousy of his friend, Charles Brown; which was merely a sign of that coming neurosis through whose exaggeration Fanny Brawne was to seem so pathetically more important than she really was, or ever could have been, had he not been so sick a man.
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That Keats thought he loved Fanny Brawne his letters to others, rather than his official love-letters to her, vehemently, even hysterically, prove. There is no doubt that he believed he was dying of—her! To Charles Brown—the friend of whom he had been jealous, and yet to whom he wrote his last letters—he wrote on November 1, 1820: "As I have gone thus far into it, I must go on a little;—persuasion that I shall see her no more will kill me. My dear Brown, I should have had her when I was in health, and I should have remained well. I can bear to die—I cannot bear to leave her. Oh, God! God! God! Everything that I have in my trunks that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear. The silk lining she put in my travelling cup scalds my head. My imagination is horribly vivid about her—I see her—I hear her. There is nothing in the world of sufficient interest to divert me from her a moment. . . . O that I could be buried near where she lives! I am afraid to write to her—to receive a letter from her—to see her handwriting would break my heart—even to hear of her anyhow, to see her name written, would be more than I can bear. My dear Brown, what am I to do? Where can I look for consolation or ease? If I had any chance of recovery, this passion would kill me."
Also, there need be no doubt that, when Keats sailed from England for the last time, on the Maria Crowther, bound for Pisa, on September 18, 1820, he was thinking of Fanny Brawne as he wrote his last and greatest sonnet:
"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,
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."
It is strange to think that such infinitesimal femininity as Fanny Brawne should inspire a dying man to write such undying words—O! why were they not written to Cleopatra—or "at least a Charmian!"—but the heart of the poet is a divine mystery.
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