Ever Yours Affectionately
A Review of So Bright and Delicate: The Love Letters and Poems of John Keats
It is always easier to face the morning when you wake up facing someone you love. And when our loved ones are far from reach, we look for words to bridge the distance. Throughout their time together, the poet John Keats and his lover Fanny Brawne kept up a tender and passionate correspondence. This correspondence, compiled with a selection of Keats’ poems is collected in So Bright and Delicate published by Penguin Classics. Although their relationship was cut short due to Keats’ untimely death, his words have built the foundation to his legacy.
“My dearest Lady,” Keats writes, “The morning is the only proper time for me to write to a beautiful Girl whom I love so much…” I imagine what it must be like to be Fanny Brawne, to wake up stirring out of one dream and into a dreamier life. I transport myself into the mind of John Keats, with nights and days equally tormented and uplifted by a love for someone a long way from his embrace.
His love for her blooms out of the page:
I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days – three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.
His words describe the joys of love so triumphantly, but while they soar, notes of gloom weigh down his flights of passion. John Keats suffered from tuberculosis, and during his time away for recovery, had to live with the possibility of never seeing Fanny again. He takes delight in fantasizing about different lives with her, as he knows they will never end up happy together in this one. He pairs his daydreams with the warm comfort of small gestures; he asks her to “write the softest words and kiss them that [he] may at least touch [his] lips where [hers] have been.”
In addition to a series of warm letters, Keats also wrote exquisite poems to and inspired by Fanny Brawne. This book contains the poems he wrote during their time together, such as ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, ‘Ode on Melancholy’, ‘Ode to Psyche’, ‘Ode on Indolence’, and perhaps my favourite sonnet:
Bright star, would I were stedfast 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 stedfast, 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.
As his letters progress – and his illness more detrimental – Keats’ desperation becomes more saturated on the page. Consumed with passion and, well, consumption, he confesses:
On the night I was taken ill – when so violent a rush of blood came to my lungs that I felt nearly suffocated – I assure you I felt it possible I might not survive, and at that moment thought of nothing but you.
Despite hoping for a full recovery, he eventually knew that was not to be. Instead, he focused his attention to Fanny. Perhaps he saw in her a bittersweet solace as unattainable as recuperation, but the possibility and promise of their love was far greater than his fear of death. “I wish I was either in your arms full of faith or a Thunder bolt would strike me,” pines Keats.
These letters are unquestionably intimate. Though Keats’ poems are bursting with the same amount of love and passion, they were written with the possibility of publication. The letters he wrote for Fanny were meant for her eyes only, and a small part of me feels as though I was breaching their trust and privacy.
Upon my soul I have loved you to the extreme. I wish you could know the Tenderness with which I continually brood over your different aspects of countenance, action, and dress.
Poring over these letters let me glimpse the parts of someone’s soul typically hidden and only revealed to the loves of their lives. In reading and understanding them, I have woven myself into the narrative. I have built a bridge that spanned through centuries and connected with a pair of people so far out of my reach. Through words, we close the gap, and with love, we survive.
The feeling of mutual understanding with someone kilometers and years away soothes me. I tuck this knowledge within my smile as I wake up, and I swear, each morning sun blossoms just a little bit brighter each day.