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John Keats and Fanny Brawne

Two classic poems from a Romantic outsider to his lady love


To Fanny

I cry your mercy—pity—love! Aye, love!

Merciful love that tantalizes not,

One-thoughted, never-wandering, guileless love,

Unmasked, and being seen—without a blot!

O! let me have thee whole,—all—all—be mine!

That shape, that fairness, that sweet minor zest

Of love, your kiss,—those hands, those eyes divine,

That warm, white, lucent, million-pleasured breast,—

Yourself—your soul—in pity give me all,

Withhold no atom’s atom or I die,

Or living on perhaps, your wretched thrall,

Forget, in the mist of idle misery,

Life’s purposes,—the palate of my mind

Losing its gust, and my ambition blind!



JohnKeats1819_hires
KTS145177 Portrait Miniature of Fanny Brawne, 1833 (w/c on paper) by English School, (19th century)
watercolour on paper
10x7
Goodsell Collection on loan to Keats House, London
English, out of copyright

Keats’ poem takes the form of the traditional 14-line love sonnet. In this piece, Keats develops many of the classical ideas we now associate with romantic love. The poet envisions a singular love that is “one-thoughted, never-wandering, guileless” and free of the petty and banal imperfections of other inferior relationships. He praises Fanny’s physical qualities (“those eyes divine”, “million-pleasured breast”) before asking her to devote all her metaphysical (“your soul”) and material being (“atom’s atom”) or else he will die a sad and lonely death. Of course, there is a sense that Keats perhaps understands the impossibility of what he asks, and that in this work he is purposely crafting an idealized vision of what he thinks love should be. However, the question remains as to whether Keats’ vision of ideal love represents universal qualities that anyone would want from their partner in an perfect world, or whether it’s unique to his standpoint as a straight man in the early 19th century. What do you think? Is it acceptable to imagine a Utopian form of love, or does it set a precedent that’s too unrealistic and possibly dangerous? Or for that matter, what does it suggest that Keats actually died the sad and lonely death he lamented in this work, reportedly claiming that he was afflicted with a broken heart (though his doctors would have claimed otherwise)?

Here, Keats presents a more realistic depiction of the feelings associated with love than in the companion poem. Although ostensibly a work of devotion to his beloved, most of the poem laments the speaker’s (presumably Keats) own struggles with longing and jealousy towards the object of his affection (presumably Fanny). Critics and poetry scholars have debated Keats’ grasp of irony, so either this poem entirely lacks self-awareness or Keats intended it to be more playful than the typical love poem. Given the invocation in the beginning asks the “Physician Nature” to “ease my heart of verse” at the onset of a poem that goes on for six more stanzas, a straightforward reading of the poem becomes more complicated. Indeed, the invocation itself reflects Keats’ knowledge of epic poetry, in which the poet traditional asks the poetic muse for help. Does this poem read like a standard love poem, or is Keats verging on parody with this work?

Ode To Fanny

Physician Nature! let my spirit blood!

   O ease my heart of verse and let me rest;

Throw me upon thy tripod, till the flood

   Of stifling numbers ebbs from my full breast.

A theme! a theme! Great Nature! give a theme;

         Let me begin my dream.

I come—I see thee, as thou standest there,

Beckon me out into the wintry air.

 

Ah! dearest love, sweet home of all my fears

   And hopes and joys and panting miseries,—

To-night, if I may guess, thy beauty wears

         A smile of such delight,

         As brilliant and as bright,

   As when with ravished, aching, vassal eyes,

         Lost in a soft amaze,

         I gaze, I gaze!

 

Who now, with greedy looks, eats up my feast?

   What stare outfaces now my silver moon!

Ah! keep that hand unravished at the least;

         Let, let the amorous burn—

         But, prithee, do not turn

   The current of your heart from me so soon:

         O save, in charity,

         The quickest pulse for me.

 

Save it for me, sweet love! though music breathe

   Voluptuous visions into the warm air,

Though swimming through the dance’s dangerous wreath,

         Be like an April day,

         Smiling and cold and gay,

   A temperate lily, temperate as fair;

         Then, heaven! there will be

         A warmer June for me.

 

Why this, you’ll say—my Fanny!—is not true;

   Put your soft hand upon your snowy side,

Where the heart beats: confess—‘tis nothing new –

         Must not a woman be

         A feather on the sea,

   Swayed to and fro by every wind and tide?

         Of as uncertain speed

         As blow-ball from the mead?

 

I know it—and to know it is despair

   To one who loves you as I love, sweet Fanny,

Whose heart goes fluttering for you every where,

         Nor when away you roam,

         Dare keep its wretched home:

   Love, love alone, has pains severe and many;

         Then, loveliest! keep me free

         From torturing jealousy.

 

Ah! if you prize my subdued soul above

   The poor, the fading, brief pride of an hour:

Let none profane my Holy See of Love,

         Or with a rude hand break

         The sacramental cake:

   Let none else touch the just new-budded flower;

         If not—may my eyes close,

         Love, on their last repose!

It's Kind of a Tragic Story

Working at the fringes of the Romantic poets’ clique in his lifetime, Keats would not have considered himself a part of their tradition, merely a friend of more established members like Percy Bysshe Shelley. Despite this, Keats has come to embody the image of the tragic young Romantic poet more than any of his contemporaries. This reputation is due mainly to the dramatic arc of his life: falling passionately in love with Fanny Brawne; being unable to marry her for financial reasons; then dying of an illness in his 20’s far from his home, family and Fanny. Some of his more memorable poems deal with loss and death, but he also contributed to the Romantic conception of love through the poems he dedicated to his beloved. Yet more than his own words of love, Keats’ relationship with Fanny itself has become the archetypal love narrative that’s embedded itself into popular culture. While their story certainly has all the hallmarks of the classic tearjerker or contemporary young adult romance, it also reflects some of the harsher realities of the time period in England, from financial issues that afflicted the struggling members of the middle class to the public health crisis that raged for most of the century in the rapidly urbanizing country. So while the star-crossed love story of Keats and Brawne still resonates primarily due to the legacy of Keats’ poetry, the importance of everyday relationship problems like money and health in a story that’s been, for lack of a better word, romanticized for almost two centuries cannot be ignored.

 


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