The Jane Campion film Bright Star, about the love that John Keats and Fanny Brawne had for one another (more particularly about the love that she had for him), does indeed exercise its imagination. Yet it does not truly exercise ours.
This is because the film is mistaken to the point of perversity about the nature of imagination when it comes to a poet and especially to this poet. That a film cannot but show us pictures is admittedly the essence of the medium, and in the old days it was to the pictures that we used to go. (In 1915 the Kinematograph & Lantern Weekly still called upon quotation marks when speaking of a very successful career in “pictures.”) But it is imperative that the pictures within such a film as Bright Star practice one simple unremitting act of self-abnegation: of never being pictures of the very things that a great writer has superbly—by means of the chosen medium of words alone—enabled us to imagine, to picture. A film that proceeds to furnish competing pictures of its own will render pointless the previous acts of imagination that it purports to respect or to honor. For among the accomplishments of the poet is that he or she brings it about that we see with the mind’s eye, as against the eye of flesh. The sense of the word “picture” as “a visible image of something formed by physical means” is the antithesis of the sense as “a graphic description, written or spoken, capable of suggesting a mental image.”
Much of the genius of Keats lies in description that is graphic despite—as well as because of—its not existing in any of the media that constitute the graphic arts. In Keats’s art (his letters quite as much as his poems), even the word “description” falls short of his astonishing achievement, in that his imagination never limits itself to describing; rather, thanks to a whole range of corporeal imaginings, it realizes. For it imagines not only seeing (when all that we are physically seeing is words on a page) but the creative power of empathy and of sympathy by means of all the senses. Keats’s words are so telling as to need no showing of what they conjure up. Not merely do they not need such showing, they need not to be accorded it. This winding around is in line with “In Drear-Nighted December” when it speaks of “the feel of not to feel it.”
Jane Campion has spoken of “the lamp lit by his poetic genius”: “It is Bright Star ‘s ambition to sensitize the audience, to light the lamp.” But the verb “to sensitize” is distant from sensibility and sensitivity, and had we not just been told that it was Keats’s poetic genius that lit the lamp? In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Ruskin illuminated “The Lamp of Truth” because he valued not only truth but imagination, or (more exactly) valued the symbiotic …