John Keats was born in London, England, to middle-class parents, on October 31, 1795. It was fitting that he was born on Halloween, because there would always be something supernatural about Keats. Not that you would know it from meeting him – most surviving evidence shows us an energetic, earnest young man who loved life, nature, and the occasional game of cricket (check out this famous letter he wrote to his brother and sister-in-law to learn more). What made Keats supernatural was his immense gift for poetry, which enabled him to write some of the most spectacular poems of the English language – and all before his death from tuberculosis at age 25. Even though Keats wasn't successful as a writer during his lifetime – partly because his style was so revolutionary, partly because conservative critics held his modest background against him – he's a big deal to day. Now he is widely recognized as being practically on Shakespeare's level of greatness.
Like Shakespeare, Keats combined a brilliant poetic mind with deep insight into human emotions and experiences. Both of these qualities can be seen in "Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art." For many years, it was believed that this was the last poem Keats ever wrote before his death in 1821, and that the woman it describes is his fiancée, Fanny Brawne. Now, scholars know that the poem was written earlier, probably around 1819. And they aren't sure about the woman's identity either. Whenever Keats wrote it, the poem remains a powerful meditation on love, death, time, and nature. These are the reasons why it keeps getting re-read and re-memorized with each new generation.
Love! Death! Time! Loneliness! Not a bad set of awe-inspiring themes, don't you think? Now add to that the tale of a brilliant, unbelievably gifted poet, tragically doomed to die at an early age from tuberculosis. Now stir in the poet's ladylove, his muse, his fiancée, to whom he dedicated his very last poem, in which he says he prefers to die if he can't spend all eternity with his head resting right on top on her heaving, passionate bosom. Sounds like a story made for Hollywood, doesn't it? Well, somebody certainly thought so, because that's roughly the idea behind director Jane Campion's costume drama, Bright Star, which takes its name directly from the opener of John Keats's famous poem.
So now comes the part where we tell you that story was all lies, right? Well, not exactly. It's more a question of disentangling the fact from the fiction. There are two main myths in the above paragraph: first, that the poem beginning with the line "Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art" was Keats's last poem; second, that it was written with his fiancée, Fanny Brawne, in mind. Of course, Keats may have been thinking of her, but now that we know that the poem was written a full two years before his death, scholars aren't 100% positive that Keats had Fanny in mind. For all we know, the woman might be completely imaginary.
So that's two myths we've busted – what about all the other stuff? Well, as for all those other crazy stories, they're just plain true. Among these truths, however, there's one that's special: Keats's supreme genius as a poet. And he was only the age of your typical college student when he wrote "Bright Star."
The Life and Work of John Keats
This website contains texts of Keats poems and letters, images of his manuscripts, images of the poet and his family and friends, and much other useful information. Highly recommended by Shmoop.
Your one-stop information shop for all things John Keats.
Some guy reading "Bright Star"
It's always good to hear several different readings of a poem.
Keats's poem "Ode to Autumn"
This isn't "Bright Star," but it gives a window into Keats's incredible artistry. The person reading the poem is a poet himself, the American writer Stanley Plumly.
Keats's poem "Ode to Autumn"
Once again, it isn't "Bright Star," but this great poem shows you Keats's range. This time, the poem is being read by the American scholar and critic Helen Vendler.
Portrait of John Keats
This portrait of Keats was made by his friend, Joseph Severn, in 1819.
Lifemask of John Keats
This is a plaster cast of Keats's face made while he was alive.
Deathmask of John Keats
This is a plaster cast of Keats's face made shortly after his death.
Fair Copy of "Bright Star" in Keats's Hand
This is a copy of the poem that Keats wrote out himself.
Letters by John Keats
In addition to being one of the greatest English poets, John Keats was also one of the greatest English letter writers. You can read a selection of his letters to friends and family here.
Coming of age as a poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath, by Helen Vendler
This book by the American literary critic Helen Vendler contains a chapter on the development of Keats as an artist. The chapter focuses on Keats's use of the sonnet form – the same form as "Bright Star."
The Odes of John Keats, by Helen Vendler
This book explores in detail what are often considered Keats's greatest poems, the series of "Odes" he wrote towards the end of his brief life.
Bright Star, 2009
This recent film focuses on the love story between John Keats and his fiancée, Fanny Brawne.