in English Literature, Poetry

John Keats and Isabella Jones

Keats’ romantic relationships had a significant impact on his poetry: he met a lady called Isabella Jones in 1817 while on holiday in Hastings. She was a beautiful, intelligent, wealthy and well-read woman, and it is thought that she and Keats had a secret romance for a time; remaining close friends afterwards. She invited him to her house in Fitzrovia, near the British Museum, and he was impressed by her collection of art, birds, books and her aeolian harp. There was perhaps always a sense that Isabella, older and wealthier than Keats, was an alluring yet unattainable goal for him, so his initial romantic passion for her seems to cool over time, though it quells into a dear, friendly affection for her rather than indifference. When Keats died, Isabella was one of the first to be contacted.

John Keats and Fanny Brawne

In September 1818 Keats met the true love of his life, Fanny Brawne. They were of similar status in life and had both lost loved ones to tuberculosis, and upon meeting her he found her “beautiful, elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable and strange”. Their love blossomed, and by April 1819 they were seeing each other every day, reading poetry together – Keats, for instance, lent her a copy of Dante’s Inferno. He dedicated his sonnet “Bright Star” to her and had hopes of marrying her. They became secretly engaged in October 1819, but Keats also discovered at this time that he had tuberculosis, and Fanny’s mother disapproved of him having dropped out of medical school to pursue a seemingly unlucrative poetic career. Fanny had other potential suitors, which caused Keats a lot of stress and anxiety, though she remained faithful to him and underwent a six-year period of mourning after his death. 

Summary of “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil” by Keats

Keats wrote in October 1819 to Fanny: “My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you – I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again – my Life seems to stop there – I see no further. You have absorb’d me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving – I should be exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you … I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion – I have shudder’d at it – I shudder no more – I could be martyr’d for my Religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you.”

The origins of the sonnet “Bright Star” have long been debated, with some critics feeling that it was originally written for Isabella and then revised for Fanny. Its final form was certainly intended for Fanny:

Bright Star

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.

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