This Living Hand: Bright Star and the Etsy Effect

This essay argues that the Keats portrayed in Jane Campion’s Bright Star is a product of the twenty-first century’s Etsy culture—and that this portrayal, if somewhat surprising or even counterintuitive, effectively captures Keats’s understanding of the relationship between poetic making and imperfection. The paper both compares Keats’s presence on the handicraft-marketing platform to his characterization in Campion’s hand-centric film and identifies the ways in which the Keats of contemporary popular culture has become an appealing and textually reasonable model for entrepreneurial crafters and other aspiring artisans.

This Living Hand: Bright Star and the Etsy Effect

1.         Jane Austen has a way of horning in on my scholarship. One minute, I’m writing about Wordsworth and ballet; the next, I’m citing Mr. Darcy’s famous assertion that “every savage can dance” (44). I sit down to meditate on Romantic-era vegetarianism, and I end up with an essay about—of all things—Mansfield Park and the carnivores who inhabit its eponymous estate. Indeed, Austen has hijacked so many projects over the years that I’ve almost come to expect her interference, and I wasn’t surprised when she swam into my ken almost as soon as I began, on Brian Bates’s kind invitation, to ponder a paper about Jane Campion’s 2009 film Bright Star for this important collection. What did surprise me, however, was that this time, Austen’s interference manifested in another scholar’s complaint that she does, in fact, interfere with everything—or, at least, with every contemporary cinematic portrayal of nineteenth-century living, Bright Star included. In a compelling essay entitled “The Austen Effect,” Toby Benis argues that “the success of screen adaptations of Austen’s novels has been followed by a generation of films set during the Romantic period that treat a variety of causes and figures… as if they circulated in a novel of manners” (183). Campion’s Fanny Brawne-centered Keats biopic, Benis continues, capitulates to that trend by “implicitly equat[ing] becoming a great poet with winning the hand of an aspiring lady” (183); the film’s Keats is “a lover,” in Benis’s words, “whose successful negotiation of the social obstacles to love, most obviously poverty, goes hand in hand with his poetic breakthroughs” (185). Benis attributes special influence to Andrew Davies, “the force behind the 1995 BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice” (184), and as I pondered that particular connection, the more echoes of Davies’s most famous Austenian adaptation I came to see in Bright Star myself. Benis concentrates on the Austenian-formulaic aspects of Campion’s film—she notes, for example, that “Campion makes [Charles] Brown into the third figure… of an Austenesque triangle of affection and loyalty” and that she “erases… ambivalence” by presenting “Fanny’s attraction to and acceptance of Keats as her lover as…straightforward” (185, 186)—but I was struck by the more material parallels between Davies’s miniseries and Bright Star, from their shared emphasis on scenes at dining tables and in bedchambers to their eerily similar opening credit sequences, both of which feature extreme close-ups of needlework set to instrumental scores. Parties and balls are central to both portrayals—one would expect as much from an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, but notwithstanding the fact that “every savage can dance,” Bright Star’s concentration on such scenes was initially a bit of a surprise—and Campion, like Davies, frequently captures lovers and would-be lovers as they walk, often with sibling chaperones, across fields and through woods.

2.         As Pride and Prejudice reminds us, however, appearances—especially first impressions—can be deceiving, and upon closer inspection, Benis’s “Austen effect” begins to seem, as a critical account, a bit like George Wickham: too easy and more than a little inconsistent. I’m not sure, on second thought, to what degree Campion’s Keats really “negotiat[es]… poverty”—after all, he dies as itinerant and dependent as the historical Keats—and I’ve come to question the notion that Fanny’s love for Keats, as portrayed by Campion, is “straightforward,” devoid of “ambivalence.” When Fanny sends her younger siblings to the bookshop to purchase Endymion, Margaret “Toots” Brawne’s remark to the bookseller seems directly to contradict Benis’s assertion of doubt-free “attraction and acceptance”: “My sister has met the author,” Toots explains, “and she wants to read it for herself to see if he is an idiot or not.” Fanny’s stated motive, in other words, hardly suggests that her “attraction” to Keats is akin to Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Elinor Dashwood’s fast-formed devotion to Edward Ferrars, one of the on-screen Austenian love stories to which Benis compares it (186). But I was particularly struck by the bookshop episode because, upon further consideration, I realized that it complicated my own sense of the material parallels between Campion’s film and Davies’s miniseries at least as much as it challenged Benis’s argument about the formulaic similarities in question. The bookshop is inelegant—dun, dusty, and dim—and the bookseller’s reply to Samuel Brawne’s request for Endymion is downright crass: “I’ve not sold one and took twenty,” he grouses. From the bookseller’s vantage, Endymion is less a poem than a product—a thing, that is, to be bound, stocked, stacked, and sold—and in this brief scene and others, Campion shows nineteenth-century England’s unvarnished backside to a degree that Davies, in his ever-shimmering Pride and Prejudice, never approaches. For instance, although both productions emphasize scenes at tables, only Campion shows the dingy kitchens where food is prepared. Both productions feature social dancing, but only Campion portrays the drudgery of a dance lesson, one conducted in the Brawnes’ narrow sitting room by a pedantic French instructor. Both productions feature sibling-chaperoned walks, but only Campion, who highlights the sometimes walk-resistant Toots as well as the lovers’ stolen kisses, captures the tensions and limitations inherent in that system of virtue-guarding. And although both productions open with images of sewing, only Campion (whose initial needlework shots are, thanks to the fabric’s ghostly whiteness, more emotionally ambivalent than Davies’s images of colorfully embroidered and warmly lit silk) remains interested in the act of stitching and, concomitantly, in the fact that clothes—like habits, dancers, food, and, of course, poetry—are made, are the products of material conditions and human efforts that are often unideal or even ugly.

3.         Campion has acknowledged that she aimed to achieve in Bright Star something other than a Davies-ish sheen, and in various interviews, she has described the aesthetic to which she aspired as more flawed than flawless. “Most period films,” Campion argued in 2009, “look like antique shops,” and Bright Star, in contrast, is purposely “very bare.” “[We] were very strict,” she says, “about what they were allowed to have in the room. And out of that authenticity it created some boundaries for us. We wanted, if the film could ‘feel’ beautiful, that they would have earned it, rather than saying, this sort of thing should ‘look’ beautiful” (Sullivan 86). For Campion, I gather, “bare” primarily means uncluttered or even impoverished; the term “bare,” however, also connotes nakedness—a lifted veil, so to speak—and I concur with Campion’s assertion that Bright Star eschews “thing[s]” that simply “‘look’ beautiful,” or perfectly finished, in favor of objects and experiences that manifest their madeness, that show and even celebrate the productive processes behind or beneath. I ascribe that aesthetic shift to a new pop-cultural influence, a fresh “effect”: In lieu of conventional period-film luxury, Campion’s “bare” portrait of the nineteenth-century emphasizes what I would describe as the ethos of craft and crafting, and as a result, I argue that if Bright Star was shaped by cinematic Austeniana, it’s at least as indebted to the rise of Etsy, the online handicraft marketplace that was established in 2005, four years before Bright Star’s release, and that remains an internet powerhouse today. The fact that Keatsiana—that is, Keats-inspired notecards, broadsides, tote bags, jewelry, decorative objets, and other such material—is surprisingly abundant at suggests that artisans have intuited a special relationship between their work and Keats’s, [1] and although neither Campion nor the typical Etsy maker-cum-seller acknowledges the prosodic craftsmanship that, for many literary critics, distinguishes Keats’s highly wrought poems, both, I aim to demonstrate, appropriately figure Keats as a champion of craft’s pragmatic and ideological affiliations with the human hand and, as a result, with human imperfection.

4.         In her brief history of craft, Michele Krugh doesn’t explicitly posit a relationship between crafting and imperfection, but she does dwell on craft’s essential links, since William Morris’s late nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts movement, to amateurism and handwork, both of which represent alternatives to the flawlessness associated with professionalism and/or mechanized fabrication. With Morris as a “founding [member],” the “Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society was formed in 1877 in reaction against the drive to professionalization within the Royal Institute of British Architects, which wanted to make architecture a closed shop like law and medicine” (Gilmour 231). [2] That said, Morris had long been an acolyte of John Ruskin, whose anti-industrialist commentary on craftsmanship in The Stones of Venice includes an injunction against “demand[ing] an exact finish for its own sake,” as well as a warning about perfection generally: “No good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art” (95, 97). Ruskin and Morris wrote with profound political goals in mind, but “the most lasting contributions of the Arts and Crafts movement,” Krugh argues, were “the transformation of craft into a leisure activity and the linking of craft with unalienated labour in opposition to mass production” (288). In other words, today’s makers and consumers are unlikely to ponder a link between craft and Ruskinian theories of social utopia, and although Krugh notes that, “over the course of the twentieth century,” craft also lost some of its affiliation with amateurism, “one aspect that remained constant was the importance of laboring by hand to the meaning of craft” (290). Etsy, which Krugh describes as “the first and largest craft e-commerce site” and “a global, online marketplace” (291), has continued to compromise craft’s relationship to amateurism by suggesting (somewhat disingenuously, it turns out) that the crafter’s “pleasurable and creative work” can, more easily than ever, become “a day job” (Krugh 294). Nonetheless, Krugh observes, Etsy still celebrates the hand—its intimacy, its idiosyncrasy, its authenticity—in a host of ways but most notably through its affiliated blog’s “articles on featured shops,” which typically “include interviews with the sellers and beautiful photographs of their workspaces and their products, and more importantly, of them making their crafts.” As Krugh indicates, these narratives “usually [include] close-ups of [sellers’] hands as evidence of the ‘handmade’ labour of production” (294).

5.         To my mind, Krugh’s account of the standard imagery in an Etsy Blog article—“workspaces,” “products,” “making,” and, most importantly, “hands,” all possessed of a constructed, not an innate, beauty—uncannily evokes the aesthetic of Bright Star, in which, as I’ve noted, no object or experience (be it dress, dance, or poem) is portrayed as isolated from the human forces, the backstage labor, that brought it into existence. The film’s most obviously Etsy-ish moments represent Fanny, an aspiring fashion designer who early and confidently asserts in the manner of an Etsy ingenue that her work, which Brown denigrates as a girlish “obsession with flounce and cross stitch,” will earn her money—that is, will become “a day job” both satisfying and elevating. The work isn’t easy—as Margarida Pereira observes, “Fanny presents her stitching as a form of art as difficult and as complex as poetry writing” (163)—and Campion treats us to shot after shot of the studio-esque domestic spaces in which Fanny’s skilled hands, often shown in “close-ups,” gather, rip, pin, and sew the textiles destined to become either pieces in Fanny’s own wardrobe or exquisite gifts, such as the pillowslip that she embroiders for the late Tom Keats. However, in addition to watching Fanny work with nimble fingers, we hear her describe, with enthusiasm and technical specificity, the items that she makes and that other stitchers, she boasts, have “copied.” “Craft,” Krugh argues, “is about the personality of the maker” (293), and she cites Dixie Laite’s 2013 Etsy Blog piece about “branding” a “memorable Etsy shop,” which reminds sellers that “the story behind [one’s] products can attract customers because it makes what they’re buying special—and by extension, it makes them feel special” (293). Krugh notes that the vast majority of Etsy’s vendors are female—eighty-eight percent, according to a 2013 report from Etsy itself (291)—and Campion’s heroine seems both to intuit and to prove the truth of Laite’s advice about craft and narrative. Although Brown patronizingly addresses Fanny as “the very well stitched little Miss Brawne, in all her detail”—he, it’s clear, has heard her talk shop too many times before—Keats’s “attract[ion]” to Fanny takes root in the early scenes in which she explains with pride that, among other feats of couture, she has “originated the pleats on [her] dress” and devised a one-of-a-kind “triple-pleated mushroom collar.”

6.         But the episode in which Fanny enthuses, blog-style, about the mushroom collar also highlights a problematic aspect of her crafting “personality,” as Campion imagines it: Notwithstanding handwork’s innate affiliation with the limitations and vicissitudes of human makers, Fanny seeks perfection, not just “special[ness],” in craft. Fanny has worn the collar to a dance, and as she stands with her back to a large mirror, she says almost smugly to Keats, “This is the first frock in Woolwich or Hampstead to have a triple-pleated mushroom collar.” When Keats gravely replies, “Behind you I see one I fear to be identical,” Fanny’s face falls, and although she appreciates the joke when she spins around (the “identical” collar is, of course, her own collar reflected in the mirror), her reaction to the prospect of imperfection—in this case, to the prospect of being second, not first—indicates that she has a significant blind spot with regard to craft and, indeed, “personality,” a concept anchored in deviation from (not adherence to) a flawless ideal. Fanny’s first speech in the shooting script of Bright Star finds her criticizing her little sister’s deficient sewing—“The stitches must be small and exactly even,” she complains to their mother (1)—and although that bit was cut from the final film, Fanny frequently articulates a taste, even a compulsion, for an ultimately unachievable perfection in craft. When, for example, she decides to make lemon wafers for Keats’s ill brother, she discards all but the flawless ones and clips Toots’s ribbon (right off her dress, in fact) to decorate the basket: “I cannot offer poor Mr. Keats’s brother anything that is not perfect,” she declares. Notwithstanding her mother’s shock and her sister’s protestation, Fanny fails to recognize the deficiencies—the waste, the inconsideration, and so forth—that, ironically, inhere in her quest to “offer” something both crafted and “perfect,” and later, upon delivering the wafers to Keats, Fanny persists in a futile effort to isolate the ideal, to separate the flawless from the flawed, in her evaluation of poetic craft: “I am very sorry I could not love your Endymion completely, Mr. Keats,” she says, “…but I thought the beginning of your poem something very perfect.” Fanny means, of course, to elevate Endymion’s renowned opening lines, but her remark highlights the fact that, when considered as a whole, Keats’s romance isn’t whole, isn’t poetically “complete.” In other words, Fanny’s attempt to celebrate perfection becomes, even as she shapes her compliment, an observation about inadequacy, about the inability of flawlessness to hold in something made.

7.         Fanny’s standard, Campion seems to suggest, is clear but, for a maker, untenable and, after a while, even unappealing; like Keats’s doomed and often unsympathetic Lamia, Fanny aims to “unperplex bliss from its neighbor pain” by “defin[ing] their pettish limits” and “estrang[ing] their points of contact” (I.192-4). Perfection is her object, and as she early declares to Brown, critic of “flounce,” she “[doesn’t] shake hands with the enemy.” The film’s Keats, in contrast, is much more closely associated with makerly imperfection—with creative inefficiency, expressive immaturity, and physical frailty—and although much of the critical discourse surrounding Bright Star emphasizes Fanny’s salutary effect on Keats (Julian North, in a representative essay, argues that Campion “represents Keats’s genius as nurtured by Fanny and flourishing harmoniously within her affectionate, domestic world” [83]), I want to underscore Campion’s implicit suggestion that through Keats, Fanny learns, to the ultimate benefit of her craft and the “personality” that inspires it, to brook and even to embrace the unideal. That rhetoric—i.e. “to embrace the unideal”—evokes, I hope, the concept of negative capability. Scholarly accounts of Bright Star’s engagement with negative capability have focused on Keats’s important interest in the obliteration of ego—North, for example, sees Campion exploring the “surrender of selfhood” and the “ability to accept the existence of other centres of consciousness” (81), while Pereira highlights the film’s “direct” reference to Keats’s “poet has… no identity” letter (157)—but Keats explicitly defines negative capability, in a remark about Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as the capacity “[to remain] content with half knowledge,” with a product or outcome less than perfect (43). Coleridge, he argues, isn’t negatively capable because, rather than accepting the “half” for the fullness it offers, he insists, like Fanny, on fullness proper, on “something very perfect.” Keats, in contrast, affiliates successful poetic making with accepting the unfinished or misaligned, and when, in a subsequent but related letter, he expresses his distaste for perfect poems, he portrays such objects (and, metonymically, their authors) as similar to Campion’s indignant Fanny, whose Lamian interest in “pettish limits” renders her unwilling, as she says, even to “shake hands with the enemy”: “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us,” Keats writes, “and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket” (Letters 61).

8.         I highlight this charming image—a petulant poem refusing, Fanny-style, to shake hands with a reader who “do[es] not agree” with its “design,” its poetic perfection—because although Keats’s hands figure at least as prominently in Bright Star as Fanny’s, Campion rarely shows them writing, rarely shows them performing the physical act most closely, most perfectly, associated with Keats’s craft. Only Brown, a poetic nobody, repeatedly foregrounds the act of writing (“Men’s room—out—poets got to do a bit of writing,” he barks at Fanny) and associates Keats’s genius with his quill hand; in an especially intimate moment, Brown holds and even addresses Keats’s fingers, murmuring, “You wrote this, little hand? Did you do it?” In that episode, Brown is intent on rescuing Keats’s “talent” from the “trap” that, in his opinion, is a love affair with Fanny, but Keats only smiles because, although poems (again, like gowns, collars, and pillowslips) are made, he senses that the best ones are made in a way that preserves and even celebrates craft’s innate affiliation with distraction, inconsistency, misjudgment, and the like—with, that is, the reality of human (as opposed to mechanized) experience. “Allow me my happiness,” Keats says gently to Brown, “for I am writing again,” and the next scenes, which mean to portray the composition of "Ode to a Nightingale," in fact portray incidents, not the scribblings that capture them. Pen, ink, paper, and chair are carried outdoors on a bright afternoon that reverberates with birdsong, and as pieces of "Nightingale" are read in voiceover, Keats’s quill scratches for just a moment; within seconds, however, his chair is shown empty, and Campion has cut back to the “men’s room,” where Brown, not Keats, holds a pen as the two friends inspect the completed stanzas together. Put simply, whereas Campion primarily films Fanny’s hands sewing, she primarily films Keats’s hands living—petting the Brawnes’ cat, brandishing celery in a faux duel, tap-tapping a teaspoon, and, yes, stroking his beloved’s fingers—and it’s in those “close-up” moments, we’re made to understand, that Keats’s poetry gets made. The not writing is, quite counterintuitively, the craft, and when Fanny, who struggles to “work out” poems, asks Keats to “say something of the craft of poetry,” Keats replies bluntly that craft—presumably as she, perfectionist and advocate of “practice,” understands it—“is a sham.”

9.        Campion suggests, in sum, that to be a poet is first to fail at writing—when Fanny remarks that she isn’t “clever” about poetry, Keats, having just been buffeted by Blackwood’s, replies, “Neither, it seems, am I”—and in "Trashing Keats," which examines Keats’s interest in the relationship between “museums and refuse” (993), Christopher Rovee portrays Keats as similarly paradoxical, counterintuitive. In Keats’s “museal” poems, Rovee contends, “the work of art is revitalized by vigorous acts of removal and displacement, a devaluation of treasured origins” (1007): “Far from lamenting it,” Rovee continues, “Keats renders the dislocation of art as an aesthetic event in its own right, an opportunity to cash in poetically” (1009). My position, albeit comparable to Rovee’s, is that “displacement” and “dislocation” of the sort that Campion dramatizes when she shows Keats’s hands not writing is, in some sense, always the “treasured [origin]” of Keats’s own art—its very basis, not just an “opportunity” that presents itself on those relatively rare occasions when, say, Greece’s ancient marbles turn up in London’s glass cases. Keats’s fragmentary "This living hand" is central to Rovee’s argument because it “performs an eerie exhumation” (1011)—presents, that is, a thrilling “dislocation” of an already disembodied object—but I see that piece reflecting the productive (mis)alignment of living hands with crafting hands that Campion posits in Bright Star. Campion doesn’t explicitly cite "This living hand." However, like any period film, Bright Star brings “red life… again” to figures long since “cold” (6, 3), and as imaged by Campion, Keats, from “the icy silence of the tomb,” becomes, literally and repeatedly, a “living hand… warm and capable” (3, 1). Even more importantly, Campion’s crafting-without-writing Keats captures the lyric hand’s capacity to persist into the future—to “haunt” and to “chill” (4)—without the aid of a pen. [3] The “living hand” could, we are assured, hold a quill—it’s “capable / Of earnest grasping,” Keats indicates (1–2)—but instead of writing, the hand simply exists, forges an enduring spatial and sensory connection with the poem’s silent interlocutor: “See here it is— / I hold it toward you” (7–8). There’s a lot that’s ugly about that final offer and the threats that precede it—as Rovee notes, readers have long “derided… [the poem’s] hostility and aggressiveness, [its] seemingly ungenerous stance out of keeping with the likeably selfless Keats” (1011)—but that inconsistency is, I argue, in itself consistent with Keats’s interest in imperfection, in a poetry of halves, as he articulates that interest in the negative capability letter and as Campion portrays it in Bright Star. Indeed, the very text of "This living hand" is, grammatically speaking, so inconsistent as to be almost unreadable, even by the standards one might use to judge a poetic fragment. Careening from the present to the future and from the blandly indicative (“here it is”) to the dramatically subjunctive (“thou would wish… / So… red life might” [5–6]), it’s a poem (or a piece of one) that succeeds creatively because it fails discursively. "This living hand," one might say, resists being written—or read—in favor of being lived, of being proved upon our pulses.

10.         Illegibility, misalignment, failure, and even ugliness: Like "Nightingale"’s “forlorn,” those words “toll me back”—not to “my sole self” but to Etsy, where Keatsiana is notably well represented among the handicrafts for sale. To search “John Keats” while limiting the results to “handmade” (as opposed to “vintage,” a category of goods that Etsy also purveys) was, at the time of this writing, [4] to get 162 hits. To search for “handmade” items featuring the other Big Sixers was to find that Keats’s number was bested only by Blake (at 349) and by Byron (at 225), and having completed some careful sorting, I attribute Blake’s and Byron’s robust Etsy presences to the fact that the former’s illuminations make for great t-shirt art (and the like), while the latter’s very name can signify gentlemanly luxury, as one shop’s “Lord Byron Dandy Handkerchiefs” and another’s “Lord Byron’s Brand Beard Oil” suggest. In other words, Blake’s and Byron’s Etsy prominence is inflated by what I would describe as extra-literary factors; Keats, in contrast, is primarily represented by Etsy sellers through his words—calligraphed onto broadsides, embroidered onto sachets, etched onto bracelets—and at the time of my assessment, the number of products linked to Keats dwarfed the number of products linked to Wordsworth (at 107), Coleridge (at 14), and Shelley (at 61). [5] What factors, then, are responsible for Keats’s relative popularity, his unique appeal to Etsy’s artisans? Rovee’s argument makes it easy to imagine the delight that Keats might have experienced upon seeing his words “displace[d]” and “dislocat[ed]” onto twenty-first-century handicrafts, but unless we believe that, in addition to crafting, Etsy’s purveyors of Keatsiana stay abreast of the academy’s discourse, Rovee’s argument can’t in itself account for their penchant for Keats in the first place. It’s not at all inconceivable that bookish crafters have recognized, without the help of Rovee or Adorno, a connection between their own work and Keats’s “museal” poems; after all, like the Keats who composed "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Keatsiana crafters are making new art from old fragments both verbal and, quite often, material. However, although "Urn"’s truth-and-beauty bit—and only that bit, really—was referenced in a few shops, other explicitly “museal” poems (in addition to "This living hand," Rovee highlights "On First Seeing the Elgin Marbles") didn’t figure at all among the Keatsian goods for sale on Etsy in October of 2017. Rather, crafters concentrated on Keats’s letters, passages from which were featured in a plurality of the marketplace’s Keats things (thirty-three, by my count), and, significantly, on the juvenilia—on, that is, Keats’s least polished, least finished poetry. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” was a favorite quotation [6]—eleven items used it—but "The Grasshopper and the Cricket" and "Sleep and Poetry" were less predictable presences represented by excerpts (“the Poetry of earth is never dead” [1] and “stop and consider! Life is but a day” [85], respectively) that, like the first line of Endymion, characterize aesthetic pleasure as there for the taking, if only one “stop[s]” to “consider” it.

11.        To my mind, then, Keats’s Etsy prominence is most likely attributable to crafters’ sense that Keats, like themselves, made by living—by feeling, piecing, experimenting, and failing—even as he struggled to make a living. Keats’s iconic sonnet on the sonnet, famously embedded in an aggregated, newsy, living-full letter to George and Georgiana Keats, attests to the truth in that portrait; the poet-speaker of “If by dull rhymes” identifies as an uncertain crafter, a Fanny-esque fashionista (albeit cobbler, not dressmaker) who hopes to “find out” “sandals more interwoven and complete / To fit the naked foot of poesy” (4–6). “Find out” conveys the pen-less experiences—later specified as “inspect[ing],” “weigh[ing],” “see[ing],” and simply paying “attention meet” (7–9)—that underwrite his writing, while “more” captures the asymptotic (or, perhaps, Ruskinian) character of his larger enterprise, the fact that unqualified “interwoven”-ness and “complete”-ness will remain unattained, unattainable. In addition, “more” corresponds meaningfully with the term “better” in the letter’s pre-poem commentary, which explicitly denies that “If by dull rhymes” achieves prosodic perfection: “I have been endeavouring to discover a better Sonnet Stanza than we have. The legitimate does not suit the language over well from the pouncing rhymes—the other kind appears too elegiac—and the couplet at the end of it has seldom a pleasing effect.” “I do not pretend to have succeeded,” Keats concludes (255), and to examine “sound and syllable” in “If by dull rhymes” is to appreciate the fairness of his doubts, to recognize the degree to which his interest in loosening the sonnet’s traditional “chain[s]” (10, 1) has resulted in a scheme arguably less “interwoven” than “more” so. [7] Indeed, it’s only in the last four lines that Keats, by nixing the English sonnet’s “seldom… pleasing” couplet in favor of alternating (but, in the case of “crown” and “own,” slanted) rhymes, manifests something like a sonic weave; the poem’s ninth through thirteenth lines constitute a stretch dramatically (for a sonnet, anyway) devoid of end rhyme, and by the time we reach line twelve’s “be,” that word’s chance to chime, even “[un]pouncing[ly],” with line four’s “poesy” has long since passed. And yet, the presence of those imperfections, those products of a makerly temperament more investigative than ends-obsessed, corresponds quite directly with the important sentiment articulated near the sonnet’s close: “Let us be / Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown” (11–12). To make anew is first to disrupt or even destroy, to reverse the finishing process by plucking away the old and “dead.” Successful acts of positive creation come much later and, still later, again; as the sonnet’s final lines suggest, the lady Poesy’s fresh “garlands” have yet to be produced, and this poem, punctuated by three “if”s, is less a perfectly finished exemplar than a mock-up, a sketch of a conditional future: “So, if we may not let the Muse be free, / She will be bound with garlands of her own” (13–14). [8]

12.        Put simply, “If by dull rhymes” embodies, at best, but “half knowledge,” and even the post-juvenilia Keats remains, perhaps, the ultimate amateur artisan: He made good because he wasn’t perfect, because the flaws in his application, his taste, and his psyche seeded, not impeded, the work that made his name. To creative giggers (I refer, in that term, to Etsy’s role in the so-called “gig economy” of the twenty-first century), Keats’s experience must seem both real and aspirational, and it’s their Keats that Campion captures in her craft-centric, handsy portrayal of an imperfect (and ultimately un-Austenian) early nineteenth century. Now, I can’t see what Keatsiana was for sale while Campion was writing and/or directing Bright Star, and it’s possible that I’ve got it backwards, that Etsy’s current Keats-oriented offerings (and their relative abundance) were influenced by the film, not vice versa. I acknowledge that several items for sale at the time of this composition quoted the poem "Bright Star," and like Campion, who admitted to having struggled with much of Keats’s poetry, Etsy crafters are, as I have noted, especially focused on Keats’s letters (Sullivan 87). In an episode at the end of the film, however, I see a hint that the Keats imagined—not necessarily unfairly or unmeaningfully, I want to emphasize—by contemporary crafters was resonant enough to guide Campion’s vision. When Brown delivers the news of Keats’s death to the Brawne family, he reads aloud Joseph Severn’s letter describing the poet’s last moments. At the line, “Keats died imperceptibly,” Fanny abruptly stops Brown and steps toward the staircase, where, quickly engulfed in uncontrollable sobs, she clutches her throat and gasps frantically, “Mama! I can’t breathe!” There’s nothing “imperceptibl[e]” about Fanny’s pain or panic as her last hopes pass, and she seems, somehow, to be living Keats’s blood-choked final days—to be possessed of his tubercular chest, which she repeatedly jabs with impotent fingers. It’s a moving moment, and it evokes a quotation particularly popular among Etsy’s Keatsiana crafters, one that appeared in October 2017, in or on twice as many items as, say, lines from "Ode to a Nightingale": “Two souls with but a single thought / Two hearts that beat as one.” If Campion was inspired by those lines—if, that is, her Fanny feels death because Keats’s heart no longer beats—I’m certain that she didn’t encounter them in a collection of Keats’s writings or in Andrew Motion’s biography of the poet, with which she also worked closely. I’m certain because, of course, the lines at issue—again, “Two souls with but a single thought / Two hearts that beat as one”—weren’t written by Keats at all, though they’re often attributed to him. (The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations identifies the quotation’s true source as Maria Lovell’s Ingomar the Barbarian, a translation of a play by Friedrich Halm [Knowles 222].) I recognize that even if Campion had those lines in mind, I can’t, obviously, be sure that she discovered them while perusing Etsy, since the misattribution in question dwells in a variety of the internet’s dark hollows. Still, Bright Star’s broader emphases on images of hands and on the notion of life as craft—“Buy, Sell, and Live Handmade” was, Krugh notes, the centerpiece of Etsy’s 2010 mission statement (297; emphasis added)—render the prospect appealing. Even more appealing (if, perhaps, less plausible) is the possibility that Campion recognized the “two souls”/“two hearts” passage as not belonging to Keats—that, in other words, she purposely alluded to the fact that, at the core of Keats’s Etsy presence, imperfection resides in its most perfect form: error, plain and simple.

13.        In fact, error and physiological (in)coordination together constitute the foundation of Bright Star’s namesake sonnet, which opens with a doomed attempt to correct, imaginatively, for the exigencies of immortality and closes with a picture of the speaker “pillowed upon [his] fair love’s ripening breast,” “feel[ing]” her chest’s “soft fall and swell” and “hear[ing] her tender-taken breath” (10–11, 13). The star’s icy isolation can’t be “unperplex[ed]” from its “steadfast[ness],” despite Keats’s aggressive “Not” and “No” (1–2, 9); the former is a precondition of the latter, since to live in warm proximity is, of course, to be subject to the rot that succeeds all “ripening.” The speaker of "Bright Star," then, misattributes pleasure to uncompromised fulfilment—ascribes it not to living, but to immortality; not to feeling, but to “feel[ing]… forever” (11; emphasis added)—and the result is a poem whose author seems to reach, like Campion’s crafter-heroine, for absolute precision, for an outcome “very perfect.” However, although "Bright Star" (unlike "If by dull rhymes") boasts an almost clinically ideal Shakespearean rhyme scheme, the subtle misalignment of “unchangeable” (9) and “swell” (11) highlights the central Keatsian-cum-Etsian truth at play: Living—metonymized in the breast that “swell[s]” with “breath”—doesn’t rhyme, literally or metaphorically, with perfection, with the “unchangeable” (that is, the ever symmetrical, “exactly even,” or otherwise “unperplex[ed]”) forms generated by machines and, sometimes, by those misguided human makers who fetishize machine-like accuracy. Indeed, to pay “attention meet” to the intimate pleasures described in "Bright Star" is to note that their very wellspring is asymmetry, even distortion. Keats’s speaker “hear[s]” and “feel[s]” tonight because he, unlike his sleeping beloved, lies awake, and although the sonnet describes his “unrest” as “sweet” (12), we can’t but imagine that his partner’s rest is unsweet, pursued as it is beneath the weight of an insomniac’s head. Is her pleasantly “tender” breathing actually labored—that is, made audible and physically sensible by the less than ideal material circumstances that delimit her slumber? Is she, perhaps, nearly as frantic for air as Campion’s Fanny, who, upon learning of Keats’s death, claims “I can’t breathe”? Considered in tandem, Bright Star’s “two hearts” that seem to “beat as one” and "Bright Star"’s single (and possibly tortured) breast hint at the thready unevenness that, more often than not, both defines and energizes Keatsian making.

14.        It’s worth noting that Etsy’s crafters are also partial to an authentic Keats quotation (from one of the poet’s most famous love letters to Fanny Brawne) about adoration and respiration. Last fall, the words, “My love is selfish—I cannot breathe without you” (335), ornamented a number of the site’s Keats-inspired charms and sentimental whatnots, but since that genuine Keatsian construction, which Campion seems to reference obliquely much earlier in the film, [9] fails to capture the sense of union—of two moving as one—that the misattribution does, it’s less credible as a potential inspiration for the perverse “wedding” with which the film concludes. As Bright Star closes, Campion meaningfully documents the good and the goods that derive from Fanny’s experience living failure through Keats, and in the scene that follows her episode of panicked gasping, we watch Fanny’s fingers stitch some new and very different clothing: widow’s weeds. A made-over Fanny soon emerges from the house, a black blot on the bridal-white winter landscape, and then the “minx” who once struggled to “work out” poetry recites Keats’s "Bright Star" start to finish. It’s the first poem that Campion incorporates in its entirety—that is, perfectly—but we’re not allowed to forget the partialities and imperfections that, within the context of the film, inspired the sonnet’s composition and reflect in Fanny’s pained delivery of its paradox-infused lines. In lieu of a traditional wedding—the standard final scene in an Austen adaptation, of course—Bright Star concludes, I would suggest, by underscoring the uncomfortable union that underlies craft, i.e. the union of living with making. All things considered, then, it may be appropriate (or appropriately inappropriate) that to search Etsy for “handmade” items tagged “John Keats” is to find, listed in the midst of bracelets and paper goods, a single dress: RanunculusMarket’s “Jane Austen Wedding Dress,” complete with ribbon laces that can, the seller assures potential buyers, “be tied at a tightness anywhere between ease of breathing and fainting spell.” Wearers, it seems, can “live ever—or else swoon to death” (14).

Works Cited

"Arts and Crafts: An Introduction." Victoria and Albert Museum Website, 18 Aug. 2018, Accessed 17 Jul. 2020.

Austen, Jane. The Annotated Pride and Prejudice, edited by David M. Shapard, Anchor Books, 2007.

Benis, Toby. "The Austen Effect: Remaking Romantic History as a Novel of Manners." The Wordsworth Circle, vol. 42, no. 3, 2011, pp. 183–86.

Bright Star. Directed by Jane Campion, performances by Ben Whishaw, Abbie Cornish, and Paul Schneider, Pathé, 2009.

Campion, Jane. "Bright Star." Shooting script, 2008, 1 Jun. 2018.

Etsy. Etsy, Inc., 2 Oct. 2017.

Gilmour, Robin. The Victorian Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature, 1830–1890. Longman, 1993.

Hess, Jillian. "This Living Hand: Commonplacing Keats." The Keats-Shelley Review, vol. 24, no. 1, 2010, pp. 15–21.

Keats, John. John Keats: The Complete Poems, 3rd ed., edited by John Barnard, Penguin, 1988.

Keats, John. Letters of John Keats, edited by Robert Gittings, Oxford UP, 1970.

Knowles, Elizabeth M., editor. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 5th ed., Oxford UP, 1999.

Krugh, Michele. "Joy in Labour: The Politicization of Craft from the Arts and Crafts Movement to Etsy." Canadian Review of American Studies, vol. 44, no. 2, 2014, pp. 281–301.

North, Julian. "Romantic Genius on Screen: Jane Campion’s Bright Star (2009) and Julien Temple’s Pandaemonium (2000)." The Writer on Film: Screening Literary Authorship, edited by J. Buchanan, Palgrave, 2013, pp. 77–91.

Pereira, Margarida Esteves. "Bright Star: Reinventing Romantic Poetry for the Screen." Relational Designs in Literature and the Arts: Page and Stage, Canvas and Screen, edited by Rui Carvalho Homem, Rodopi, 2012, pp. 153–65.

Ruskin, John. The Stones of Venice, vol. 2, Chronicle, 2017.

Rovee, Christopher. "Trashing Keats." ELH, vol. 75, no. 4, 2008, pp. 993–1022.

Sullivan, Moira. "Interview." Film International vol. 7, no. 6 [42], 2009, pp. 85–87.

Suret, Emma. "John Keats, Wilfred Owen, and Restriction in the Sonnet." English, vol. 66, no. 253, 2017, pp. 145–62.

Tontiplaphol, Betsy Winakur. Poetics of Luxury in the Nineteenth Century. Ashgate, 2011.


[1] When I use the term “surprisingly abundant,” I’m comparing the quantity of Keatsiana on Etsy to the amount of, say, Wordsworthiana or Shelleyana. I don’t mean to suggest that Keats’s presence on Etsy rivals that of Shakespeare, J.K. Rowling, or other enormous literary and pop-cultural heroes. Specific data appear below. BACK

[2] In some ways, the origins of the movement date back to the Great Exhibition of 1851; members of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society “publicly rejected the excessive ornamentation and ignorance of materials, which many objects in the Great Exhibition had been criticized for.” Although Morris “only became actively involved with the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society a number of years after it was set up,” “his ideas were hugely influential to the generation of decorative artists whose work it helped publicize” ("Arts and Crafts"). BACK

[3] In her treatment of Keats and the tradition of the Romantic commonplace book, Jillian Hess notes that when Keats “correct[ed] a single word in [Woodhouse’s] commonplace book,” Woodhouse himself was less interested in “the poem’s content”—that is, what Keats had written—than in “the imprint of Keats’s body”: “Woodhouse felt that his collection’s value increased merely because Keats had touched it” (19). As in "This living hand," the hand—not the handwriting—carries significance; within Keats’s coterie, the living poet’s acknowledgement of the error was more valuable than the marks he made to repair it. BACK

[4] The data in this essay regarding items on sale at were collected in early October, 2017. In late September, 2019, a search for “John Keats” limited to “handmade” yielded 225 hits. Parallel searches for Blake and Byron yielded 513 and 224 hits, respectively. BACK

[5] In late September, 2019, the numbers for Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley were 136, 16, and 40, respectively. BACK

[6] As Brian Rejack observes in his essay for this collection, the first line of Endymion welcomed visitors to the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857—a circumstance that, in itself, attests to the special place that Keats has long occupied in the hearts and minds of artists and artisans of various types. BACK

[7] I say “arguably” because one’s definition of “interwoven” matters. I offer an alternative reading of the wovenness in “If by dull rhymes” in Poetics of Luxury in the Nineteenth Century: Keats, Tennyson, and Hopkins (63–65). BACK

[8] See also Emma Suret’s similar claim (realized as a sewing metaphor, no less) that “instead of a sustained description, ‘like Andromeda,’ ‘in spite of painèd loveliness,” and ‘if we must be constrained’ created a patchwork of clauses with their comma-stitched outlines disrupting the continuity of Keats’s argument” (150). Suret’s broader reading of “If by dull rhymes” gestures toward the poem’s numerous successful failures. BACK

[9] When Keats is away from Hampstead, Fanny attests to an inability to breathe. In the shooting script, she declares solipsistically to her mother, “When I do not hear from him it is as if I have died, as if the air is sucked out of my lungs and I am left desolate, but when I receive a letter I know our world is real and it is the only one I care for” (54). BACK