In 1920, poet/critic T.S. Eliot published a now infamous famous essay called Hamlet and His Problems, in which he suggested that the play is actually an “artistic failure.” In the essay, Eliot defends his thesis by introducing a literary term that has since become famous: the objective correlative. To Eliot, Hamlet didn’t work because the play contained no so-called correlative for Prince Hamlet’s strange behavior, especially towards his mother, the Queen Gertrude. He argued that Hamlet’s responses “exceeded the facts” of the play. That is, Eliot believed that Shakespeare failed to provide a reasonable and balanced reason – either syntactically, structurally or thematically – for Hamlet to do as he does, and therefore for the audience to identify, or not identify, with the Prince. The audience, he argues, is left mystified.
Naturally, Eliot’s paper drew a fair bit of rather scathing criticism and a confused frown or two, to say the least. His thesis was not a popular one and today seems to have taken on the mystique of some crude, quaint, ancient relic. Oh, it was just Eliot being Eliot, today’s critics and scholars will say.
Yet, his idea of the objective correlative has lasted and remains an important and effective term for examining not only literature but all art. All art, one way or another, no matter the medium, evokes some kind of response from the audience. All art inherently contains a series of circumstances, of relationships (between people, colors, sounds, etc.), of settings, which necessarily evoke a response. Together with what Eliot called “the external facts,” these circumstances, relationships, and/or settings combine to create the objective correlative that leads to that response. If they fail to combine in such a way that a right, natural response is evoked, as Eliot suggests Hamlet does, the correlative mechanism has failed to work properly and the work of art itself suffers.
As I watched Jane Campion’s new film, Bright Star, I was struck by the way in which all of the filmic elements combined to create a unique and unified whole that acted as an extraordinarily effective objective correlative for the action of the story and the emotions of the characters. I was immediately drawn in and was held tightly.
This lush, literary period piece tells the story of famous poet John Keats’ love affair with his young neighbor, Miss Fanny Brawne. Of course, history tells us that Keats died at the tragically young age of twenty-five and so a sense of impending doom seems to hang over the film. Yet, it remains a tender, beautiful, true love story about sacrifice, the poetry of falling in love, and the beauty and tragedy of love’s many pains.
When we are first introduced to the young poet (played remarkably by Ben Wishaw, also from Brideshead Revisited and I’m Not There) we learn that he has been caring for his ailing brother, who is sick with tuberculosis, a disease that ravaged the Keats family. We discover that both his parents have died, that some of his siblings have also passed away, and that this brother is likely to also slip away soon. And yes, it is the disease that we know will one day take his life as well. The scent of death, the very real possibility of it, permeates the film, like a dark cloud, or a pin about to pop a bubble. Bright Star is a love story, but it is one that is essentially told against the backdrop of tragedy.
The melancholy, bohemian Keats is a poet through and through, ever consumed by images and pictures and words and sounds. Like many artists he is eccentric. But he is no flake, not some stereotypical Romantic poet waxing eloquent at grandiose parties or on some wooden bridge near a rippling brook. He works hard to make a living as a writer, is his own hardest critic, and believes strongly in the power of the form at which he works. He is friendly and polite, and he is charming too, in his own way. And when he takes up residency in the English countryside with his friend and writing partner, Mr. Brown, the locals are taken with him, especially the equally eccentric Miss Brawne.
An artist in her own right, Fanny designs colorful, unique clothes that often ruffle the feathers of the more traditional women of the town. Raised eyebrows follow her train as she floats about at dances. Like the poet, she is a free spirit, inspired by the colors and images of the natural world. But she is no poet, she doesn’t “get” poetry. When she meets Keats she is fascinated by him, by his reserved yet charming personality, his intellectual demeanor, and his mastery of language. She seeks out his help in understanding poetry and soon they are engaged in weekly lessons. It doesn’t take long before these two spirits fall deeply, hopelessly, in love, to the chagrin of Mrs. Brawne who wishes her daughter to “marry up.” It’s not so much that she dislikes her daughter’s choice personally as she finds him quite likable, rather she is worried about her daughter’s future should Fanny attempt to marry the poor poet.
This all sounds relatively standard. It’s a fairly common plot in period pieces of the kind in which class plays such a prominent role. But Bright Star manages to separate itself as a unique work of art through the inspired way in which Campion and co. turn commonplace things into moving elements of the dramatic narrative.
The narrative of the love story is driven by an attention to existential, transcendent, meaning, by the potential for meaning in things like nature or a long walk or a shared secret. These are the elements that serve as the objective correlatives for the film’s action. Campion never feels the need to bombard the viewer with sentimentalized dialogue, passionate sexual scenes, or divisive yelling matches. These are two people deeply, richly in love with one another, failures and weaknesses included, and therefore there will naturally, and rightly, be eloquent dialogue, deep passion, and a disagreement or two.
But Campion doesn’t need to resort to typical filmic tripe or common manipulative tricks. This romance is told through the passing of the seasons, through the whisper of the wind, through the softness of the grass. It is told through the poetry of flowers and snow and rain. These are things all people know, even people who have never been in love, and so they are things with which all people can identify. As such, therefore, they can serve as effective metaphors for the process of falling in love, can saturate the screen with picturesque meaning that even the most hardhearted or inexperienced viewer can understand.
At one point, Keats tells Brawne that “…a poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.”
Jane Campion doesn’t force us to “work out” the film, or to “work out” the emotion of falling in love or enduring in love or hating the fact that one is in love. Rather she provides a mystery, a poem, a window or icon for those experiences. She provides the viewer with an utterly beautiful and true objective correlative for the tragic love story in her hands.
And indeed, Bright Star also stands out for this inevitably tragic ending. This is a relationship that, history constantly reminds, is doomed, a truth that, before long, both parties realize. And when Keat’s dies in a faraway country and the audience is left with Fanny, in her lonely English environment, we share in her pain, in the tragedy and the longing and the tears. We are wrapped in the tragedy of possibilities not met, of a beautiful relationship so quickly ended, in the tragedy of a talent so richly endowed but so suddenly buried. The lasting hope, the lasting piece of optimism comes in the form of Keat’s own, now famous, canon and the sweet words of the sonnet he wrote for his beloved in the months before his passing:
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.