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Bright Star: Keats' Poems & Letters At Ilkley Literature Festival
Steve Whitaker, Arts Correspondent
John Keats. Part of a portrait by William Hilton from the National Gallery, London
The writer and publisher Peter Sansom, himself no stranger to the Ilkley Literature Festival (ILF), once described John Keats as the 'real deal', and easy though the corporate metaphor may seem, he meant it to ascribe some special, original ingredient to the poet.

Keats will forever be pinioned to a genre whose expression was applied with hindsight, and with the innate desire we all share for the location of artistic paradigms, but the term 'Romantic' delimits that genre to a few simple conceits: introspection, imagination, self-expression and a distaste for pure Reason. And whilst the poet was in every fibre a natural conduit for these revolutionary German ideas of the eighteenth century, he was much more besides.

In the hands of a performer as emotionally charged as Ruth Rosen, who on Saturday night gave a sterling rendition of Keats' own words in 'Bright Star' at the Ilkley Literature Festival, the effect is startling, leading the listener to the counter intuitive suspicion that sometimes poems are better declaimed, however 'interiorised' and personal the process of understanding. To pause briefly over a few lines of 'To Autumn', as Ms Rosen did, is to be exposed to a kind of time-slowing narcosis which sharpens the senses to a milling floor in the height of summer, with drowsing bees similarly intoxicated.

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It is easy to infer the lineaments of Ms Rosen's own background - she was an accomplished Shakespearean actress in an earlier incarnation, and is a renowned performer of poetry - in her nuanced sense of timing and intuitive recognition of metrical imperatives. She knows how to employ a lacuna for emphasis, being fully conscious, like that great exponent of unspoken violence, Harold Pinter, of the importance of pregnant silence around words.

Of course, there is no remote sense of violence in the almost claustrophobic reflectiveness of Keats' poems, but, in Ruth Rosen's subtle handling, an omnipresent sense of death overshadows mood. The poet's very early demise, from tuberculosis at twenty five, shapes both the direction of the performer's reading - roughly chronological - and the emotional gravitas of her delivery, which intensifies towards the terrible inevitability of decline.

Rosen's decision to interstice the poems with selections from Keats' letters neatly dovetailed the evening's narrative: in a very profound sense, his poetry and prose are indivisibly lyrical, the latter describing the genesis and development of the former. As the poet wrestles with his own dissipating sense of grip, so the two forms become unified in Rosen's reading.

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: Do I wake or sleep?
We are given, in her delicacy of diction, to believe that little existential light separates the almost unbearably moving letter to Fanny Brawne's mother of October 1820 - he died in Rome the following February - and the final lines of the poem 'Ode to a Nightingale', which describe the fragility of life as though already past.

The sharpening of Keats' imaginative vision on the whetstone of death's presence is barely an irony in Rosen's reading: flailing against the scientific fact of mortality, the poet's 'negative capability' flies free as an act, almost, of resistance.

If her choice of title for the performance - 'Bright Star' - casts a nod to the 2009 film which briefly brought Keats to a wider audience, it is well judged. Ben Whishaw's manifest brittleness in the eponymous role, was given luminous energy in Ilkley.

Bright Star: Keats' Poems & Letters At Ilkley Literature Festival, 9th October 2017, 8:50 AM