Bright Star

Bright Star

by John Keats

Bright star, would I were stedfast 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 stedfast, 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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This poem is a sonnet (14 lines) written in iambic pentameter, with ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme.

Thematically, the poem is structured like an Italian sonnet in that it is broken up by an octave (the first 8 lines) and a sestet (the last six lines.) The octave focuses on steadfastness – the unchanging nature of a star in the presence of of a changing world. The sestet sees the subject matter turn (the turn is referred to as a volta) with the word “No” in line 9. From there, the Speaker tells us that he wishes he were steadfast like the star, that his earthly love were eternal.

Lines 1 and 2:

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
         Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night

In the first two lines, Keats provides a contradiction. In line 1, he tells us that he wishes he were steadfast as a star. However, in line 2 he tells us that he does not want to be alone as stars are.

Lines 3 and 4:

Building on line 2, Speaker continues to lay out how he wishes to be different than the star, though admiring its steadfastness.

And watching, with eternal lids apart,
         Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,

The Speaker describes the star as an observer. Since some might not be familiar with the word Eremite, here is the definition:

eremiteâr′ə-mīt″

noun

1. A recluse or hermit, especially a religious recluse.

2. One who lives in a wilderness or in retirement; a hermit.

3. Specifically In church hist., in the earlier period, a Christian who, to escape persecution, fled to a solitary place, and there led a life of contemplation and asceticism.

The image here of the star is one of a recluse or a hermit watching others from a distance.

Lines 5 and 6:

The moving waters at their priestlike task
         Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,

The star watches the earth’s water perform ritual cleansing. The association provided here, between nature and religion, creates a feeling of disconnection rather than warmth (which one might more readily associate with nature depictions.)

Lines 7 and 8:

Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
         Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—

The depicture of the star’s relationship with nature – in a cold and disconnected way – continues here. In fact, the “cold” aspect of that is stated specifically with the reference to snow. Snow also serves as a cover of the land – adding an additional layer of removal for the star and the land it stares at.

Lines 9 and 10:

No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
         Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,

Here with “No” we reach the turn (the volta) and we see why the Speaker admires the steadfastness of the star – after lines 2 through 7 told us why he did not. The Speaker tells us in line 10 that he wishes to be with his lover for as long as he can. In that respect, the steadfastness of the star would be an advantage if he could possess it.

Lines 11 and 12:

To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
         Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

The Speaker longs for his love to be as the steadfast and unchanging nature of the star. Line 12 provides the phrase “sweet unrest” which seems to be a contradiction. However, I believe that the meaning of a phrase like that should be familiar to anyone who has ever been in love. I am reminded of a song with those two words… and I have no choice but to share that song here now.

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.

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Lines 13 and 14:

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

The poem ends with a couplet.

The Speaker presents love with an eternal quality but also seems to indicate that he embraces his humanity if forced to be apart from his love. You can read these lines as saying “I either want to be here just like this forever… but if not I’d choose death over being apart.”

Who is John Keats?

John Keats (31 October 1795 – 23 February 1821) was an English poet prominent in the second generation of Romantic poets, with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, although his poems had been published for only four years when he died of tuberculosis at the age of 25. They were indifferently received in his lifetime, but his fame grew rapidly after his death. By the end of the century he was placed in the canon of English literature and had become an inspiration for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, strongly influencing many writers; the Encyclopædia Britannica called one ode “one of the final masterpieces”. Jorge Luis Borges named his first encounter with Keats an experience that he felt all his life. Keats had a style “heavily loaded with sensualities”, notably in the series of odes. Typical of the Romantics, he accentuated extreme emotion by emphasising natural imagery. Today his poems and letters remain among the most popular and analysed in English literature. Especially acclaimed are “Ode to a Nightingale“, “Ode on a Grecian Urn“, “Sleep and Poetry” and the sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer“.

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