By John Keats
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.
As the title of this poem suggests, “Bright star” is all about a star. It depicts Keats talking to the star, and considering its negatives and positives, namely: it is lonely and powerless, but it doesn’t have to change or grow old – it doesn’t even have to die. Keats decides in this poem that he wants a little of both worlds; he desires the unchangeable nature of the star, but only so that he can have more time at his lover’s side.
Metre & Structure
This poem is written in (mainly) iambic pentameter, but this is not a rigid meter. It is often broken, particularly by spondees (where there are two stressed syllables in a poetic foot). This is arguably true of the opening words, where “bright” is said with the same amount of stress as “star”. The rhythm is also disrupted around the linebreaks (dashes), which emphasises Keats’ changing opinions, and the altering of his mood.
With an ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme, this poem is also a Shakespearean sonnet, which is relevant as this form of sonnet is traditionally associated with themes of love, and, in this poem, Keats spends a lot of time considering his lover.
Line by Line
- “Bright star!” – In some versions of this poem, the “s” of “star” is capitalised, turning it into a proper noun and suggesting that Keats is speaking to the star as though it were a person. The exclamation mark also emphasises Keats’ passion as he looks upon the star.
- “Would I were steadfast as thou art” – Keats wishes he could be as “steadfast” as the star; just like in his famous “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, Keats discusses the benefits and disadvantages of being in stasis (frozen in time). It is therefore likely that Keats is considering the North Star in this poem, as this is the one star that doesn’t appear to move as the earth turns on its axis.
- “-“ – These line breaks generally show a change of mood in the poem (as Keats moves between considering the advantages and disadvantages of stasis).
- “Lone splendour“ – Keats now contradicts his previous desire to be like the star by considering its desperate loneliness. Nevertheless, even this negativity is questioned, as Keats considers this loneliness to be a kind of “splendour”.
- “Splendour” / “Aloft” – It is important to note that Keats, unlike his fellow Romantic poets, belonged to the working class. Elaborate, elevated language such as “splendour” and “aloft” may indicate his desire to reach the upper classes.
- “Hung” – Here is another negative aspect of stasis: the star can only hang, unable to move or have any control over its own autonomy. Note how this is described in the passive voice, emphasising this suggestion of powerlessness.
- “Eternal lids” – The star can only ever watch, meaning it witnesses the good and the bad. This could be viewed both negatively and positively, although the term “eternal” again hints at the helpless nature of the star.
- “Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite” – Note the use of a simile (traditionally associated with Ancient Greece). This statement is probably negative, for, although the star is “patient”, it is also “sleepless” – it doesn’t even have enough power or freedom to sleep!
- “Eremite“ – “Eremite” is synonymous with the word, ‘hermit’, but also links to classical Greece. Keats was fascinated by this world after he discovered it through translations (as he was one of the working class and did not, unusually for a Romantic poet, understand Greek). His passion for this ancient world can be seen in “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer“.
- “Moving waters” / “Earth’s human shores” – The “moving waters” and “human shores” (on account of the latter being “human”, as humans are famously affected by time) contrast with the star and emphasise Keats’ dilemma regarding stasis.
- “Priestlike” / “Ablution” – Both these terms carry religious connotations. It is often suggested that Keats was an athiest, which, if this is to be believed, would suggest that these associations regard another negative aspect of stasis, as the star is forced to eternally watch religion. However, the star is also overlooking these human events, and so it could be argued that it, in some way, usurps the role of God.
- “Or” – Emphasising the dilemma/conflict within the poem.
- “Fallen mask / Of snow” – Keats here considers a “mask / Of snow” to emphasise the changeable nature of human existence as the snow changes the landscape around him. These changes/disguises seem to be the reason why Keats envies the star (because he wants to escape them).
- “The mountains and the moors“ – Both “mountains” and “moors”, despite their differences in terms of landscape, are changed by the snow, illustrating the power of change (and time). These places are also generally uninhabited; not only is the star alone, but it also has to look at lonely places.
- “Still steadfast, still unchangeable” – Whilst Keats doesn’t want to be as lonely as the star, he emphasises his desire for stasis through this repetition.
- “Ripening” – Associations of spring and new life are conveyed through the mention of the narrator’s “love”, yet they contradict with Keats’ longing for stasis – unless this virginal state of spring is permanently preserved?
- “Awake for ever in a sweet unrest” – Keats finally reveals the true reason why he wishes to avoid change: he wishes to stay at his lover’s side, both of them able to remain young and beautiful. The phrase “awake for ever” also harkens back to the idea of the star having its “lids” eternally “apart”.
- “Still, still” – Repetition here emphasises Keats’ longing for stasis.
- “And so live ever – or else swoon to death” – Keats’ conclusion to this poem suggests that he will either live like a star (unchanged at his lover’s side), or he will “swoon to death”. He may also suggest that he does not have a choice as, unfortunately, a part of change is death. The end stop emphasises this finality.
As you may have noticed, “Bright Star” is all about stasis. It is all about how humans change and grow old, but some objects, such as stars, don’t go through this process (at least in terms of a human lifetime). Keats is not suggesting that he wants to be wholly like a star, because he could not stand the loneliness and wants to be with his lover, yet this fixed nature of the star is something that he greatly admires.
This poem also picks up on other issues, such as religion, class and gender (as the female lover is glorified and described with particularly soft language). More than anything else, though, it’s about human existence, and it’s about Keats fearing the processes of age and death. Emphasising words such as “breath”, “fall and swell” (echoing the movement of a breathing chest), it is perfectly clear that Keats is very much attached to his human existence.
I hope you enjoyed this poem analysis. I’m back into the revision period at university so should be sending a fair few more posts like these your way (for my own benefit, if nothing else). Thank you for reading, though, and please do check out my other analyses, including, my review of Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer“.