Bright Star – 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
There are many different ways to look at a poem. On this site, I use with students the file called UNLOCKING A POEM especially when that poem is a difficult one, like this will be to some people. This one can be tricky if you are not careful.
But another way to analyse is by a line by line thought process starting with the title and then work down line by line, not worrying if you see lines you feel are too difficult.
Sometimes, a poem can be related to its title in a most obvious way. So when we see “Bright Star” what do we think? There are several bright stars to think of. There is the one over Bethlehem at Christmas in the eternal story. There is the idea that someone can be someone else’s “bright star,” in history, or even in love and when we consider that this is from a section of poems about LOVE AND FRIENDSHIPS, we have to assume before we read that this ‘may’ be the way the poet intended the poem to be read and understood. And then there is the eternal bright star in the sky, the one that sits over the north pole and is known as Polaris, or the North Star. It is used for navigation on the seas and is ever reliable, but sits there, all lonely, watching the earth meander in its existence below it [if it had life to do so – personification?]
So when Keats addresses the Bright Star in this poem, he is doing so to the latter of those ideas and saying that he wishes he was as “stedfast” [note the old style spelling] as it is, being there for eternity. It stays there and watches the world unfold around it. If only I was as reliable as you, he is thinking. Steadfastness means the ability to be ‘resolutely or dutifully firm and unwavering’ [dictionary] or ‘committed’ and ‘devoted’ to something else. If only I was as devoted as you, he is thinking, but thinking it because of the person he loves. Line two develops this idea by saying that he has no wish to be up there, like the star, “in lone splendour,” but instead, he would sooner be lying on his “fair love’s ripening breast.” He lists a list of negative things that the star has in its characteristics, such as the loneliness and the static nature of its existence, but parallels these with the chance for him to lay his head on the torso of his love.
There is a closeness to his relationship with this person that does not exist in the star. The star is is simply there. It offers no real solace. It brings no comfort, not at least, the comfort of the heart. But the person he adores is something else entirely, a shining star in his eyes, a star on his horizon, someone to look up to [like he would the star] and someone in whom he can rest assured of a reciprocated love.
And yet, after the negative of the single word “No,” in the middle of the poem, there comes a series of images that make the reader realise just how much he is in love with this person, presumably the woman in his life, although that is not absolutely stated. It could be his wife, or lover, but it could also be a wish he might be having as he feasts on the delights of someone who has become his muse, a fascination for him in life that he wishes he could get to know and lay his face close into her torso for comfort. After all, we say that we can wish upon a star, so perhaps this is Keats’ way of saying [and doing] the same thing, but in a more poetic manner.
Now for those of you who are young and who have never experienced the pang of true love for another person, think about when you were younger [very young] and needed comfort. A cuddle always helped didn’t it? By that physical contact, you were allowed to feel better, to feel relief from the pain that you had experienced. The same could be true here as well. “No,” he says, defiantly. He still wishes to remain “stedfast, still unchangeable,” but resting on his “fair love’s ripening breast, to feel for ever its soft fall and swell.” There is a sense of desperation here, to me, that in all this writing, in all this thought, he expresses just one thing; a desire to seek out and find comfort from the one who he loves and adores. I know when things are going rough for me in life, the one place I can safely say that is best to be is home with the woman I love. So I see here in these words someone who adores his lover as much as I do my wife. This is a man who knows about love and how to love.
But, he then says he wishes to be “awake for ever in a sweet unrest” so that he can still “hear her tender-taken breath.” He believes that if he can be that close to her, then he can feel the blessing that love offers, the real love that he has and that she has for him. In doing so, he believes that there is a chance to “live ever” in the knowledge that the love she has for him will allow him to undergo any pressures and pains that life brings. That is the joy of true love; it allows the person receiving it, the recipient, to feel that there is nothing in this world that can destroy when you are loved, for nothing else matters. But, he thinks, should all this not be possible; his desire is to not be like the star, apart from being able to be there with his love. Then, he would sooner not live a moment longer; in fact, he would sooner “swoon to death.” A swoon is “an occurrence of fainting” [dictionary] so he is saying that if this kind of life is not possible, put me out of my misery and let me die. There is no more pain in death.
Now I understand his thought process. When I married, I married for life as far as I am concerned. I live for the chance to make my wife happy and here is Keats thinking similar things, but because the feeling and the emotion are given back, or reciprocated, to him, it is an essence of pure love that the both of them share. In a world where there are so many divorces, so much hatred, so much distrust and envy, where people get married and then divorced, just like the celebrities they see on the television, such a poem as this is a true blessing, to share the complexities and the beauty of true, romantic love. That is why this poem is so good and added into this anthology for you to study.