On one of Keats’s finest sonnets – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Bright Star’, or ‘Bright star! Would I were steadfast as thou art’ as it is sometimes known, is probably the most famous sonnet written by the Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821). He wrote it in 1819 originally, although he revised it a year later. When he wrote ‘Bright Star’, Keats knew that he was dying from consumption or tuberculosis, and the poem is in part about this awareness that he will die young.
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.
To attempt a paraphrase of ‘Bright Star’: Keats, addressing a bright star in the night sky, says, ‘I wish I were as durable and fixed as you are. Not because you’re alone up there in the sky, and constantly watching the seas wash around the shores of the earth, or the annual cycle of the snow falling on the earth, with your eyes constantly open, like a religious hermit with insomnia. No, I don’t want to be unchanging and immortal like you and be up there on my own: I want to be as unchanging as you are, but down here, my head resting upon my young beloved’s breast. Then I could feel the rise and fall of her breast and she breathes, forever; I could be always awake and it would be sweet. I could always hear her breathing, and live forever – or, if all this isn’t possible, then let me die, because it’s not worth living if I can’t do that.’
Foreshadowing the lyrics to a million pop songs, not least Aerosmith’s opening line ‘I could stay awake just to hear you breathing’, Keats’s ‘Bright Star’ is based around a central conceit: the idea that the poet envies the stars because they outlive him, but that he doesn’t envy their isolation and lack of human warmth. Initially, when we think about the sonnet’s closing sestet, we’re mindful that it teeters on the brink of absurdity: what’s the point of living forever to hear Fanny Brawne (the likely inspiration for the sonnet) breathing if Keats’s beloved is still going to die? But to a man in his early twenties aware that he is unlikely to make it into his late twenties, that would doubtless be the least of his worries. Living to the usual threescore and ten would be tantamount to living forever in Keats’s mind, perhaps.
Technically, ‘Bright Star’ is an English or Shakespearean sonnet, rhymed ababcdcdefefgg. But there are arguably two voltas or ‘turns’: one at the beginning of the ninth line, when Keats turns from a consideration of the star’s distance from earth, to a longing for durability; and then again, one in that final line, marked by the caesura and the dash, when Keats decides that if his wish to possess the star’s steadfastness cannot be granted, he may as well die now.
Despite its opening line and common short title of ‘Bright Star’ – which was used as the title for the recent biopic about John Keats – ‘Bright star! Would I were steadfast as thou art’ is really a poem about human intimacy and a longing for human relationships. Even when considering the star’s distance from us, he sees this in decidedly human terms: the Earth has ‘human shores’, while the snow on the mountains and moors (foreshadowing the ‘ripening breast’ of the beloved, perhaps?) forms a ‘mask’, i.e. something that resembles a human face. As with so much of Keats’s poetry, this is a poem about the physicality of being with someone or desiring to be with them: Keats’s poetry is obsessed with bodies, blushing, the sensuous and the sensual. Sadly, his own body would collapse in 1821, just one year after he completed ‘Bright Star’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.