Classification of Poem

Type of poem: lyric poem
Type of lyric poem: sonnet
Type of sonnet: English or Shakespearean sonnet

Contents of Page

The Composition of "Bright Star"
Definitions and Allusions
Analysis of "Bright Star"
Syllabus for Keats

The Composition of "Bright Star

     Keats wrote "Bright Star" in 1819 and revised it in 1820, perhaps on the (final) voyage to Italy. Friends and his doctor had urged him to try a common treatment for tuberculosis, a trip to Italy; however, Keats was aware that he was dying. Some critics have theorized that this poem was addressed to his fiance, Fanny Brawne, and connect the poem to his May 3, 1818 letter to her.

Definitions and Allusions

The word colored pink in the middle column is defined by the pink text in the third column.

line 1 Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art-- Unchanging, constant
line 2    Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night! Above, high over the earth. Keats is pointing out the star's isolation, as well as a positive quality, its splendour. Its separateness contasts with the poet's relationship with his beloved later.
line 3 And watching, with eternal lids apart, Eyelids. The star's isolation is implicit in its watching and in its not participating. It never sleeps. There is also a lack of motion in these lines.
line 4    Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite, Hermit,usually with a religious connotation. Emphasizing the star's sleeplessness is part of the characterization of the star's non-humanness, which makes it an impossible goal for a human being to aspire to.
line 5 The moving waters at their priestlike task The rise and the fall of the tides twice a day are seen as a religiously performed ritual. With the poem's shift to earth, there is movement and aliveness, as well as spirituality ("priestlike").
line 6    Of pure ablution round earth's human shores, A religious cleaning; ritual washing. This reference continues the religious imagery of "Eremite" and "priestlike." "Human" is what the poet is and the star is not.
line 7 Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask The "mask" is the covering of snow on the ground. This snow has pleasing connotations, being "new" and "soft." All the moon can do is "gaze."
line 8    Of snow upon the mountains and the moors- Beauty (the snow) is found in diverse places on earth. The alliteration (repetition of M sounds) stresses the connection of these words.
line 9 No--yet still stedfast, still unchangeable, The poet turns again to himself; "Still" has two meanings here: (1) always or ever and (2) motionless.
line 10    Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast, Movement and change in human life are introduced with "ripening," a contrast to the star.
line 11 To feel for ever its soft fall and swell, "Fall and swell" are also change and movement . "Soft" intensifies the sensuality introduced with "pillow'd."
line 12    Awake for ever in a sweet unrest In contrast to the eternal sleeplessness and motionlessness of the star, the poet's not sleeping is active ("awake"). Now change or flux becomes desireable, "sweet unrest," an oxymoron.
line 13 Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, Repetition ("still" is used 4 times in 5 lines) emphasizes time/timelessness for human beings. "Breath" is flux, and "tender" makes it positive.
line 14 And so live ever--or else swoon to death. Three of the last four lines use "for ever" or "ever," emphasizing steadfastness in time or eternity, but it is an eternity of love, passion and sensuality. In a swift reversal, the poet accepts the possibilty of dying from pleasure. "Swoon" has sexual overtones; orgasm is often compared to a dying (the French term for orgasm is le petit morte, or the small death). Because of its position as the last word in the poem and because of being an accented syllable, "death" carries a great deal of weight in the final effect and meaning of the poem.


Analysis of "Bright Star"

     In the first line, the poet expresses his desire for an ideal--to be as steadfast as a star--an ideal which cannot be achieved by a human being in this world of change or flux, as he comes to realize by the end of the poem. In fact, he is unable to identify even briefly with the star; immediately, in line 2, he asserts a negative, "not." And lines 2-8 reject qualities of the star's steadfastness . Even the religious imagery is associated with coldness and aloneness; moreover, the star is cut off from the beauties of nature on earth.

     Once the poet eliminates the non-human qualities of the star, he is left with just the quality of steadfastness. He can now define steadfastness in terms of human life on earth, in the world of love and movement. As in so many poems, Keats is grappling with the paradox of the desire for permanence and a world of timelessness and eternity (the star) while living in a world of time and flux. The paradox is resolved by the end of the poem: joy and fulfillment are to be found here, now; he needs no more. There is a possible ambiguity in the last line; is Keats saying that even if love doesn't enable him to live forever, he will die content in ecstasy and love?


Syllabus for Keats

Keats, Online overview
Lyric Poems, pp. 1-34, 51, 52
"On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"
"When I have fears that I may cease to be"
"Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art"
Lyric Poems, pp. 34-45
"The Eve of St. Agnes"
"To Autumn"
Lyric Poems, pp. 45-62
"Ode to a Nightingale"
"Ode on a Grecian Urn"
Lyric Poems (continued)
"La Belle Dame sans Merci"
"Ode on Melancholy"
**Supplemental Reading**
      Reading Lyric Poetry
      The Lyric Stanza: A Convention
      Lyric Epiphanies and Speakers
      The Romantic Meditative Ode
Lyric Poems (continued)
"Ode to Psyche"
Lyric Poems (continued)
Paper 1 due
**Supplemental Reading**
      Topics for Paper
      Introduction to Writing Your Paper
      Critical Essays, written by students
      Personal Response Essays,
            written by students
      Essays of Society or General Analysis,
            written by students
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