Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bright Star by John Keats

In reading today's Writer's Almanac, I learned that today is the 190th anniversary of John Keats's death. The Writer's Almanac also includes some absolutely swoon-worthy excerpts from some of Keats's letters to Fanny Brawne. And it occurred to me to mark the day with a reprise of one of his Shakespearian sonnets - a love poem that is entirely swoon-worthy (the title of which was borrowed for a major motion picture about his life - and no, I still haven't seen it. Grrr).

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.

*Eremite: a hermit, particularly a religious recluse who lives alone in the wilderness


In this single-sentence sonnet, Keats fixes his attention on a star in the sky, wishing that he had the ability to be as steadfast and watchful of the woman he loved (almost certainly Fanny Brawne at this point in his life). Keats is such a drama queen that he wants to lie with her forever, "pillowed on her breast" or else swoon to death. The poem, which is written using the Shakespearian sonnet form, uses iambic pentameter and the ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme. The volta or "turn" in the poem comes at the start of line 9, when Keats turns his attention from the star up in the sky to describing how he wishes to be able to have that star's immortal constancy in order to stay with his beloved.

Note how Keats begins the poem by addressing the star in the sky, but when he reaches the volta, he pretty much ceases to address the star, and talks to himself. Were this a performance on the stage, the actor might start his recitation by looking up to the star and gesturing, but he would almost undoubtedly turn his attention from the star to a more inward performance by the start of the 9th line, or else he might have a conveniently placed woman on a chaise lying about with whom to conclude the recitation.

I should note that this poem is sometimes referred to as "the last sonnet", because it was for quite a long time believed to be the final sonnet Keats wrote before his death. Some dispute as to whether that is correct exists, but it does appear to be one of the last poems he completed before his death, even if it was drafted earlier than first believed.

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This discussion is rich indeed.


This discussion is rich indeed