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 priest like 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.
John Keats (1795 – 1821)
Eremite – a hermit one who lives alonen
Ablution – ritual washing
A sonnet with rhyming scheme ‘abac dede fghg ii’ and the usual break in thought after eight lines.
This is probably close to his final poetic work and this sonnet is clearly in relation to his beloved Fanny Brawne. He cannot meet the requirements for marriage for he is not of that financial status necessary and in any case he is quite ill and about to travel to Italy for health reasons where he will die at the age of 25.
He wishes to be like the Bright Star in that the star will always be there looking down steadfast and permanent whereas his view of the world in the company of the much loved Fanny Brawne is going to be very brief.
The bright star only sees the priest-like waters in their continual ritual cleansing of the world and the snow tops of mountains. He doesn’t want to be remote and a hermit and devoid of personal association with the world. The soft-fallen mask of snow gives a poetic link seen later in the poem in relation to the breast of the sleeping Fanny.
The Bright Star will ‘see’ the full gamut of Fanny’s life. He would love to experience a life-long presence of Fanny emphasised in the close personal relationship of being their while she is sleeping and watching her breath. The fall and swell and not swell and fall gives a positive ending to each breath. And because he cannot do this and his life is short the only choice is to swoon to death.
From … Wikipedia …
It is unclear when Keats first drafted “Bright Star”; his biographers suggest different dates. Andrew Motion suggests it was begun in October 1819. Robert Gittings states that Keats began the poem in April 1818 – before he met his beloved Fanny Brawne – and he later revised it for her. Colvin believed it to have been in the last week of February 1819, immediately after their informal engagement.
The final version of the sonnet was copied into a volume of The Poetical Works of William Shakespeare, opposite Shakespeare’s poem, A Lover’s Complaint. The book had been given to Keats in 1819 by John Hamilton Reynolds. Joseph Severn maintained that the last draft was transcribed into the book in late September 1820 while they were aboard the ship Maria Crowther, travelling to Rome, from where the very sick Keats would never return.
Some text from Shakespeare’s A Lover’s Complaint …
O, that infected moisture of his eye,
O, that false fire which in his cheek so glowed,
O, that forc’d thunder from his heart did fly,
O, that sad breath his spungy lungs bestowed,
O, all that borrowed motion seeming owed,
Would yet again betray the fore-betray’d,
And new pervert a reconciled maid!
This is a different complaint all together. A complaint by a lady who has lost her love through betrayal. But interestingly she would accept him again if he returned to woo her in similar fashion. Keats of course did woo Fanny with his poetic voice. And she was impressed with his poetry after reading a book of his work.