‘Bright Star! Would I were steadfast as thou art’ A poem by John Keats

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 priestlike task (5)
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors –
No–yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast, (10)
To feel for ever its 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.

I have done a second reading of the poem after several years .I am now struck by the sheer number of images in this short fourteen-lined poem of Keats. The images are mostly present in single words and phrases:

1) Steadfast : Here the North Star is steadfast in the brightness , in its lone splendor, in its being hung aloft , in its watching with its lids apart, in its sleeplessness, in gazing . Steadfast qualifies so much of activity of the North Star.

2)Bright star : Steadfastly bright, not flickering.

3)Lone splendor : In splendid isolation in the night sky. Splendor arises from desolateness. At the top it is lonely.

4)Hung aloft the night :Like a lamp hung on a dark night. The important word is aloft, like a lamp hung in the dark night swaying by the wind.

5)Watching :The night star continuously watches  the goings-on of the world, like the seas washing the “human” shores. The sea waves are continuously washing the human shores , performing a priest-like service and the North star is watching this. Watching implies a cosmic vigilance to ensure that the sins of the human race are cleansed fast and timely.

6)Eternal lids apart: “Lids apart ” is a never ending watching , a sleepless supervision needed by eternal vigilance. The North Star must be vigilant to watch what is going on on the shores of human condition.

7)Sleepless Eremite : A hermit is a religious recluse. The North Star is a lone star , a recluse from clusters of other stars. Yet the hermit watches all the time , his lids apart. The Eremite never sleeps.

8)The moving waters .: A beautiful image of the sea-tides continuously washing the shores. The North star , watching from its astral heights, can see the ocean only as a body of moving waters.

9)Priest-like task : The North Star is watching the sea perform the religious ablutions of the human race and continuously cleanse its sinful nature.

10)Human shores : I love the phrase ‘human shores”. It can mean many things. One meaning could be “from the shores of the human condition” implying watching as a bystander , who is merely watching. The North Star is watching humankind’s actions eternally as an observer. It does not participate.

11)Gazing on : Gazing the new soft fallen mask of snow on the mountains and the moors -The North Star either watchfully sees the human shores being cleansed or gazes on the soft fallen bridal veil of snowfall on the mountains and the moors.Either way it is witness to cosmic events.

12)No : Not in the lone splendor of the North Star watching the cosmic events like a lone hermit but steadfast like it, in brightness and unfailing visibility. Still unchangeable like it.

13) Pillowed upon: The poet imagines himself resting on the soft breast of his fair lover
and feel for ever its soft fall and swell,keeping awake forever in sweet unrest.

14)Ripening breast : Very evocative image of a young girl’s bosom likened to fruit.

15)For ever
Repetition of ever:

To feel for ever
To awake for ever
To live ever
Still to hear her tender taken breath and so live ever.It is such bliss that it appears one is living for ever or one swoons to death.

16) Swoons to death: Swoon may refer to sexual ecstasy and death may be a reference to sexual intercourse.

The other interesting about the poem is the clear division into an octave dealing with an abstract star from the heavens and the following sestet suddenly changing its tone to deal with  a micro-situation of the poet in a passionate moment with his beloved. The imagery in the first eight lines suggest an ethereal presence of the star dealing with the cosmic events such as the waves hitting the seashore and the snow falling soft on the mountains and the moors. The next six lines deal with the physicality of the poet’s love for his beloved:

Look at the choice of suggestive words:

pillowed upon, ripening breast, fall and swell, tender-taken breath, sweet unrest, swoon to death

The imagery in the first eight lines is more visual and synesthetic in keeping with the abstract subject

bright star
watching
gazing
hung aloft
lids apart
moving waters

In the latter six lines, the imagery is more tactile to suggest an earthiness of sensual experience:

pillowed upon
ripening breast
fall and swell,
hear her tender taken breath (auditory-tactile)

Also interesting is the use of the word still ,in four different places.

yet still steadfast, still unchangeable” -yet means something like despite in the context but “still” coming next refers to the unchangeable position of the star.

“Still, still to hear her tender taken breath” The first “still” comes after the previous line”awake for ever in sweet unrest” ,meaning still awake. The second “still” signifies quiet necessary to hear tender- taken breath.

 

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“The Brook” by Alfred Lord Tennyson

I come from haunts of coot and hern,
I make sudden sally
And sparkle out among the fern,
To bicker down a valley.

By thirty hills I hurry down,
Or slip between the ridges,
By twenty thorps, a little town,
And half a hundred bridges.

* * *

I chatter over stony ways,
In little sharps and trebles,
I bubble into eddying bays,
I babble on the pebbles.

With many a curve my banks I fret
By many a field and fallow,
And many a fairy foreland set
With willow-weed and mallow.

* * *

And here and there a foamy lake
Upon me, as I travel
With many a silvery waterbreak
Above the golden gravel,

And draw them all along, and flow
To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever.

Apart from the delightful simpilcity of this nature poem by Tennyson,we may look at the sensory images he creates about the brook’s journey notably the auditory and visual ones.

I make a sudden sally
and sparkle out among the fern
to bicker down a valley

The start of the brook’s journey is described in just three lines, so full of detail compressed in sixteen words. The detail is amazing:

A sudden sally : The brook starts at the haunt of the coot and hern.Just picture a calm starting point with coots and herns flying about in peace. Suddenly the brook starts its sally , a military metaphor for an attack by the defenders of a town under seige. The brook starts flowing among the fern sparkling in the sun against their green .And then it bickers down a valley, continuing its aggression. To bicker is to quarrel loudly.To bicker down a valley suggests an abrupt noisy fall. Repeat “s” in suden sally/sparkle out” suggest softness of flow followed by abrupt “down a valley”.

By thirty hills I hurry down,
Or slip between the ridges,
By twenty thorps, a little town,
And half a hundred bridges.

The numbers thirty, twenty, half a hundred are meant to convey the enormous speed the brook picks up as it passes the hills, thorps, ridges,a town, half a hundred bridges.

The brook is personified with two human attributes :running and babbling. The running is a continuous activity that goes on ,now fast on the ridges and now slow in the plains.The running never stops unlike of men who come and go:

…men may come ,men may go
But I go on for ever

Men come only to go but not the brook that goes on for ever.Its chatter in the woods will never stop.It goes on for ever.

The simple musical lines in monosyllables are so much like the babble of a brook

Men may come/ men may go
But I go on /for ever

Men merely come and they go. But the brook goes on and on.

The poet achieves a rare kind of musical density in each stanza by repetition of a single sound ;

“b” in

I bubble into eddying bays,
I babble on the pebbles
.
,
“y” in

And here and there a foamy lake
Upon me, as I travel
With many a silvery waterbreak
Above the golden gravel,

“f” in

With many a curve my banks I fret
By many a field and fallow,
And many a fairy foreland set
With willow-weed and mallow

And “ow” in

fallow,willow,mallow

Of course,the dominant sense employed is the auditory one:

bubble , babble, chatter ,bicker, fret.

“To A Skylark”-A poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun
O’er which clouds are bright’ning,
Thou dost float and run,
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.

The pale purple even
Melts around thy flight;
Like a star of Heaven
In the broad daylight
Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight:

Keen as are the arrows
Of that silver sphere,
Whose intense lamp narrows
In the white dawn clear
Until we hardly see–we feel that it is there.

All the earth and air
With thy voice is loud.
As, when night is bare,
From one lonely cloud
The moon rains out her beams, and heaven is overflowed.

What thou art we know not;
What is most like thee?
From rainbow clouds there flow not
Drops so bright to see
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.

Like a poet hidden
In the light of thought,
Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:

Like a high-born maiden
In a palace tower,
Soothing her love-laden
Soul in secret hour
With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower:

Like a glow-worm golden
In a dell of dew,
Scattering unbeholden
Its aerial hue
Among the flowers and grass, which screen it from the view:

Like a rose embowered
In its own green leaves,
By warm winds deflowered,
Till the scent it gives
Makes faint with too much sweet these heavy-winged thieves.

Sound of vernal showers
On the twinkling grass,
Rain-awakened flowers,
All that ever was
Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass.

Teach us, sprite or bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.

Chorus hymeneal
Or triumphal chaunt
Matched with thine, would be all
But an empty vaunt–
A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want.

What objects are the fountains
Of thy happy strain?
What fields, or waves, or mountains?
What shapes of sky or plain?
What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain?

With thy clear keen joyance
Languor cannot be:
Shadow of annoyance
Never came near thee:
Thou lovest, but ne’er knew love’s sad satiety.

Waking or asleep,
Thou of death must deem
Things more true and deep
Than we mortals dream,
Or how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream?

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Yet if we could scorn
Hate, and pride, and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

Better than all measures
Of delightful sound,
Better than all treasures
That in books are found,
Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!

Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow
The world should listen then, as I am listening now!

As I read this under-grad poem once again, what has struck me most is the use of the negative prefix “un” to suggest the ethereal as distinguished from the physical:

Unpremeditated art
Scattering unbeholden
Singing (hymns) unbidden
Unbodied joy

Everything about the skylark is ethereal, with no interference from the sensory perceptions of a human being.Its song is art but with no premeditated music scheme.Its light scatters like a glow-worm,unbeholden(by the human eye) in the grass and flowers. It sings hymns like a poet hidden, without being bidden by a church priest. It is pure “unbodied joy”,the result of an ecstacy pure in its form, unconnected with the pleasures of the senses. Everything about it is moving away from the body, from the drossness of a carnal being.

Remember it is not non-bodied joy ,but unbodied joy which means a calculated human effort to move away from the physical.

Another nice negative prefix used is in “deflowered” , a beautiful sensory term used for the rose temporarily hidden behind the leaves as a result of the wind’s blowing.Here the wind is the molester ,who deflowers the rose.

Of course ,the most memorable lines are:

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

The allierated “s” (sincerest,some,sweetest,songs,saddest) lends a soft tonality to the lines as they are recited.

“The world is too much with us”- By William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathéd horn.

The sonnet, written in the Petrarchan form, speaks of the poet’s concern for humankind moving away from nature in the pursuit of material gains, the latter acquired at the expense of our innate powers to see ourselves in nature. Kinship being lost with nature is a familiar theme of Wordsworth’s poetry.

The first line “The world is too much with us, late and soon” is epigrammatic. “A sordid boon” is an image that recalls Faust’s boon of supernatural powers acquired by exchanging his soul with the devil. The one image that I personally like in the poem is the winds that are upgathered now like sleeping flowers”, an exquisite image indeed.

Wordsworth feels out of place in a world obsessed with the material prosperity and rather prefers to be a “pagan suckled in a creed outworn”-another interesting image, notable for its graphic quality. A pagan from aboriginal tribes is more in tune with nature, although “suckled in a creed outworn”.

“This Living Hand” by John Keats

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed–see here it is–
I hold it towards you.

The living hand I am extending towards you, now capable of earnest grasping. When death occurs the same hand drained of its red life will haunt your days and chill your nights. And it will make you wish that the blood coursing in your living veins be drained and instead flow in the dead poet’s veins. That will set at rest your conscience.

Whether or not it was meant for Fanny Brawne , the poem does indeed raise gloomy thoughts . A poem written in the last years of the young poet who knew he was dying would speak of a state of existence in death- a hand ,now living and capable of grasping would lie in the tomb ,cold and drained of blood. The thoughts are of a living man projecting his existence on to an existence devoid of life. The process of the living hand transforming to lifelessness can only be imagined by a living man about to die. The poem makes the reader project his own conscious life on to such an existence as though the poet is holding his hand towards him.

“My heart leaps up when I behold “-William Wordsworth

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began,
So is it now I am a man,
So be it when I shall grow old
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man:
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Apart from the music of the lines in iambic pentameter ,I love the poem for the child-like simplicity of thought and its lyrical beauty.The image I liked when I had first read the poem in school was “natural piety” .I still dig the image. The poet is looking at Nature as a worshiper. For him Nature herself is God. Hence the word “piety”. The poet desires that his days are bound ‘each to each” by love for nature.