‘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
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.



Knowing death to the bone

A poem by W.B.Yeats

Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all;
Many times he died,
Many times rose again,
A great man in his pride
Confronting murderous men
Casts derision upon
Super-session of breath;
He knows death to the bone –
Man has created death.

A short poem by Yeats , it has some interesting thoughts. First , a contrast between a man’s attitude towards death and an animal’s .Dying is an organic process that does not affect the animal’s life beyond the physical. There is nothing before and leading to the culmination of the process.A man knows he is going to die some time and actively participates in the events leading to the organic event of death. Death is an experience that begins the moment one becomes aware of the world and sees other people dying. It signals the beginning of human logic by which a thing that has a beginning has to end sometime.

The great man Yeats is referring to knows death to the bone.So does each one of us. He casts derision on super-session of breath. Each one of us pretends to care little about when death happens to us . But because all of us have death in our bones, as program writ in our bodies and this we know to the bone. An animal is hardly aware of death as a possibility of happening to it. So it does not participate in the process of death.

So when the poet says man has created death he may possibly be meaning that death is not simply the final event to a living being but living through an awareness of death as a certainty and the possibility of its happening any time. It is not the death that is scary but the fear that it can happen any time, from anywhere.

Linked to the awareness of death as a logical possibility flowing from the fact of birth, there is the concept of time. An animal has no awareness of Time’s passage, the inevitable ticking of the clock from the origin of a life to its end .A human always experiences the clock ticking all about him ,in sleep and wakefulness. He experiences death all around him , the dissolution of living and non-living matter as an inescapable reality.

He knows death to the bone-
Man has created death.

Yeats is referring to the indifference of his friend O’Higgins who was  to be assassinated for his actions leading to the executions of IRA members. He knows death to the bone-in the sense he too played a part in the deaths of others and it was only inevitable for him to face death himself. Man has created death when he sees its inevitability as a logical outcome of the fact of his birth and his subsequent actions . Unlike an animal which dies without ever realizing there is such a thing as death.

“Ah,no, the years, the years”

“During Wind and Rain”:
A poem by Thomas hardy

They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss—
Elders and juniors—aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years,
See, the white storm-birds wing across.

They are blithely breakfasting all—
Men and maidens—yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.
They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

In the first stanza the poet is probably referring to a cozy house party, with the candles mooning each face. It is a party where they sing their dearest songs,he,she,all of them-yea.

Love the universalization -he she, all of them ,yea. From the particular to the general as the candles are mooning each face. Yea is emphatic to include all.

The soft candles are mooning each face. Mooning is temporary shining of the faces like a moon’s light when the moon is running in the sky on the relative motion of the clouds.

Ah, no; the years O!

The first five lines present a tableau of domestic bliss, where everything is as if it lasts for ever. A full five lines later, the bliss disappears to a Ah No. Imagine the pessimist pouting his full round lips to remind you of the years .

Ah no, the years O

It is perfect end-note to all the songs sung earlier. The years. All that passage, present and future. He, she , all of them-yea. The candles have mooned already . Now is a reminder that all this is transient. The years are a passage of time. The years like autumn leaves are a reminder of your transience.

How the sick leaves reel down in throngs ! The years fall like sick leaves reeling down in throngs- he , she and all of them, yea. The leaves fall in droves, yellow and sick. There is wind and likely rain in the coming stanzas.

In the second stanza, “they” are the elders and juniors. In the first one, it was “he, she, all of them, yea” . The elders and the juniors are all steeped in years, elders more, juniors less.

They are all deeply involved with clearing the creeping moss,making the pathways neat, the garden gay and building a shady seat. . This is despite the “Ah ,no ,the years O” of the first stanza end .Notice the moss creeping like years. Notice the people are no longer “he,she and all of them” but elders and juniors caught up in different stages of passage of time.

“Ah no, the years, the years” is a reiteration,a progression in time from “ah,no; the years O!”

See the white storm birds wing across.White storm birds are harbingers of storm. Soon there will be wind and rain. In the first stanza the leaves were falling in throngs. In the second one storm clouds are gathering.

In the third stanza the poet almost points at the folly of “men and maidens” who are blithely breakfasting under the summer tree, oblivious of the storm. It is all so beautiful and such perfect happiness under the summer tree with a glimpse of the sea beyond and the pet fowl prancing near the knee.

But “ah ,no,the years O” is a gentle reminder of the years. Look at the rotten rose ript from the wall. Look at the “men and maidens” oblivious of beauty’s decay all around them.

Watch the progression in time from “he,she and all of them” to “elders and juniors” to “men and maidens”. Men is a generic term for all mankind. Maidens are specific to young girls.

In the fifth stanza , we come back to “he,she and all of them”, not in the domestic bliss of a garden party but changing to a new high house, with all the household furniture ,carpets and chairs lying on the lawn all day. Brightest things are theirs in the new high house, the heaven where they will start to live.

But ah no, the years , the years.

May be the new house is the high house where he , she and all of them will start to live leaving their material possessions all lying in the lawn awaiting auction.

Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs”

Just imagine the graves in stone, with names of the occupants carved on them. Just below them are rain drops falling to plough a muddy earth, spattering bits of mud on the engraved names.

Do not stand at my grave and weep

Do not stand at my grave and weep
by Mary Elizabeth Frye

Do not stand at my grave and weep:
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starshine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry:
I am not there; I did not die.

Just imagine an unlettered English housewife penning such a powerful poem, that employs very interesting techniques to such emotional impact on the readers.

Do not stand at my grave and weep

The poem is about a girl who had fled the Holocaust and hears the news of her mother’s death.The mother has to tell her dear daughter not to stand at her grave and weep .The daughter is miles away and there is no way of standing near her grave.

I am not there ; I do not sleep

Here mother is not there in two ways. Firstly she is not there in a static place like the grave nor is she sleeping as we believe the dead do in their graves. She is doing more acts involving movement , such as the winds that blow, the diamond glints that shine on show, the sun on ripened grain etc.  She is not there at a point in space but moves all around. She is no longer a body tied to a single space. She is free to move everywhere. Secondly she is not there, now existentially. When one does not exist ,one does not sleep. Free moving spirits have no sleep.

I am not there ; I do not sleep

The line is so lyrical, so pretty, with the beautiful juxtaposition achieved by combining two negative statements each reinforcing the meaning of the other.I am not there .So I do not sleep. I do not sleep because I am not there. In the first it is about existence. In the second it is about an activity of those who do not exist , that is those who lie in the grave. In the latter sense sleep means lying in a grave.
I am not there; I do not sleep
I am the thousand winds that blow
I am the diamond glints on snow
I am the sun on ripened grain
I am the gentle autumn rain.

Here the mother repudiates her livingness and sleep which only the living do. From a body that had defined her existence, she has moved on to the vast spaces of nature , like the winds, snow, grain,rain beyond the definitive walls of a body’s existence.

Do not stand at my grave and weep

The daughter has no locus to stand near mother’s grave and weep because her mother does not sleep in her grave but is now part of nature. She is not there and she did not die. It is only for the ones who die that one stands and weeps. She is now part of nature like the wind, rains, snow and grain, experiencing movement that recognizes no limits of space.

The movement is beautifully conveyed through the use of kinesthetic imagery:

I am not there, I do not sleep (Suggesting absence of body, lack of movement, sleep, what I am not)


I am the thousand winds that blow
…the diamond glints on snow
…the sun on ripened grain
…the gentle autumns rain…

(suggesting movement, a sense of motion as against the staticity of sleep and death)

“Eight O’Clock” -Poem by A.E.Housman

He stood, and heard the steeple
Sprinkle the quarters on the morning town.
One, two, three, four, to market-place and people
It tossed them down.

Strapped, noosed, nighing his hour,
He stood and counted them and cursed his luck;
And then the clock collected in the tower
Its strength, and struck

The entire poem is in just 55 words, a lot of sound and meaning (not fury). The sound emanates from meaning and also the other way round. In one moment the steeple tosses quarters down on marketplace and people, making meaning of sound. The poem words are sound like the quarters sprinkled on the morning town by the steeple clock.And that is how the subject hears them.

Sprinking is gentle and soft on the morning town . But tossing them down on people and marketplace is a violent mixture of sound and meaning. There is speed in the words as if they are leading up to the death of the convict-an inexorable time ticking one,two, three..

The interesting thing is how the passage of time affects each :

He heard the steeple sprinkle the quarters on the morning town.

Time affects the morning town as it has always. Soft and sibilant. This moment has no special meaning for the morning town.

One ,two, three,four,to marketplace and people
It tossed them down.

People and marketplace go about their business as usual and the passage of time at this moment is just like what it has always been. Normally the sound of the quarters at this moment should not have meaning for them but there is anticipation in the town about the hanging to take place at eight o’clock . It is likely people have either no empathy with the person to be hanged or are plain indifferent. May be they are looking at the hanging as just punishment for the crime alleged against him. That is perhaps why the quarters are tossed down to an expectant crowd .

...he stood and counted them and cursed his luck

The only one that is concerned about the quarters of time is the man about to be hanged – he who counts them and curses his luck. He curses his luck perhaps because he had committed the crime and had the misfortune of being caught.Till he was strapped and noosed,the hour was far away. There was an outside chance of escaping the hanging, either by way of a pardon or by some last minute intervention. Now that he is already on the scaffold the hour is neighing and the count begins. Every sound of the clock has meaning for him.

And then the clock collected in the tower
Its strength and struck

Now this is where the clock assumes a personality to become a part of the hanging scene.The clock tower has a role in the inevitability of death . It almost assumes a sinister role in the hanging. It collects all the strength in the clock tower and strikes the hour of death.

Why such a massive gathering of strength? Because there is a hesitancy in the process , caused by inherent possibility of error, a miscarriage of justice. A polemic about the place for capital punishment in a modern civil society.

Let us gather all the sounds flowing from meaning:

Sprinkle the quarters on the morning town‘ is a soft aural sound containing the early morning ticks of the steeple clock.

It tossed them down” .No more sprinkling but a quicker ,an almost violent act of throwing. There is ruthlessness about it and inevitabilty. From the sound of the word “tossed” emerges meaning.

Strapped ,noosed,neighing his hour” The sounds of three long vowels coming one after the other convey a hopeless situation.

and then the clock collected in the tower
All its strength and struck.

The clock becomes sinister , the way it gathers up its strength and strikes. “Struck” is onamatopaeic and after it , everything comes to the end.

Gregor Samsa’s Kafkaesque thoughts

Thoughts of a monstrous insect called Gregor Samsa

(“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous insect.” The metamorphosis by Franz Kafka)

My chief lepidopterist says I am not a roach but a dung beetle cap’ble of flight .Alas, if only I knew this hidden truth! It was my insect’s fears preying on my soft underside and it remained unaware of the silky wings that sit on my sides.It was the bread crumbs thrown at me by my sis that closed the gap ‘tween mind’s body and bliss.If only I knew I could fly from these smelly holes through the window and land this body on lawn ,so it smells the freshest dung that rolled on grass.

I was thinking whether Kafka’s story of a traveling salesman waking up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect could be classified as a tragic tale. What are the tragic elements of the story except perhaps the insect’s unhappy end? The transformation itself is not tragic because it made no difference to the insect whether it was a traveling salesman in its earlier form and it never felt sad about it. An “absurd “story has some tragic elements but only those which underline the futility of all human existence.

Not finding inherent tragedy in the insect’s tale, I find it easy to sublimate the resultant artistic experience by looking at the insect’s tragedy, per se. I mean I don’t look at Gregor Samsa’s tragic experience of a metamorphosis into an insect but the insect’s own tragic experience of not realizing its flying capability .A dung beetle unable to realize its potential for flying .Probably because it was Kafka’s own limitation that the insect had to be monstrous and monstrous dung beetles cannot fly .The tragedy of the beetle was that it cannot over-reach itself.


As from the house your mother sees
You playing round the garden trees,
So you may see, if you will look
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away,
And in another garden, play.
But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you. He intent
Is all on his play-business bent.
He does not hear; he will not look,
Nor yet be lured out of this book.
For, long ago, the truth to say,
He has grown up and gone away,
And it is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there.

I love the poem for the child-like simplicity of its presentation. The poem has two crisp images that merge into each other and run through to the end. The poem is addressed to reader,not to a reader but to any reader.The book is the the first image. Whatever the book has to convey has significance to any reader i.e. universal significance. The book opens up windows to a garden where a child is playing around the trees under a mother’s watchful eye from the house. The garden is the second image . It stands for the happier times when the child was playing blissfully round the trees while the mother from within the house is checking up on it from time to time. The mother could knock at the window and call the child to hear her. You the reader can now see through the book’s windows the child still playing round the trees. But alas you cannot knock to be heard. Because the child no longer exists in the form occuring in the earlier pages of the book. He has since grown and gone , leaving his airy form behind in the garden. The words of the book are mere air . The windows it presents are holes in a memory and the child figment of an early form that cannot now hear your knock.No amount of your calling lures him out of the book , where he plays an airy thing of your memory.

The child is playing in the garden in another space . The reader,as from a different space ,experiences it , now through the book’s window. Unlike mom who could by her knock on the window, make the child hear,the reader cannot catch his attention. Nor can he be lured out of the book. The book is the bridge that links two spaces in time i.e . the child’s and the reader’s. The child continues to play in the garden but is out of reach for the reader. He is a mere thought, an idea in the sequence of a chronicle. He will linger for ever as an airy being straight out of the book, through the reader’s own transience.

Anyreader, you may see the child(your own former self) through the book’s windows .Only you cannot knock the window now to call the child , who is too far far away to hear your call.

I see interesting use of visual imagery. Look at the way mom’s physical seeing is juxtaposed with the reader’s imaginary view through the windows of the book :

As from the house your mother sees
You playing round the garden trees,
So you may see, if you will look
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away,
And in another garden, play.

Mother sees :: you may see, if you look
playing round the garden trees :: Another child far far away
As from the house :: In another garden

Also , look at the interesting way in which space is dealt with by use of the visual imagery:

Mother’s seeing is from the physical window and its knocking can call the child to hear
Reader’s seeing is through the windows of the book he cannot knock and call to hear

Mother’s space is a window overlooking the garden
Reader’s space is through the book’s windows to a far far away child, who is a mere idea.

“Far , far away” extends space indefinitely as the reader looks back at his own childhood . The child is grown and gone away from the garden , now an adult peering through the windows of the book.