‘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.