Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
John Keats' Inspiration for "Bright Star"
"Bright Star" is one of romantic poet John Keats' most popular sonnets. It is written in the form of a typical Shakespearean sonnet, with 14 lines made up of an octet and a sestet with the volta, or turn, occurring at line 9 and ending with a rhyming couplet. The rhyme scheme is Shakespearean: ababcdcdefefgg
John Keats was deeply in love at the time it was created, probably in the autumn (October) of 1819. Fanny Brawne, the love of his life, inspired this and several other poems penned around this time, all of which express his undying love for her.
Here are a few lines from one those poems—"I cry your mercy-pity-love! -aye, love!"—written in what must have been a frenzy of passion and love for Fanny Brawne:
O! let me have thee whole,—all, all, be mine!
That shape, that fairness, that sweet minor zest
Of love, your kiss—those hands, those eyes divine,
That warm, white, lucent, million-pleasured breast Yourself
—your soul—in pity give me all,
Withhold no atom’s atom or I die.
Keats is saying that he wants all of Fanny Brawne, down to her atoms, or he will perish. In "Bright Star," Keats echoes these sentiments but introduces the idea of his being like a star, unchangeable yet forever in the company of his beloved. John Keats was drawn to the stars and the romantic idea of them being fixed and constant, unlike the chaotic world of humanity.
Keats wrote a letter to his brother Tom in June 1818 during his visit to the English Lake District. Here, he describes his first experience of Lake Windermere:
“There are many disfigurements to this Lake, —not in the way of land or water. No; the two views we have had of it are of the most noble tenderness—they can never fade away—they make one forget the divisions of life; age, youth, poverty and riches; and refine one’s sensual vision into a sort of north star which can never cease to be open lidded and stedfast.”
Keats was also a great admirer of Shakespeare and could well have been influenced by the Bard of Avon.
This is from Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, where Caesar addresses the conspirators who want to get rid of him:
But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumber'd sparks;
They are all fire and every one doth shine;
But there's but one in all doth hold his place.
The star, then, represents this ideal of constancy and fixedness which contrasts with the changing nature of human existence—timeless quality as opposed to temporal decay.
In the poem, the speaker wishes to be a bright star but not to exist as a lonely entity, aloof and watching. Instead, he wants to always be with his fair love, awake forever. This is quite a tall order but a classic theme for someone as romantic as Keats.
John Keats did not live long enough to consummate his love for Fanny Brawne. He died in Rome on February 23rd, 1821, of consumption. In a letter to her penned March 1820, he wrote:
I wish to believe in immortality—I wish to live with you for ever.
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Themes in "Bright Star"
- Ideal Love
- Romantic Aspiration
- Immortality and Human Death
- Sacrifice For an Ideal
- Earthly Desires and Cosmic Existence
- Nature's Constancy and Human restlessness
In this section, we'll take a look at each line in the poem more closely to examine its meaning and identify the poetic devices used in the piece.
The speaker addresses the star directly (it could be the North Star, Polaris) and contrasts the star's constancy with his own. He wishes he were as stedfast—steadfast in modern spelling—that is, fixed and without change. Here, Keats is introducing the idea of nature vs. humanity, the star never changing in its appearance, and the human—the individual—just the opposite.
Lines 2 and 3
But the speaker doesn't want to be out there on his own, watching, overlooking the world in isolation, eternally open-eyed (lids apart), without company of any sort. Note the enjambment—the second line running on into the third, maintaining the sense and momentum.
Lines 4, 5 and 6
The Eremite is a hermit, a Christian recluse. The speaker states clearly that this is not a conventional religious desire. He doesn't want a Christian eternity, and he does not want purification (ablution . . . in the ritualistic washing of the body sense).
Keats was not a regular churchgoing Christian and is generally known to have had a 'lack of faith', hence the nickname Keats the pagan, which was not altogether fair or accurate. He was intensely religious—nature was his spiritual source—but did not practice conventional Christian beliefs.
Lines 7 and 8
The long sentence continues with a description of a snowy landscape, bringing to mind a cold, distant-if-idealistic visual. The speaker has no wish for this 'lone splendour'—there has to be more.
The turn, or volta, occurs here. The speaker wants to be fixed and constant, but he also wants to be with his love (Fanny Brawne), using her breasts as a pillow, sensing their movement as he lies awake forever in this restless state.
The language here is plain ("for ever, ever"), reflecting the longing for an eternal loving relationship. Either it must be or not. Death will be the outcome otherwise.
So the speaker, the poet, in near desperation wishes to exist in love with his love for all time. He wants to be like the star but can this ever be realised? Surely it's not on? Being human is all about being changeable, vulnerable and subject to the vagaries of the world.
There are allusions to a sexual motive here—the lover's breast, the sweet unrest, the tender-taken breath, the swoon to death in pure orgasm? This seems unlikely, however, given Keats' own personal health and future prospects.
Metre (Meter) of "Bright Star"
Bright Star has a basic iambic pentameter beat but has several lines that break the familiar daDUM stress pattern of the iambic, bringing varied rhythm and pace.
For example, the first foot of the first line is a spondee with double stress for stronger effect at the start. And the second line begins with a trochee, or the first syllable stressed. Note in line 8 how an amphibrach and anapaest combine to produce a lilting rhythm that rises. This combination repeats in the last line to good effect.
Bright star, / would I / were sted / fast as / thou art—
Not in / lone splen / dour hung / aloft / the night
And watch / ing, with / eter / nal lids / apart,
Like nat / ure's pat / ient, sleep / less E / remite,
The mov / ing wat / ers at / their priest / like task
Of pure / ablut / ion round / earth's hu / man shores,
Or gaz / ing on / the new / soft-fall / en mask
Of snow / upon / the moun tains / and the moors—
No—yet / still sted / fast, still / unchange / able,
Pillow'd / upon / my fair / love's ripen / ing breast,
To feel / for ev / er its / soft fall / and swell,
Awake / for ev er / in a sweet / unrest,
Still, still / to hear / her ten / der-tak / en breath,
And so / live ev er— / or else swoon / to death.
Literary/Poetic Devices in "Bright Star"
In this section, we'll examine some of the poetic devices Keats employed in this Shakespearean sonnet.
Alliteration occurs when two or more words beginning with consonants are close together in a line, affecting phonetics and adding texture and interest. For example:
"would I were," "mountains and the moors," "feel for ever its soft fall and swell," "hear her tender-taken"
Caesura occurs when a line has a break halfway, usually with punctuation. For example:
"Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,"
Enjambment occurs when a line runs on into the next without punctuation, carrying sense and momentum, as in lines 2, 5 and 7.
© 2020 Andrew Spacey
Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on August 11, 2020:
Thanks for the visit Ann. All good here so far.
Ann Carr from SW England on August 11, 2020:
Interesting in-depth analysis as usual, Andrew. You always explain things well. I'm not a great fan of the romantics but I see the artistry in them.
Hope you're keeping well in this strange time!