Essays and Criticism
In "Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art," the object of John Keats's initial address is the North Star, or polestar. He speaks of it as existing "in lone splendour," referring to the unequaled brightness of this star. Navigators have long relied on the North Star to help them determine latitude and north-south direction in the northern hemisphere, and at the beginning of the poem, the poet is in the position of the navigator, observing the star and looking to it for guidance. Yet when Keats invokes this relationship, he reverses the parties' normal positions: instead of a navigator looking at the star, the poet says that the star is "watching ... / The moving waters" and everything on it. With this subtle reversal, the poet attempts to appropriate for himself the star's steadfastness, which is his aim in this piece. Although he is ultimately unsuccessful in obtaining this unchangeableness and reliability, the poet remains tranquil, knowing that his love is true, even if time is fickle.
The poet first tells us what he wants—steadfastness—and then he tells us why he wants it. He wishes to be forever linked in passion to his "fair love," a poetic figure inspired by Frances ("Fanny") Brawne, Keats's neighbor and, by 1819, his fiancee. Several of his poems—informally known as the "Fanny lyrics"—are associated with her. In addition to "Bright star!" these are: "The Day is Gone, and All Its Sweets Are Gone!" "I Cry Your Mercy, Pity, Love—Ay, Love!" "What Can I Do To Drive Away," and "To Fanny." The ghoulish late poem, "This Living Hand, Now Warm and Capable," is also frequently linked to Fanny. Confusion and desperation characterize the other Fanny lyrics, as well as many of his letters to her. For example, in "I Cry Your Mercy" the poet pleads with his paramour, "Yourself—your soul—in pity give me all, / Withhold no atom's atom or I die," while in "What can I do to drive away" he revels in his agony, crying, "O, the sweetness of the pain!" (The Complete Poems).
However, in "Bright Star!" there is little, if any, of this extravagant agitation. The poem is an even-tempered prayer, made not out of distress but out of contentment. Further, the poet does not pray for affection: in contrast to the other Fanny lyrics, the speaker of this poem is fully certain that his feelings are returned by his beloved. Instead, the poet asks for "steadfastness." In the first line, he prays to be as constant and unchangeable as is the North Star, but very quickly he qualifies his request. As the literary critic Harold Bloom succinctly puts it, "Keats wants to be as steadfast as the star, but not in the star's way of steadfastness" (The Visionary Company, Bloom's emphasis).
As Bloom points out, the poet goes on in lines 2-8 to describe the star's way of steadfastness (The Visionary Company). This "way" is above all one of solitude. The star hangs "in lone splendour," and the poet calls it an "Eremite," or hermit. Keats says that it rests "aloft the night," meaning both in the night sky and above the night sky. This ambiguity suggests that the star's distance from earth is so great that we cannot fix its position with any certainty. The star is "patient" but also "sleepless," implying that its calm condition is less desirable than it is stoical. The star's existence is an austere one, and it is associated with sacred observations. It oversees the oceans which are "priestlike" as they literally wash the shores of the land on which we live and figuratively purify our unholy lives. This link to the religious and spiritual further distances the star from the worldly concerns of the poet.
As he makes clear with the "Not" that introduces the second line, the poet desires another kind of steadfastness, which is described in lines 9-14. The "No" that begins line nine reiterates the poet's wish to qualify the type of unchangeableness that he seeks. The literary critic David Perkins explains that "In the drama of the poem, he discovers that his wish is not to be like the star after all, but rather to transpose the potentiality of the star for eternal awareness into the realm of human life and feeling, and that of the most intense variety" (The Quest for Permanence). The poet...
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Sonnet Written on a Blank Page in Shakespeare's Poems
The oldest son of a stable-keeper, the great poet John Keats devoted himself to poetry at the age of twenty-one. Tragically, after five years of feverish writing and significant publication, Keats died at twenty-six—a victim of consumption.
The fact of his early death colors the reading of many of Keats's most accomplished poems, and even their rapturous moments tend to appear tinged with the sorrow of impending doom. Though he continued to write magnificent odes which address truth, beauty, and the lure of immortality, Keats was painfully aware that he would die. He wrote of what he would never get to see, both poetically and personally. The woman he loved and the words he loved were not to be his for long. In the introduction to his lengthy and masterful poem "Endymion," Keats wrote movingly of the limitations of all beginning poets, and he was particularly humble when referring directly to his own work. He noted that "the reader ... must soon perceive great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished." What's more, Keats wrote that "the foundations are too sandy. It is just that this youngster should die away: a sad thought for me...."
Reading this description of the shortcomings naturally faced by a young man writing ambitious poems, it is hard not to imagine what such a self-aware young writer might have grown to achieve had he lived.
Keats wondered that too. In Sonnet 24, he looks at a bright star illuminating the night, and wishes that he were as "steadfast"—as lasting—as that heavenly resident. In many of his poems, Keats uses the conditional—"had I," or "if only I would"—to introduce a point. In a life cut so short, Keats unfortunately had many "what ifs" to write about. Sonnet 2, for example, details how he might be received by a woman if only he were better-looking:
Had I a man's fair form, then might my sighs / Be echoed swiftly through that ivory shell, / Thine ear, and find thy gentle heart: so well / Would passion arm me for the enterprise: / But ah! I am no knight whose foeman dies;
In Sonnet 2, Keats imagines that his "sighs" and other overtures would be more welcome if he had a "fair form." In the first...
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Variations on Human Identity
In an October, 1818, letter to his friend Richard Woodhouse, John Keats wrote, "A Poet is the most unpractical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually for—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse and are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God's Creatures." In the poem, "Bright Star! Would I Were Steadfast as Thou Art," we see the qualities that Keats gave to the poet projected onto the star. The poem's speaker expresses his wish to reach that same level of detachment from the things of the world. At the same time, though, he also praises the poetical experiences that he can have as a man—the manifestations of Identity that Keats says the poet does not have available to him. He wonders whether, if he could be just one, he would be the man or the poet. The complex interweaving of confidence and doubt regarding just who he is tilts, in this sonnet, first one way then the other. Where it ends is death, which, probably not by coincidence, Keats had experienced in recent events of his life and was aware was coming for him all too soon. It is Keats's glory that he was able to see himself evenly suspended between the two sides that made up his Identity, between involvement and isolation, a conundrum that other poets claim to solve or else allow to drive them insane. To pin down with any degree of precision what each of these identities meant to Keats might lead to at least an understanding of the bigger puzzle of how he is able to present death as the same thing as eternal life.
Such a delicate balance was not always a part of Keats's worldview, but something that he grew into. In a long essay dissecting how he came to his theory of poetry, Walter Jackson Bate mentioned, among others, the influence of philosopher and literary critic William Hazlitt, whose depth of taste Keats listed, along with Wordsworth's Excursion (published 1814) and Benjamin Haydon's pictures, as "the three things to rejoice at in this age." According to Bate, Hazlitt thought of himself as a philosopher and psychologist (the two were closely linked in the years before psychology was recognized as a science). His book Essay on the Principles of Human Action, which he began in his early twenties, was not ready for publication until he was twenty-seven: if he had been more prolific he might be widely remembered today as a philosopher, but instead he is remembered for his brilliant and scathing essays of literary criticism. When Keats read Essay on the Principles of Human Action, his thinking about the role of the artist was changed. Hazlitt tried to contradict the widely-held assumption that human behavior was ruled only by self-interest, which was itself controlled by sensory input and memory. Memory and sensation could only account for behavior that was based on what had happened and what was currently going on: what, Hazlitt asked, about behaviors based on concerns for the future? Humans constantly make decisions to steer themselves from fates that they have observed happening to others. Hazlitt proposed that the mind forms empathy for others, even when the "other" is the self as one imagines ending up in the future. The mind acts according to what it thinks the other person's experience must feel like.
Hazlitt's theory of empathy shows up in much of Keats's later work, including "Bright Star!" The speaker of the poem is a human being, and as such has the ability to project himself into the position of the star, to imagine what its existence must be like. It is notable that the poem does not try to give the star any response to all that it sees transpiring beneath it, the waves and the snow and so forth. The...
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Brightest Star, Sweet Unrest: Image and Consolation in Wordsworth
... For Wordsworth as for Shelley, the star is a radiant emblem of imagination as the translated expression of political ideals. For Wordsworth and Shelley, too, the star was explicitly associated with Milton's political constancy, the lack of which Shelley "alone deplored" in Wordsworth. I want now to return to Keats, and offer a reading of one of his best-known sonnets that will draw upon the political and literary context that I've been exploring so far:
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...
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