Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 558
In the opening lines, the poet establishes the image of the star that is the central focus of the poem. The star is said to be eternal ("patient"), unchanging ("sleepless"), and beyond the speaker's immediate grasp ("aloft"). Furthermore, the star is described as watching over earth, rather than being watched by someone. As a result, the star nearly pushes the speaker's presence out of the octave— the poem's first eight lines: the word "I" is mentioned only in the first line. This is indicative of a change that occurred in Keats's work as his career progressed. His earlier poems are more concerned with self-consciousness and personal matters but his later work, such as "Bright Star! Would I Were Steadfast as Thou Art," include a more harmonious acceptance of nature for what it is, beyond the self s interpretation of it.
The second part of the octave describes what the star watches. Here, two symbols emerge, both suggesting the idea of pureness. The first is the "moving waters" the star watches over. The waters here take on a spiritual significance, their "ablution" suggesting religious purification, "a priestlike task" that is performed on the "human shores." The second symbol is contained in the image of snow: "the new soft-fallen mask" that covers "the mountains and the moors." By introducing these images, the speaker seems to identify with those things that can, in some sense, make humans pure or spiritual. Perhaps he feels this to be a way to transcend the limitations of human life—the changes and eventual decay that result in death.
In the sestet, the speaker turns from the star's existence to his own. Keats uses related imagery to emphasize this process. In lines 5 and 6 he spoke of the moving waters washing the shore, an image that suggests the rising and falling of ocean waves. In line 11, the reference is made to the "soft fall and swell" of the woman's breast, which also suggests water and waves.
In comparing himself to the star, however, the speaker wishes for something the star does not have: steadfastness without solitude. Though he wishes to be "still unchangeable" like the star, he wishes his eternity to be in the context of human love: to be "Pillowed" upon his love's breast. The breast, itself a symbol of fertility, is described as "ripening." But while fertility is the organic basis of life, the star's steadfastness is "aloft," or far above such this process. Thus, a paradox is created. While the star is merely "watching" the "moving waters," the speaker wishes to actually "feel" his love's living body. His desire is not to exist in "lone splendor" but rather to be in "unchangeable" proximity with his love—to be, in other words, eternally human.
This, of course, is impossible. The qualities that make the star eternal are non-human ones. While the star fails to sense the procession of time—it is "patient"—the speaker envisions an eternity of "sweet unrest." Thus, in the final two lines there are two mutually exclusive possibilities. On the one hand, the speaker can live in the sensual experience of love, which, because it is characterized by the slipping away of apparent time, seems to be "for ever." Failing that, the speaker hopes he might "swoon to death" at the moment of purest happiness.