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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