Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1736
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...
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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 does not envy the star's temperate piety. He does not want the complete vision of a distant domain but an "eternal awareness" of his own immediate sphere of ardor and devotion. As Keats has it, he seeks to be "Awake for ever in a sweet unrest" and in the company of his beloved.
The problem with this aspiration is that it is not possible. John Barnard, a contemporary editor and critic of Keats, observes that "the sonnet's yearning for the star's 'steadfastness' and un-changeability admits that human love cannot attain its calm certainty or eternity. The long moment may feel like a kind of sensual eternity, but, unlike the star's lonely splendour, the mutual pleasure of human lovers is only attainable or meaningful in a time-scale which includes change" (John Keats). That is to say, Keats longs to experience an infinite romantic climax, but a climax implies a progressive series of moments which have preceded it. This progression occurs in time, not out of time, and with time comes change, something which the poet wishes to forestall.
The poet's desire to resolve opposites is also reflected in the poem's structure. In this poem, Keats cleverly combines the English and Italian sonnet forms. The rhyming pattern (abab cdcd efef gg) creates three quatrains and a couplet, the form common to the English, or Shakespearean, sonnet. But the poem also is clearly divided between the first eight lines and the last six, establishing the octave and sestet split that characterizes the Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet. In an Italian sonnet, a problem is posed in the first eight lines, and a response or solution to that problem is offered in the last six. In "Bright Star!" the problem, such as it is, is that the poet wants to be like the star in some respects but not in others. The response or solution, set forth in the last six lines, is to embrace some of the star's qualities and reject the rest. The poet addresses the star in the octave but then shifts to a third person address (speaking of "her") in the sestet. Similar vowel sounds in "breast," "rest," "breath," and "death" further mark the sestet as a single unit. However, the sonnet returns to a dominant Shakespearean form at the couplet. In the last two lines the poet provides a final statement that comments upon—and is separable from—the rest of the poem.
The purpose of the last six lines—whether viewed as a sestet or as a quatrain plus a couplet— is made more clear when we examine the revisions that Keats made in composing the poem. During the nineteenth century, "Bright Star!" was thought to be Keats's last poem, written in September 1820, when he copied it out in a volume of Shakespeare's poems. In the 1848 collection, Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats, for instance, this poem was given the simple title, "Keats's Last Sonnet." However, in the twentieth century, an earlier version of the poem, dated 1819, was discovered. Though there is continuing debate, most scholars believe the poem to have been composed in the late fall of 1819, by which time, as Keats's biographer Walter Jackson Bate reminds us, "the tuberculosis of the lungs that was to prove fatal to him had seriously begun (or suddenly moved into an active stage), bringing with it periods of immense fatigue and some fever" (John Keats).
The primary revisions involve the last five lines of the sonnet, and, with perhaps only one exception, they do not alter the substance of the poem's thought. The end of the earlier version reads: "Cheek-pillow'd on my Love's white ripening breast / To touch, for ever, its warm sink and swell, / Awake, for ever, in a sweet unrest, / To hear, to feel her tender-taken breath, / Half passionless, and so swoon on to death." In the 1820 version, Keats creates two more sensuous and deliberate lines in writing "Pillowed upon my fair love's ripening breast / To feel for ever its soft swell and fall." The repeated "f," "s," and "l" sounds roll gently through these lines, without the encumbrance of the rather brusque "ch," "k," and "t" sounds in the words "Cheek," white," "touch," and "sink."
In his revision, Keats slows the introduction of the couplet with the repetition of the word "Still." Here, "still" means both "always" and "unmoving." But it also means "again"—and in fact the word is stated once and then again—suggesting the movement of time and the variation of activity on which human life depends. With this duplication, Keats creates in miniature the paradoxical state in which he hopes to remain forever: this is a moment in which change and passion are possible, but a moment that is also infinitely repeated, unchanging, and eternal.
The repetition of "still" also underscores the break between the rest of the poem and this final statement. In the 1819 version, the poet equates his passionate summit with death: he speculates that he will be "Half passionless, and so swoon on to death" (emphasis added). It is a sweet transition from consummation to collapse. However, in the 1820 version of the poem, death is not the consequence of, but the alternative to, passion: the poet hopes to lie on his lover's breast "And so live ever—or else swoon to death" (emphasis added). This more ominous line hints that neither possibility is completely desirable. Indeed, though Keats and Fanny Brawne were engaged, the poet was aware by 1820 when he revised the poem that he would not live long, and that, due to his illness and confirmed poverty, marriage would be impossible. The poet's situation was unenviable, and his attempt in "Bright Star!" to unite earthly desire with celestial privilege fails. Nevertheless, the overall tone of the poem is serene, and even in these final lines the poet's voice is relatively self-assured, a sign that, though Keats might ask for more time to live and to love, what he does have will suffice.
Source: Jeannine Johnson, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2000.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 959
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 line of Sonnet 24, Keats muses that his life would be better if he had another seemingly essential quality. In the opening line, punctuated by an exclamation point, the speaker looks longingly at the star and cries:
Bright star! Would I were as steadfast as thou art—
"steadfast" was what the illness-plagued Keats wanted to be but couldn't. He then takes a closer look at this star and details why it is fortunate:
Not in lone splendour bring aloft the night / And watching, with eternal lids apart, / Like Nature's patient, sleepless Eremite ...
With the phrase "eternal lids," Keats introduces the notion of immortality. The "steadfast" star has been there for a long time, and will remain there long after the speaker is gone. The star has eternal life, which is what the speaker most craves. The star also gets to look leisurely at the beauty of the natural world, which was one of Keats's great themes:
The moving waters at their priestlike task / Of pure ablution round earth's human shores, / Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask / Of snow upon the mountains and the moors
With "moors," a word associated with the English landscape, Keats establishes this as a British poem, descended from the tradition of Shakespeare. Interestingly, this sonnet was written in a blank page in Shakespeare's poems, which certainly may have brought on thoughts of both a "bright star" and immortality. As a writer, according to many scholars of English literature, Shakespeare certainly stands in "lone splendour." But many critics would argue that Keats was also a writer of "splendour."
However, there is one key difference between Shakespeare and Keats. Shakespeare lived long enough to produce a wide array of plays and poems, both comedies and tragedies. In this devotion to writing and his consistent production of high-quality work, Shakespeare was certainly "steadfast." But by the time this sonnet was written, Keats knew that the steadfastedness born of longevity was beyond his grasp.
Keats does choose a "steadfast" form—the sonnet. The sonnet was around before him and is still around several centuries after his death. As is traditional for a sonnet, the first eight lines here form one thought, and the last six represent a break into another thought.
Here, the word "no" introduces a new idea. The poem here becomes personal. Instead of simply watching, the star is now directed at an individual sight—the fair love. Keats wrote numerous poems about his lady love, and here he expresses some jealousy because the bright star will be able to continue to look at this woman and feel her "ripening breast":
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell, / Awake for ever in a sweet unrest / Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, / And so live for ever—or else swoon to death.
Unlike the speaker, the star has a chance to see the lovely girl sleep and watch her as she breathes in and out. By watching the beautiful girl and touching her moving, breathing body, the star has the capacity to "live for ever." Alternately, the star has the choice of dying brilliantly. While Keats coughed his way to an unglamorous end, the star can "swoon" to its death, flayed by beauty. For Keats, life—and death—were about beauty, and the opportunity to observe it and to sing its praises.
Source: Aviya Kushner, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2000.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1558
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 inanimate star would of course hold no opinions about such things, but even when he imagines himself witnessing the same sights Keats expresses no reaction, no judgement. His empathy enables him to put himself in the star's place, but this human trait stops there: he is not empathetic as the star. In his imagination he takes the trip from the Earth up into the sky, but once there his imagination stays up there, isolated out in the cold, "in splendor held aloft."
It is evident that the speaker's desire to leave his earthly vantage point and experience vast landscapes is in fact his ideal of a poet who has reached perfection, no longer held down by a self, by any identity that would intrude upon the empathetic experience of seeing what it is like in other people's lives. This is such a lonely view of the artist's life that it almost raises the question for the reader about just why one would want to be a poet, except that Keats answers that by conjuring up wonders from an angle unseen before the Age of Flight, unavailable to the non-artist whose vision is cluttered with his own ego. With just the few simple lines that render the lapping waters and the soft-fallen snow, Keats draws the reader into his vision, making us jealous of the abstracted solitude of the star. It may be isolated from the world that we know, but the consolation of philosophy has always been that knowledge is a greater thrill than human companionship, and in this poem Keats gives us a glimpse from the ultimate position of knowledge: the all-seeing star, the poet. And if superior human knowledge is not enough to trade off against the fear of isolation, there is also the element of moral righteousness that is implied. The star/poet is presented as a quasi-religious figure, an Eremite, and from its unique vantage point is witness to the ocean's baptism of the shore. Intellectual and spiritual fulfillment are offered to fill the hole left within the artist who steps outside of the poetry of humanity to become "the most unpoetical of all God's Creatures."
But that whole case is presented first, in the octet, to upset the readers' preconceptions that humans would be happier in the company of their own and not, like poets, observing from afar. In the sestet, Keats reintroduces the pleasure of human companionship in graphic terms, to show that it is actually as important as distant observation. He gives to his view of humanity the life-filled images of love, breath, and budding breasts, which, both in the poem and in the common adage, bring him back to Earth. It is no coincidence that the rolling waves in the first stanza and the lover's soft breathing in the second resemble one another in their hypnotic regularity, for they are both the living pulse of life. The waves, though, are only observed, not truly experienced, while the heaving chest is felt, flesh against flesh, and so its influence is difficult for the poem's speaker to ignore or rationalize away. From an imagined distance the speaker can think of himself as enlightened and heavenly enough, but it is plain that once the lover is introduced the cool remoteness that meant so much has a difficult time justifying itself.
And so Keats ends up at the very sharpest point of the artist's eternal dilemma. He is left to decide which is more important to him, being an artist or being a human. In other places, notably his "Ode On a Grecian Urn," Keats has marveled at the artist's power over time, over such simple things as human emotions. This time the "poeticness" of his lover draws him obsessively back toward life. The right combination of love and libido changes the question a person is faced with. Life is no longer an issue of whether one should become distant and eternal through art, but rather how to use art's eternal quality in order to make a fleeting moment of life last. The problem that Keats cannot solve, according "Bright Star," is that art makes a moment eternal by taking it away from life and making it into an artistic piece, and he can only be a successful artist absent from life. He finds no way for eternity and life to exist at the same time.
Hence, death. In the last line of this sonnet he is willing to accept death, even to "swoon to" it, using a word that implies both being dragged against one's will and also being intoxicated with pleasure. This meditation has shown the poem's speaker that living forever with his lover could be done, through the way an artist can freeze the world, but the true lesson of "Bright Star!" is that art is not life. Death, usually considered life's opposite, is more of a part of the process of life than emotional detachment is. It is human nature to struggle against death, and that may lead sometimes to a wish for eternal life, but Keats realizes the implications of what it would mean to stand outside the flow of life and live forever, and in the end this poem brings readers to understand that death could be no worse.
David Kelly, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2000.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1517
... 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 task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors;
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillowed upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.
Keats's "Bright star" sonnet is frequently read as a love poem to Fanny Brawne, alongside other lyrics to her such as "The day is gone"; "To Fanny"; "I cry your mercy, pity, love"; and "Ode to Fanny." But as John Barnard recently pointed out, these "poems [to Fanny Brawne] are painful to read because they are private and desperately confused." "Only the 'Bright star' sonnet," he goes on "is in control of its emotions." That control derives from the imaginative priority of the poem as one more effort to reconcile Keats's central themes of poetry and mortality; the permanence of art and the transience of life. This ballasts Keats's private feeling for Fanny, and generalizes the poem beyond personal intimacy to address the great presiders of Keats's art: Milton and Wordsworth.
A number of Keats scholars, among them Christopher Ricks, have linked the "Bright star" sonnet with Keats's letter to Fanny of 25 July 1819, particularly Keats's closing words:
I am distracted with a thousand thoughts. I will imagine you Venus to night and pray, pray, pray to your star like a Hethen.
Your's ever, fair Star, John Keats
However, as John Barnard again points out, in this letter "Fanny is ... imagined as the evening star, Venus, and in the sonnet Keats is thinking of the North Star." And indeed, the sonnet does open as a prayer to be "constant as the northern star," but then withdraws from that remote, inhuman changelessness to admit the sensual intimacy of the lovers. Keats's symbolic wish is seemingly that his "Bright star" might simultaneously represent a polar constancy as well as the westering presence of Venus, the lover's evening star. This potential reconciliation takes one back to Keats's letter to Tom in June 1818, where he describes his response on seeing Lake Windermere for the first time. "There are many disfigurements to this Lake," he writes, "—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."
The point here is not that the "Bright star" sonnet echoes the letter word for word, "north star ... open lidded ... stedfast"; "Bright star ... steadfast ... eternal lids apart." Keats's letter to Tom describes an imaginative process by which apprehended beauty—or "sensual vision"—is refined into a permanent ideal that Keats likens to the "north star." For Keats such a constancy assuages the mortal "divisions of life." Not only is this the wishful state of Keats's sonnet—"Awake for ever in a sweet unrest"—it is the distinctive ideal of all Keats's greatest poetry: the eternal yearning of lovers in the Grecian Urn; the ecstatic ceaseless ceasing of the Nightingale Ode; the patient prolonging of the moment in To Autumn, such that the season's passing is infinitely delayed, while "by a cyder-press, with patient look, / Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours." Keats's desire to "refine ... sensual vision into a sort of north star" is the imaginative pole to which all of these great poems move. In the letter to Tom, though, it is an immediate consolation for "the divisions of life" and for what he terms "the many disfigurements to [the] Lake." The source of this "disfigurement" is rather surprising. Keats's letter goes on: "The disfigurement I mean is the miasma of London. I do suppose it contaminated with bucks and soldiers, and women of fashion—and hat-band ignorance. The border inhabitants are quite out of keeping with the romance about them, from a continual intercourse with London rank and fashion. But why should I grumble? They let me have a prime glass of soda water—O they are as good as their neighbors." Yet this conceited tirade against London tourists—Keats was one of them himself—is actually a distraction from the focal point of "disfigurement" Keats has in mind, and which immediately follows: "But Lord Wordsworth, instead of being in retirement, has himself and his house full in the thick of fashionable visitors quite convenient to be pointed at all the summer long." Keats' s desire to resolve the "divisions of life" into permanence finds its ultimate cause in Wordsworth's forsaken retirement; his political orthodoxy; his fashionable popularity. And Keats's "north star which can never cease to be open lidded and sted-fast" represents a constancy that finds its deepest significance in Keats's disappointed recoil from a Wordsworthian mutability: "Sad—sad—sad ... What can we say?"
Keats's "Bright star" sonnet is a love poem for Fanny Brawne that also draws upon this more distant but enduring disenchantment with Wordsworth. In that "Lord Wordsworth's" orthodoxy was one outcome of Wordsworth's experience of revolutionary defeat, Keats's sonnet is a late approach to consolation for that failure and an attempt to compensate for the Miltonic task that Wordsworth had set himself in the "Prospectus" to The Recluse, and apparently failed to carry through. One can substantiate this larger point by returning to the first poem in Wordsworth's "Sonnets Dedicated to Liberty":
Composed by the
Sea-Side, near Calais,
Fair Star of Evening, Splendor of the West,
Star of my Country! on the horizon's brink
Thou hangest, stooping, as might seem, to sink
On England's bosom; yet well pleas'd to rest,
Meanwhile, and be to her a glorious crest
Conspicuous to the Nations. Thou, I think,
Should'st be my Country's emblem; and should'st
Bright Star! with laughter on her banners, drest
In thy fresh beauty. There! that dusky spot
Beneath thee, it is England; there it lies.
Blessings be on you both! one hope, one lot,
One life, one glory! I, with many a fear
For my dear Country, many heartfelt sighs,
Among Men who do not love her linger here.
This sonnet was written at Calais during Wordsworth's visit in August 1802. It presents the translation of Wordsworth's political allegiance from France to England and—at another level—the shift in his affections from Annette Vallon to his future wife Mary. Hence the "Fair Star of Evening" is Venus, the lover's evening star about to "sink" in its evening splendor "On England's bosom." But as if to rescue the star from a wholly erotic declination and preserve it as a national "emblem" of England, Wordsworth has it "well pleas'd to rest, / Meanwhile," apparently stationary over "[his] Country."
Wordsworth's "Fair Star" is an image of arrested incipience calculated to strike Keats, "stooping ... yet well pleas'd to rest." It provides a symbolic reconciliation of the sonnet's political and personal themes, an ideal poise that Keats believed Wordsworth had failed to sustain. Keats's "Bright star" sonnet retains the star as an emblem of steadfastness, "watching, with eternal lids apart, / Like nature's patient, sleepless eremite"—but rejects its "lone splendour" in isolation for the erotic fulfillment that Wordsworth's sonnet had deferred,
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillowed by my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest.
For Wordsworth the star was associated with a Miltonic constancy that he had celebrated in An Evening Walk in 1794, and sought to emulate in The Recluse as projected in the "Prospectus." For Shelley the "lone star" had represented Wordsworth's former dedication to republican ideals, an eminence that he had lost in later years. But Keats's wish for "steadfastness" as a poet is conditional only upon "earth's human shores"; his "Bright star" sonnet admits human vulnerability and redeems it in the tender union of the lovers. In so doing the upheaval of revolution, "the weariness, the fever, and the fret," are resolved by the "sweet unrest" of their lovemaking. And the disappointed idealism of Wordsworth, Shelley, and of Keats himself finds a last, fully human consolation.
Source: Nicholas Roe, " 'Brightest Star, Sweet Unrest': Image and Consolation in Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats," in History & Myth: Essays on English Romantic Literature, edited by Stephen C. Behrendt, Wayne State University Press, 1990, pp. 130-18.