Historical Context

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Discussion of English Romantic poets usually refers to the small handful who wrote in a short period of time around the turn of the nineteenth century. Three poets in particular—Keats, Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley—dominate the public's imagination of what a Romantic poet is like. All three were friends and...

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Discussion of English Romantic poets usually refers to the small handful who wrote in a short period of time around the turn of the nineteenth century. Three poets in particular—Keats, Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley—dominate the public's imagination of what a Romantic poet is like. All three were friends and associates, they were gifted and serious about artistry, and all three died relatively young, leaving their poetry to be associated with the compelling blend of youth and doom. Romanticism, in fact, can be seen in almost all poetry, with stylistic strains going back at least to Shakespeare's peer Edmund Spenser (1553-1599), whose allegorical epic The Faerie Queen was to have a profound influence on Keats in the 1800's. It was the generation immediately preceding Keats's, though, that brought Romanticism into its own as a conscious artistic practice. A strong influence on those early Romantics was Thomas Chatterton, who killed himself in 1770, just before his eighteenth birthday, out of despair over the lack of critical reception for his works. Chatterton had a talent for mimicking the penmanship and language of the Middle Ages, and at age fifteen he published a collection of poems attributed to Thomas Rowley, a fifteenth-century poet he had made up. This nostalgia for the long-ago past became a key element of writing of the time, and is strongly evident in the works of the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) who is usually considered a quasi-Romantic poet, and of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), who started his career writing mediocre poems but became an important part of literary history with historical romance novels. In the last years of the eighteenth century William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge began Romanticism as we talk about it today. Both poets were free-thinkers, somewhat radical, ready to change conventional assumptions.

A main influence on them, and on the Romantic movements all over the world and in all different branches of art and philosophy, was the French Revolution. The central force of the Romantic movement was the importance placed on individuality, and the French Revolution was the key moment in world history when the rights of individuals came to be recognized. It marked the shift from a feudal society, where citizens were locked into the social fate that they inherited. Previously, about three percent of the population had owned most of the land in France and held all of the political power, while the other ninety-seven percent worked to pay rent and taxes with no hope of social gain. The American Revolution from 1776 to 1783 prompted the citizens of France to act against this unfair system. It showed them an example of a society in which the monarchy was dismissed in favor of democratic elections that would enact the will of the common person. The French King, Louis XVI, had been supporting the Americans against his long-standing enemies, the British, and had tripled the amount that was due on the public debt. To cover the payments, greater taxes were levied, putting even more pressure on the taxpayers and pushing them even closer to revolution. The revolution began in 1789 when people panicked over the rumor that the nobility, in response to the growing political power being demanded by the commoners, planned to collect all of the nation's grain and ship it abroad, to starve the population. What started with ideals of liberty, equality and respect for all broke down into violence. Nobles, including the King and Queen, were captured and beheaded. Between 1793 and 1794 seventeen thousand people were put to death during a period that came to be known as the Reign of Terror. To take advantage of the violence and confusion in France's political system, enemy nations, Austria, Prussia, the Netherlands, Spain, Sardinia, and Great Britain stayed on the offensive. France was able to hold up against them by conscripting more and more people into the army. The new revolutionary government was turning out to be just as hard on the common citizens as the aristocracy had been. In 1799 a powerful military leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, rose up to lead the government: he disbanded the government of the people almost immediately, ruled with absolute authority, and in a few years proclaimed himself Emperor for Life, putting France back into the political inequality that had sparked the revolution.

Coleridge and Wordsworth had each witnessed the events in France and had been stirred by the early revolution's promise of respect for the individual but had been horrified by the bloody chaos that resulted. The two poets Coleridge and Wordsworth met and became friends in 1795, and they both ended up writing poetry that was private, that emphasized nature and history and personality, that looked sadly at the world without pretending that it could be made better with political solutions. In 1798 they published a collection of poems together, anonymously, called Lyrical Ballads. When it was reissued in 1800, it included a preface that outlined their theories of poetry, and that preface turned out to be one of the most influential poetic manifestos in history. In it, they rejected things that tied poetry too closely to the society the poet lived in; things like sophistication and elevated diction and current events were to be avoided, while a deep appreciation of the self and its relationship with nature were to be cultivated. By the late 1810s, their influence had evolved, in the works of Keats, Byron and Shelley, into a poetic stance that showed the Romantic poet as a lonesome, brooding soul who felt misunderstood, alienated within his own time and place, overcome by powerful desires that society wanted to repress.

Literary Style

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"Bright Star! Would I Were Steadfast as Thou Art" is a sonnet, a traditional poetic form characterized by its length of fourteen lines and its use of a set rhyme scheme. Although there are many variations on the sonnet form, most are based on the two major types: the Petrarchan, or Italian, sonnet and the Shakespearean, or English, sonnet. In different ways, "Bright Star!" resembles both. While its rhyme scheme is that of the Shakespearean form— three quatrains rhyming abab cdcd efef, followed by a couplet rhyming gg—its thematic division most closely follows the Petrarchan model. In this type of sonnet, the first eight lines, or the octave, generally present some kind of question, doubt, desire, or vision of the ideal. The last six lines, or the sestet, generally answer the question, ease the doubt, satisfy the desire, or fulfill the vision. In Keats's poem, the first eight lines explore the steadfastness of the star, which watches over nature "with eternal lids apart." The speaker longs to be just "as steadfast," yet, like the star, he needs something to watch over. In the sestet, he turns his attention to his love, the object of his eternal vigilance.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Barnard, John, John Keats, Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Bate, Walter Jackson, John Keats, Boston: The Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963.

Bloom, Harold, The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry, Cornell University Press, 1971.

The Columbia History of British Poetry, edited by Carl Woodring, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Keats, John, The Complete Poems, edited by John Barnard, Penguin, 1988.

Perkins, David, The Quest for Permanence: The Symbolism of Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats, Harvard University Press, 1959.

Reeves, James, A Short History of English Poetry, 1340-1940, American edition, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1962.

Ward, Aileen, "Between Despair and Energy," in John Keats, Octagon Books, 1982, pp. 292-300.

For Further Study
Armstrong, Isabel, Language as Living Form in Nineteenth Century Poetry, New Jersey: Barnes and Noble Books, 1982.
This book examines the culture of the ear and discusses many of the literary figures associated with Keats, including Shelly and Wordsworth, but Keats himself is hardly mentioned.

Bernbaum, Ernest, Guide Through the Romantic Movement, New York: The Ronald Press Co., 1949.
Bernbaum gives brief biographies of all of the most notable authors associated with Romanticism, including many who are not usually recognized as being with the group.

Bostetter, Edward E., The Romantic Ventriloquists: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Byron, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963.
Bostetter's chapter on Keats covers all of the major points of his philosophy and technique in an insightful if slightly stiff manner.

Jones, John, John Keats' Dream of Truth, New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1969.
In analyzing the scope of Keats's poetry, Jones includes an interesting comparison of the use of the eternal in "Bright Star!" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn."

Sherwin, Paul, "Dying Into Light: Keats' Struggle with Milton in 'Hyperion,'" in John Keats, edited with an Introduction by Harold Bloom, New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.
This essay finds "Bright Star!" to be a statement of how Keats's world view differed from that of the poet John Milton.

Compare and Contrast

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1819: An iron cooking stove was patented by inventor John Conant. It was not a commercial success, however, because most housewives chose to cook food on their fireplaces, as they were accustomed.

Today: Many cooks are impatient with the time it takes to heat food with fire, gas, or electric heat, so they use the microwave oven, using principles they do not understand.

1819: The French Revolution was over: Napoleon had been defeated at Waterloo four years earlier, and King Louis XVIII was restored to the throne.

Today: France is ruled by a president. It is one of the largest Western democracies to have elected a socialist leader in modern times (Francois Mitterand, in 1981).

1819: The Savannah was the first steamship to cross an ocean.

Today: Although the airplane has replaced steamship travel as a mode of transportation, luxury cruises are a popular vacation option.

1819: Beethoven, who had been losing his hearing since 1801, was completely deaf.

Today: Music aficionados find some of Beethoven's works composed after he went deaf, including his string quartets, to be among the most beautiful ever written.

Media Adaptations

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Spoken Arts, Inc., has produced an audiocas-sette entitled Treasury of John Keats (1989).

Anthony Thorlby can be heard on two audio-cassettes entitled Keats and Romanticism (1973) for Everett/Edwards.

Blackstone Audio Books presents John Keats (1993) on two audiocassettes.

Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, Library of Congress, has produced Cheryl Crawford and Greg Morton Reading Poems and Letters of John Keats, May 1952 (1952) on audiotape reel.

The King's Collage has produced an audiocas-sette entitled John Keats' Pursuit of Essence (1972) with Kathryn Ludwig.

Harvard Vocarium Records has produced a 78 r.p.m. record album entitled Poems of John Keats (1941) with Robert Speaight.

Annenberg/Corporation for Public Broadcasting Project has produced an audiocassette entitled John Keats and the Romantic Agony (1987) from the "Introduction to Modern English and American Literature" series.

Listening Library has produced an audiocassette entitled The Essential Keats (1989), selected and with an introduction by Philip Levine.

Monterey Home Video has produced a video-cassette entitled The Glorious Romantics: A Poetic Return to the Regency (1993).

Encyclopedia Britannica Corporation has produced a videocassette entitled John Keats: His Life and Death (1991), written by Archibald MacLeish and narrated by James Mason.

Films for the Humanities and Sciences has produced a videocassette entitled The Last Journey of John Keats (1998).

Landmark Media has produced a videocassette entitled John Keats, Poet: 1795-1821 (1994).

Center for Cassette Studies has produced an audiocassette with graphics entitled The Quintessential Keats: Dr. John Theobald Lectures on the Life of the Immortal Romantic Poet (1970).

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