Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 913
Art and Experience The qualities that Keats attributes to the star in this poem are the qualities of the artist—it is said to be "watching, with eternal lids apart," while remaining uninvolved in the events that it is witness to. In this particular case, the observations are made of nature,...
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Art and Experience
The qualities that Keats attributes to the star in this poem are the qualities of the artist—it is said to be "watching, with eternal lids apart," while remaining uninvolved in the events that it is witness to. In this particular case, the observations are made of nature, which is described as being holy, "priest-like" acts, while the star that observes them is also described with the religious term "Eremite." There is a difference in their religious qualities, though, as the observer keeps aloof, removed from the situation. It all adds up to the reverent stance that Keats took toward his artistry and the things that he wrote about, particularly when the subject matter was nature, which he held in the kind of esteem that many people reserve for God. To Keats, it was the artist's goal to be able to observe and fully understand her/his subject without interfering with it, so that it could be recorded as it existed, with no bias or interference. The reference in line 7 to "grazing" the "mask" of snow might be meant to imply that, as the poet saw it, the star could undo that mask to know the reality beneath, or it could mean that observing the contours of the mask closely enough could lead one to understanding what the mask hides. Keats's view of the relationship between the artist and experience is somewhat unique and unexpected from a poet who led an active life: in countless novels and memoirs, artists are seen trying to immerse themselves in experience in order to give themselves true understanding of their subjects. In this poem Keats draws a line between observation and experience, presenting the two as mutually exclusive, so that a person cannot, try as he might, have both at the same time.
Change and Transformation
The problem facing the speaker in this poem is that he would like to stop all change, to freeze things at one particularly wonderful moment, but he realizes that doing so would be the opposite of living life, that life is change, even when that change is something as small as the motion of his lover's breathing. In the first part of the poem, the octet, he focuses on images of nature that either do not change or else show changes that are part of a larger pattern that does not change. The oceans do move constantly, from our earthly perspective, but from a star's perspective they would look as constant as a star would from Earth. Similarly, snowflakes fall but the snow that blankets or "masks" hills and fields of a countryside changes the color but retains the land's original shape. From a great distance, no transformation is discernable. Keats, aware of his impending death from tuberculosis, would naturally have a reason to fear change, and he would have wished to stop the clock before his life ran out of minutes, but, as he admits here, doing so would mean missing out on life's pleasures. In the end he notes that the ideal would be for time to stop at a moment when he is wrapped up in one of those pleasures, such as when lying with his lover. He could live within such a moment for the rest of eternity. In the last four lines he punctuates this idea with the phrases "To feel for ever," "Awake for ever," and "And so live for ever." The poem's sad tone comes from the fact that the speaker knows that it could never be, that as a living being he could never, like the star, stay the same from one moment to the next.
The sudden appearance of death in the last line of this poem might take readers by surprise, especially since the preceding lines of the sestet had provided gentle images of life, such as the lover's breathing and the hint of fertility in the "ripening" breast. This reversal should not come as too much of a shock, though, given that, by the fourteenth line, the speaker has already wedged himself into an unsolvable predicament. Some of the complexity of life that he is getting at here is implied in the poem's twisted language. For instance, lines 2 through 9, starting with "Not" and drifting from that thought until "No—," leave one idea after the next unfinished, so that the subject that began the poem, the speaker's actual life, is forgotten. It becomes difficult for the reader to follow the central idea as it loops off, one prepositional phrase leading from the last, until, like life, the poem's central unity is just a mass of knots that cannot be untangled at the end, just abandoned. The air of contradiction is captured in the last line: "And so live forever—or else swoon to death." Eternal life might logically be paired with a long life, or instant death considered beside dying soon, but mentioning these two ideas that are so opposite just does not seem to make sense. This is the nature of paradox, to drive readers to a deeper level of thought by canceling out their preconceived notions. As a matter of fact, death and eternal life do have something in common: they both last forever. This poem makes the point that at a moment of perfect bliss, this speaker could accept either death or eternal life, because either would freeze the moment and allow him to continue on in the same way forever—to be "steadfast."