“Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art” by John Keats is a fourteen line sonnet. The lines conform to the traditional Elizabethan or Shakespearean sonnet form and rhyme ababcdcdefefgg. An important thing to note is that the division of the poem into octave and sestet is emphasized by a very prominent turn between the sections. The first part of the poem states that the speaker is somewhat interested in being a star and the second gives the reader a reason why.
In regards to meter, Keats chose to mainly use iambic pentameter, the most common of metric patterns. Keats separates the lines into five sets of two. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. His opening line is a perfect example of how this technique plays out with the emphasis on “Star,” “I,” “sted-,” “as” and “art.” There are a few moments though in which Keats switches to trochaic pentameter, meaning the first beat is stressed and the second unstressed.
Summary of Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he wants to be “stedfast” like a star. He immediately goes back on this statement and gives the reader a number of reasons why he actually does not want this. The most important of these is that stars are alone. They do not have anything to occupy their minds besides the troubles of humans down below nor do they have true companions. They are alone and cold in the dark.
As the poem continues on the speaker describes how he wants to take on a star’s stedfast position so that he might stay with his lover. He is happiest with his head “Pillow’d” on her breast and intends to live there in his emotions for the rest of time.
Analysis of Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The first two words of this piece inform the reader that the speaker is not addressing a person, but a particularly bright star. This star is special because it is “stedfast.” It doesn’t move. He is envious of its patience and its eternal station. One can assume he is referring to the North Star, as it is the only one that does not move in the sky.
The second line is somewhat confusing. Rather than elaborating on why he wants to be a star, Keats’ speaker immediately goes back on what he said and says he doesn’t want to hang “in lone splendour.” There is some part of being a star that does not completely appeal to him. The speaker has no desire to be alone in the sky, he needs company.
He does not want to be stuck in the sky with his eyes eternally watching nature. He would become a “patient, sleepless Eremite,” or hermit. This emphasizes the speaker’s fear of being alone. Even all of space and time do not make up for the solitude he would be forced to endure.
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—
The speaker continues on into the next quatrain to describe what the star is forced to watch throughout its life. He describes the “moving waters” on earth that do their “task[s]” with the dedication of priests. The second line adds more detail. Keats uses the word “ablution.” It refers to a ritual cleaning. The waters are cleaning the areas on which human activities take place, as a priest would absolve a believer of their sins.
The star might be watching everything that was mentioned in lines five and six. Or it might be watching something else. It could be “gazing” or gently looking, on the “new soft-fallen mask.” It is looking not at a physical mask as one might associate with the term, but with a mask of “snow upon the mountains and moors.”
It obscures the land just as a paper mask would obscure a wearer’s face. The word “moor” is very personal to the English landscape. It refers to vast open lands that are often impossible to build on or cultivate. The snow is emphasizing the already lonely faces of the mountains and moors. It adds to the feeling of isolation, something Keats’ speaker has been clear about his desire to avoid.
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s 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 ever—or else swoon to death.
It is in the final six lines, or sestet, of the sonnet that the reasoning behind Keats’ address to the “Bright Star” is revealed. The first line begins with the word “No.” He is negating that he could either commit to being steadfast as the star or remain in his fluctuating human state. He describes how he can take the best aspects of a star’s life the “stedfast” and “unchangeable” parts and use them to his own advantage.
With these new character traits in mind he means to remain “Pillow’d upon” his lover’s “breast.” It becomes clear that Keats’ speaker does not have a desire to live over the world. He just wants to stay at his lover’s side for as long as he can, perhaps forever. His life will, ideally, play out with him “Awake for ever in a sweet unrest.”
Just like the star his eyes will remain open and his position decided. In the speaker’s world he does not look out over the barren moors and mountains or over the priest-like waters, he listens to his lover’s tender breaths and “live ever.” tHe only way he would face death now is if the emotions became too strong and he “swoon[ed] to death.”