Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Keats' Bright Star

It's a trite saying that school is wasted on the young, but I can't otherwise explain how a precious poem, studied in one of my favorite classes, made no impression upon me whatsoever. At least, none of which I am conscious. In fact I'd utterly forgotten the miniature masterpiece, Bright Star, until a most charming girl just reminded me of Keats' swooning tour of sights and sensuality. Yet what did not, alas, appeal to my youth has captivated your present blogger, who has by now outstripped in years the poem's ill-fated author. It's less that fact, though, than the author's youthful creativity which confounds mortal readers. The work of most youthful prodigies, however meticulously laid, is largely precursor. We can understand a gifted youth writing counterpoint, painting large canvasses, and so forth, as mimetic facility. Then there's the music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, Gretchen am Spinnrade, and Bright Star, which possess if not sophistication, great expressive depth.

Keats structures the poem as a sonnet of a single sentence, apostrophizing and personifying the star at which he marvels. The apostrophe encloses a poem which might easily run away with imagery, instead creating a sense of dialogue and intimate space even though one party is silent. Because of that dialectical sense, then, it is a natural turn from discussing one party, the star, to the other, the poet. Similarly, the personification of the silent party, the star, lends to its activity a sense of agency and as such the star becomes a foil for the speaker. 




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 stedfast, still unchangeable,
___Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
___Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
___And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

Line 1 Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —

The aforementioned structure and sense is conveyed in the not only the opening line but its first word, the addressee, which pushes the lone image center stage without any context to shine. Keats then sets up the poem's premise: if only he were like the star. The poet follows not with similarity but difference, a series of vivid images describe how he would not imitate the star. This also sets up the contrast for the poem's volta at line 9.

Line 2 Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night

Lone splendour picks up the image of the star's isolated introduction in the previous line. Hung is a curious choice here, for unlike other possibilities such as floating, hovering, and the like, hung implies an agent, someone who did the hanging, and the passivity of what was hung. The image is then that of the star having been placed, with the creator hovering behind the image. It's easy to take aloft for granted, but it's the perfect word here, with its prepositional meaning of up and on and its adverbial sense of gentle loftiness.

Line 3 And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Keats now begins the personification proper, describing the star as watching, but there's more connotation and association in the line. Eternal on the one hand from hung picks up and augments the idea of passivity (the star is both far off and looking, not touching), which the poet does not want to imitate, and on the other hand introduces the idea of fixity, which the author will reveal he does envy the star. Apart serves two purposes, the first of completing the image of the star's open eyes, and the second of emphasizing the theme of the star's distance.

Line 4 Like Nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,

The poet now likens via simile the star to one of mankind's secluded creatures: the hermit. Aside from its rhythmic flourish, the splash of French with Eremite calls to mind the Greek έρημία, solitude, loneliness, desert, which again picks up the theme of the star's passive solitude, but also, with its idea of desert and wilderness, sets up a visual contrast for the imagery of the next line.

Line 5 The moving waters at their priestlike task

Against the deserted image of the hermit in the previous line, we now see the first object of the star's gaze, the earth's waters. Here the participle moving gives energy and motion to the object of the star's sight and thus also emphasizes the star's stillness. Keats then personifies the waters too, describing them not simply as moving but performing a priestly task. The mention of priest here picks up the religious connotation of Eremite above and then contrasts it: one task is sacred but secluded for the purpose of personal purity and the other sacred but active toward the end of purifying others. Keats may also have had in mind the contrast of kind between the hermit's spiritual mercy as almsman and the priest's pastoral works of corporeal mercy.

Line 6 Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,

Now Keats describes the waters' task as one of ablution, furthering the religious overtone. With round he not only details the motion of the water but outlines and thus calls to mind the shape of the earth, emphasizing its discrete unity as separate from the star. He also characterizes the shores as human because the land is man's only home, a description which again distances the star, inhuman since it's not on the land, but also the hermit in his desert distant from the fertile shore and the chaste waves at their priestly task, all foreshadowing the poet's amorous turn of mind at line 9.

Line 7 Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask

Before the star was watching the waters and now he gazes on one of the poem's most beautiful images, the new soft fallen mask. Keats amplifies the tension and effect of this image by enjambing the key modifier onto the next line:

Line 8 Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —

What an image is revealed here, a new soft fallen mask of snow. First, describing the snow as a mask draws together all of the potential connotations and images we might have into one single one because a mask is a singularity. The effect, then,  is that of one image: a vast white mask. Second, the idea of a mask naturally conjures images of the human face, which in this case would be looking up at the star, concealing the earth. We ought not overlook those two little adjectives from the previous line either, new and soft, which now achieve full effect with the image of the snow: the star watches the earth slowly shroud itself in white. Keats concludes the image with contrasting images of depth and height, mountains and moors, united by alliteration.

Line 9 No —yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,

The poet makes his point that while he does not wish to imitate the star's distance or passivity, he does want its steadiness and permanence. He achieves ingenious and economical effect with still. On the one hand still denotes stillness, emphasizing the fixity of steadfast and unchangeable. On the other hand, adverbially it means nevertheless, suggesting contrast from the activity of the previous lines. Keats envies the star because while it sees much change, it is itself steadfast and unchangeable, words which the poet also applies to himself as he becomes the subject.

The next four lines are an overflow of sensuous imagery.

Line 10 Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,

The poet is not simply laying on or with his love, but pillowed, which connotes an image of him, or his head I suppose, airily, effortlessly laying atop her breast. The participle ripening gives the line its sensual edge, though, with its present tense urgency and connotations of ruddy, full health.

In keeping with the littoral imagery above, it's tempting to place the poet atop Venus herself, coming into being on the fertile human shore.

Line 11 To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,

Keats continues to paint the picture of his perfection with him feeling forever the rise and fall of his lover's breast, as if she's embosoming him from below. Forever doesn't just augment feeling with some handy alliteration, though. Moreover, the poet is so enthralled with the sight that he's carried away forever in it, and forever picks up the theme of permanence and begins the climax of the poem.

Line 12 Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Awake for ever parallels to feel forever above, amplifying the repeated word and accentuating the difference, which is the catch that he'll also be awake forever. It's that combination of love and sleeplessness which makes it a sweet unrest.

Line 13 Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

Still, still here picks up the same from line 8, and completes the scene describing himself not now as feeling but as hearing, and hearing not just her breath but her delicate tender-taken breath.

Line 14 And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

The last line offers the two alternatives in equal measure. In the first half ever picks up forever above, and in the second half death contrasts the preceding end-rhyme and thought of breath.

The contrast between the poet and the star is the impossibility of his hope. The star is permanent but impotent, and the poet may love but only for a time.

This poem is a sensual delight. Its chief pleasure is a vivid and increasing intimacy as the poem moves with flawless transitions from the firmament to the earth to the lovers. Keats' mellifluous, euphonious vocabulary brings to life the physicality of the moving world, the fixed star, and the impossible perfection of the lovers' tender repose.

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