Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Bright Star - John Keats

This is the first of (hopefully) many posts on particular poems.  This is a sonnet by the romantic poet John Keats. You may know the poem from the recent (and excellent) film about his romance with Fanny Brawne - Bright Star.  IMDB says 7/10, but I say 8.5/10. I am talking about this poem on request - this goes out to you TC. Remember, these posts are just my interpretation of the poems - if you have different ideas, let me know.

Anyway, onto the poetry.  This is a love poem. It is in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet, rhyming abad, cdcd, efef, gg.  Sonnets make a good form for a love poem, because the tight line limit, rhyme scheme and meter are a good vehicle for lyrical verse based on strong images or metaphors without much of a narrative.

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 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,
Pillowed 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 in death.

The poem is essentially divided into two parts.  The first 8 lines, or the first two quatrains, are all about the star, and how 'stedfast' the star is. They conjure the (seemingly) eternal presence of the star in the sky. There is strong religious symbolism - an eremite is a Christian hermit or recluse, and as such the star's observation of the earth is portrayed as an act of solitary worship. The 'moving waters' are also described as 'priestlike', which conjures up nice images of waves crashing on the shores.

Then the last six lines - the third quatrain and the final rhyming couplet - focus in on the lover, who wishes to be like the star but rather than worshipping the Earth, worship his love - 'yet still stedfast, still unchangeable/pillowed upon my fair love's ripening breast'.  This beautifully links the eternity of the star with a short time between lovers - him resting upon her breast hearing her breathe - 'awake forever in a sweet unrest'. Such 'turns' are common in sonnets and are referred to as 'voltas' - they mark a shift of ideas in the poem.

The final rhyming couplet - always a key element of any sonnet - speaks of life and death. He wishes to 'live ever' listening to her 'tender-taken breath', 'or else swoon in death'. Here once again we can observe the interaction between the moment and eternity - if he continues to love her he will live eternally, stedfast like the star. If he ceases to hear her breath - ceases to love - he will die. Interestingly, this last line could almost be the volta in the poem - as the love seems to for the first time to question whether the moment, love, will last forever, and what the alternative would be.

I spent quite a lot of time talking about meter in my last post. In this poem you can observe how the irregular use of meter can serve to emphasise particular images or words. Most of the lines are written in iambic pentameter, but some of the feet are irregular.  For example, the first foot is a spondee - two stressed syllables (as opposed to an iamb which is an unstressed followed by a stressed).  The spondee serves to emphasise the star, but also contributes to the prayer-like nature of the sonnet - it adds solemnity to the appeal to the star for stedfastness in love.  In the same way the 'Still, still' in the 13th line emphasises the word still, which here seems to have the double meaning of unmoving and continuing. He wishes to be like the star in his devotion to his love, and to continue to love her, to continue to be with her as he is in the moment.

The last line is also interesting, because the meter seems a little irregular - you can form an iamb between the last syllable of 'ever' and 'or', but that means a foot is split by the dash. 'Live' also seems like it should be stressed, and 'or else' could both be unstressed. It can be hard to tell sometimes exactly where the emphasis falls in a line, but this sense of irregularity links to the uncertainty of this line - uncertainty about the narrator's own constancy in love, the possibility of being stedfast like the star.