Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art
by John Keats
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
- More description of what the speaker would like to do. This description seems pretty similar to what he said back in line 11, when he said he wanted to "feel for ever its soft swell and fall." Is he just repeating himself for effect? Are we learning anything new here?
- Well, we think that, in one way, the speaker is repeating himself – and that there's kind of a point to that. After all, he is saying that he would like to do the same thing forever and ever and ever for the rest of all eternity, and so it makes sense for him to repeat words to give you a sense of that.
- But, in another way, we also think that he isn't repeating himself, but is introducing new information. That's because, the first time that he talked about his girlfriend's breathing, it was in the context of the sense of touch: he would "feel" her chest rising and falling. Now, it is in the context of the sense of hearing: he wants to "hear" her breathing, too.
- Before we forget: one other notable thing about this line, of course, is the repetition of the word "still" at the beginning. Have we heard this word in the poem before? Yes we have, back in line 9: "yet still stedfast, still unchangeable." Why do you think he chose to emphasize the word at this point?
- Does "still" even still (hehe) mean the same thing it did before? Could it now mean "still" in the sense of "motionless"? Could it mean both? If so, which of the two meanings is the "main" meaning here, and which is the secondary meaning? These are all things you should be thinking about here. Remember though: because this is a poem, it's perfectly possible for multiple meanings of a word to be present at the same time.
And so live ever—or else swoon to death—
- Now Keats comes to the punchline, if you want to call it that, the line that takes us from the cosmic perspective to the human perspective, that says what we've been thinking all along, but haven't had the guts to say…
- Sorry, we were just imitating Keats in taking our sweet time before coming to the point. The point? Ah yes, the point: the speaker now says that, if he can't live forever in the way he has just described, he would rather "swoon to death."
- But here's the question: is this a real set of alternatives? Let's put it another way: let's say Keats's parents (who unfortunately died when he was a child, long before they would have had the chance to read this poem) were having a talk with him about his future, and he said, "You know, what I really want to do with my future is either (a) live forever with my head on my girlfriend's breast or (b) swoon to death." Would they think he was being very realistic?
- We would say no. Hate to break it to you, but you can't live forever with your head delicately resting on your girlfriend's rack. You would probably get a mean crick in your neck, she would end up with bruises, and one of you would have to go to the bathroom sometime.
- As for option (b), that doesn't seem too realistic either. How many people do you know that have "swooned" to death? Probably not many, and, if they did, it was probably because they did there swooning in some inconvenient location, like, say, at the top of a really tall cliff. And even then, they probably didn't swoon to death purely because they were missing out on some bosom-pillow action.
- So, it's clear that neither of these is a realistic option. Does that mean Keats isn't being serious? We wouldn't say so. That's because both options reflect a serious desire, even if the desire is for something completely unrealistic.
- Or is it completely unrealistic? Is it possible that, even if the process of "swooning" comes a bit out of left field, Keats's mention of death can't help but remind us of the fate of all humans?
- Doesn't this inevitably make us realize that the speaker will, in fact die, and that his desire to lie with his beloved forever won't come true?
- How to think about this ending is, of course, a matter of personal taste. But we at Shmoop think it's highly likely that ending with the word "death" is Keats's way of giving us the "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" that his speaker is also doomed. This draws the ultimate contrast between the frailty of human mortals and the unchanging immortality of the Bright Star from line 1.
- One final thing: note than, in the text of the poem we're using (the Oxford World's Classics edition edited by Elizabeth Cook), the poem ends with a dash: "—". This follows the punctuation of one of Keats's own manuscript versions of the poem. Other modern editors (probably most of them) prefer to add a period at the end. Is there a different mood created by the two forms of punctuation? If so, what is it? If you were the editor, would you have followed Keats's manuscript punctuation, or would you have modernized it? Why?