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Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art

Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art

by John Keats


Symbol Analysis

The main theme of Keats's poem is the idea of eternity. This is the reason why the star is so important to Keats's speaker: because it lasts forever. Over the course of the poem, however, it becomes clear that the speaker doesn't just want any old eternity – especially not an eternity isolated in the top of the high heavens like the star. Instead, he wants to spend eternity with his head pressed against his girlfriend's chest. And if he can't have that, he would rather "swoon" away into another eternity: the eternity of death.

  • Line 1: The first line of the poem, "Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art," closely links the star with the idea of eternity. Not only does Keats's speaker spell the connection out for us through the meanings of his words, he also (literally) spells it out through the sounds of the words. How so? Check out the alliteration on st sounds at the beginnings of the words "Star" and "stedfast." This makes the close connection pretty clear, right? At the same time, Keats gets some mileage here out of a pun (i.e., wordplay based on the double or multiple meanings of a word). The pun has to do with the double meaning of the word "as." Just from reading the first line of the poem, we can't tell if Keats means "as" in the sense of (1) "[as] stedfast as thou art" or (2) in the sense of "stedfast [in the same way, looking down on Earth] as thou art."

    As the poem unfolds, it will become clear that Keats wants (1) but not (2). He wants to be just as eternal as the star is, but he doesn't want to spend Eternity in the same way as the star does – up in the high heavens watching barren scenes down on earth. Instead, as we will find out after line 9, he wants to spend all Eternity with his head resting on his girlfriend's chest. Finally, because the speaker uses the Bright Star as a highly resonant image brought in to illustrate what he's talking about, you could also say that line 1 of the poem introduces the star as a symbol. Of course, it's only as the poem continues that we start to get a sense of the full meaning of this powerful symbol.

  • Line 3: When Keats describes the star as "watching, with eternal lids apart," he uses the literary device of personification to gives us a clearer image of what eternity might feel like. Instead of saying, "Oh yeah, you know, the star, it hangs out up there forever," he imagines the star as a person, with eyelids, who is always watching. We can picture being a star imagined in this way much more easily than we can picture being a vast sphere of seething gases. Good work, Keats.

  • Line 4: The device of personification continues here, too, when Keats uses the adjectives "patient" and "sleepless" to describe the star. These also help us get a sense of the vast amount of time that passes during the star's existence.

  • Line 9: This line marks the "turn" of the sonnet from talking about the star's eternity to the way the speaker would like to experience eternity on a human scale. He emphasizes the feeling of endurance that he desires through the figure of speech known as parallelism. Like it sounds, this involves the repetition of words for effect, as Keats does with the word "still" when he says "yet still stedfast, still unchangeable." It's also interesting to note that, just as Keats used alliteration to connect the "Star" with the idea of being "stedfast" in line 1, now he uses the same sound to join "still" and "stedfast." You can almost think of these alliterations joining the three words together into an unbreakable chain: "Star"-"stedfast"-"still." Can it be coincidence that these three words are all closely linked to the theme of eternity? We find it hard to believe. (Just to be clear, the word "still" is used in line 9 with its old-fashioned meaning of "always.")

  • Lines 11-12: Clearly Keats knows a good thing when he sees it. In these lines, he also uses parallelism to suggest the idea of eternity. Here, what is repeated is the phrase "for ever": "To feel for ever its soft swell and fall, / Awake for ever in a sweet unrest." The idea of permanence is also emphasized by more alliteration. In line 11, you've got alliteration on f in "feel, "for," and "fall," as well as on s in "soft," and "swell." Then, in line 12, you've got an f alliterating with those of the previous line, while the sw at the beginning of "sweet" looks back to the sw at the beginning of "swell." All of these devices show how the speaker's thoughts are all flowing into one another at this point.

    Also, in line 12, Keats emphasizes the intensity of his desire for eternity by using an oxymoron – i.e., the figure of speech where you combine two terms ordinarily seen as opposites. Can you see where Keats does this? That's right, in the phrase "sweet unrest." Normally, we don't think of not being able to sleep as "sweet," but Keats's description makes it sound not too shabby.

  • Line 13: Did we say that Keats knows a good thing when he sees it? Are we repeating ourselves? Yes? Well, so is Keats's speaker. At the beginning of this line, we get even more parallelism to show the idea of Eternity; interestingly enough, the exact same word is being repeated here as in line 11: "Still, still." This time around, though, Keats gets extra bang for his buck. That's because it sounds to us like he is using a pun to play up a double-meaning in the word "still." Back in line 11, it was clear that "still" was being used with its old-fashioned meaning of "always" – so that what Keats was really saying was how he wanted to be "always stedfast, always unchangeable." Does that meaning of "still" still (hehe) make sense in line 13? We think so. But it seems that, in line 13, there's also a second meaning of still that creeps in, the meaning of "motionless." By bringing in this extra meaning of the word "still," Keats underlines the fact that he connects eternity with motionlessness, and that he wants to lie motionless for all eternity with his head on his girlfriend's chest.

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