Keats's poem is written in one of his favorite poetic forms – the sonnet. We at Shmoop are hoping that it will become one of your favorite poetic forms too, but first, we'd better give you a crash course on how this form can be spotted. The most basic idea about a sonnet is that it is a poem in fourteen lines, no more, no less. This is an interesting length for a poem: fourteen lines is too short to include all that many topics, but it also is long enough to talk about one or two ideas in a fair amount of detail.
In response to these challenges, some traditional ways have evolved of organizing the thought-patterns within sonnets. These thought-patterns usually correspond to a particular form of the sonnet – specifically, of its rhyme scheme. The most traditional way of organizing the thought in a sonnet is into a structure of one major idea and one minor idea. Usually, the second, minor idea provides some sort of interesting contrast to the major idea. This thought-structure is usually represented in the rhyme scheme that is known as the Italian sonnet: the main idea gets stated in the first eight lines of the poem (this section is known as an "octet"), which follow the rhyme scheme ABBAABBA. Then, the contrasting main idea takes up the remaining six lines of the poem (this section is known as the "sestet"). The rhyme scheme in the sestet is more open to experimentation, though one traditional scheme would be CDCDCD.
So that's the most traditional sonnet form. But then, in England in the sixteenth century a new variation on the traditional form emerged. Now, we know this form after the man who made it famous: it is known as a Shakespearean sonnet. What makes a Shakespearean sonnet special is that, instead of the rhyme scheme creating an octet and a sestet, you get three quatrains (four-line sections), rhyming ABAB CDCD EFEF. Then, these get rounded off by a closing "couplet," rhyming GG. The advantage of this form is that it gives the poet a lot more freedom in how to arrange the content – he or she doesn't just have to divide the thought into two big chunks.
So far so good, but what does this all have to do with Keats? Well, let's take a look at his sonnet. Do you notice anything strange about it? (Take your time – we'll just take a minute to send a few texts about how awesome Keats is, and then maybe watch a few good videos on YouTube.) OK, we're back. What did you find out? Aha! You got it: Keats uses the thought-pattern of an Italian sonnet (octave + sestet), but follows the rhyme scheme of an English, Shakespearean sonnet.
What do we mean by that? Well, check it out. The first eight lines of the poem all share a common theme: Keats is describing the star and what it looks at. This takes us from the wish expressed in his opening line "Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art—" to the mournful image of the snow falling "upon the mountains and the moors," which pretty much puts the last nail in the coffin of the whole wanting to be like a star idea. And if the last nail has been put in the coffin of an idea, it sounds like time for…a NEW IDEA. In this case, the new idea is really a modification of the old idea, and it comes in right on cue in line 9: "No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable." The idea that takes shape, of course, is taking what's good about the star (steadfastness) and putting it in a new context (sleeping with your head propped on your girlfriend's chest).
This all makes a lot of sense. But now the question becomes, if the thought follows an Italian sonnet pattern, why did Keats put it in a Shakespearean sonnet rhyme scheme? To tell you the truth, we're not really sure – and we're definitely open to suggestions. Our best guess is that Keats wanted to take advantage of the added emphasis that a "couplet" in a Shakespearean sonnet gives to the end of the poem. The fact that Keats repeats the words "Still, still" at the beginning of line 13, the same word that appeared twice in line 9, the major turning-point of the poem, kind of acts as a marker that he thinks of the couplet of this sonnet as its own, special section.
Of course, the main thing that makes it its own special section is the fact that its two lines rhyme – "breath" with "death," probably the single most common rhyme in English literature. Another possibility, of course, is that Keats deliberately wanted to play up this form's resonances with Shakespeare. Ever since 1818, Keats began trying to incorporate a more tragic perspective on life into his poetry; at the same time, he began thinking of "Shakespeare" as the master from whom he would learn his craft. The American critic Helen Vendler talks about this turn in Keats's thinking in her book, Coming of Age as a Poet. From that point on, as Vendler remarks, "the Shakespearean sonnet becomes Keats's vehicle of choice." So there you have another possibility – seeing the form as a sort of shout-out to the guy whose tragic outlook Keats was trying to make his own.
But aren't we forgetting something? Yes: the poem's meter. So glad you reminded us. This poem is written in the most common meter of English poetry, the iambic pentameter. That's kind of a mouthful, but don't worry – it's actually pretty simple. Let's start with the word "pentameter." The "-meter" part is easy: that just means some way of dividing up or measuring (in the sense of a "measure" in music) the words in the poetic line. As for the "penta-" part, that just comes from the Greek word for "five." So a "pentameter" is a line that is divided into five sections or "measures." (Just so you know, these metrical units are normally called "feet." Go figure.) As for "iambic," that just means that each of those measures, or "feet," is going to follow a certain rhythm, known as an "iamb." An iamb is made up of two syllables: the first syllable is lightly accented and the second syllable is strongly accented, giving the rhythm "da DUM." Thus, a complete poetic line of five iambs sounds like this:
da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM.
To see this rhythm in action, let's take a sentence we know... how about:
Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art.
Of course, it would be pretty boring to have every single line of your poem follow the same rhythm. Thus, skilful poets tend to mix things up a bit, for example by taking one of the iambs and replacing it with a "trochee," which is just the same thing except that the stressed and unstressed syllables are reversed: "DA dum." You can see a clear trochee in the beginning of line 10 of Keats's poem:
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast.
To get a full sense of how the rhythm is operating in Keats's poem, we encourage you to read it out loud. You might also want to go through and put a little mark on the syllables where the strong stress falls. This will give you a deeper understanding of Keats's artistry, and the rhythmical patterns that hold the poem together.