Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art
by John Keats
We are not told the name of the speaker in Keats's poem. In fact, if it's cold hard facts you're looking for, the poem is bound to disappoint: it doesn't really tell us anything about who the speaker is, what he looks like, where he is, or even when he is. And yet, we still leave the poem feeling that we've learned a tremendous amount about him, and some of the most important things that can possibly be learned about a person. This sounds pretty paradoxical; how do we make sense of it? That's because we don't learn anything about the "real world" the speaker lives in, but we learn a great deal about the imaginary world of the speaker's desires. Not only do we learn what the speaker wants, we also learn what he doesn't want. The main action of the poem consists of teasing out, as best as possible, the desires that the speaker would like to become reality for him, and what he hopes will not become reality for him.
The first thing we learn about the speaker's desires is what he tells us in the very first line of the poem: he wants to be like someone else – the Bright Star. (We're calling the star "someone" because it's definitely treated as a person in the poem.) Typically when you want to be like someone else, it's because you feel that the other person has something that you lack. Here the speaker thinks he lacks steadfastness – as we can see when he says "would I were stedfast as thou art." Keats's speaker doesn't give us any clear indication of why he feels this way, but we think there are some hints.
Based on the emphasis he places on the steadfastness of the star, it's pretty likely that Keats means his speaker to be referring to the North Star, a.k.a. Polaris, which doesn't move, unlike the other stars (as you can see in this dramatic photograph). Because it is always in the same position in the sky (and so always shows where North is), the North Star has historically been used by travelers, especially sailors, as a guiding light. If the speaker of Keats's poem is staring at the North Star, that puts him in the position of a traveler, a wanderer, someone far from home who has lost their way. Not that he is literally a traveler, only that his sense of being lost and adrift might be like that of a traveler. And yet, there's one more possibility: he could just mean "stedfastness" in the sense of staying power. He could think of the star as "stedfast" because it will last for all eternity, while he, like every human, is doomed to die. Of course, because this is a poem, all three possibilities could be correct – there's no law in poetry that says a word or a sentence can mean only one thing, far from it. Still, it's still worth trying to find out which is the main meaning. For that, we'd better keep reading.
Keep reading indeed: we haven't even gotten past the first line of the poem! OK, on we go. In the next line, something extremely interesting happens – actually, several interesting things. The first comes in the first word of the second line, "Not." Where we thought we had been learning something about the speaker's desires, suddenly we're confronted with something that the speaker doesn't desire. After that beautiful expression of desire in line 1, beginning line 2 with the word "Not" kind of sounds like the way the heroes of the movie Wayne's World say things like, "That's a nice name," wait a second (like waiting for the beginning of the next line), and then add, "NOT."
But wait, there's more to the line than this first word, isn't there? Yes of course – the whole line actually expresses a very complicated series of emotions. The word "lone," first of all, helps explain what the speaker doesn't like about the star – the fact that it is isolated. But then the next word is extremely surprising: "splendor." And the rest of the line seems to fit most naturally with that word "splendor": the phrase "hung aloft the night" has a poetic nobility that suggests nothing less than admiration. So the speaker both rejects the star's existence and admires it too? Interesting.
We can think of lines 3-8 (from "And watching, with eternal lids apart..." to "Of snow upon the mountains and the moors") as taking the contradictory emotions of the two words "lone splendor" and stretching them out to their fullest possible extent. There is something exhilarating about the way the speaker brings in those huge, cosmic ideas of eternity, as exemplified in the watching star and the moving waters – clearly, taking in these thoughts gives him a feeling like standing on top of a mountain and viewing the whole world. And yet, there is something extremely lonely and mournful about these ideas. The speaker makes his point pretty clearly when he describes the "masque" of snow landing on the "mountains and the moors" – a cold, blank thing landing on cold, blank, inhuman landscapes, watched by a cold, distant, inhuman, changeless star.
This gives us the clearest picture of what the speaker doesn't like. As for what he likes, we learn that after line 9, and it is pretty much the opposite of that. He wants warmth, the warmth of human contact. Putting this idea together with the idea of the steadfastness of the star shows us the speaker's deepest desire: to let the moment of human warmth and closeness with the woman he loves last forever. And if he can't have that, the next best thing would be to "swoon to death," i.e., die in the most sensuous, luxurious way possible, without experiencing the pain that typically comes with death.
This is the final picture we get of what the speaker desires. Do we think that he actually believes that either of these outcomes – lying with his head on his girlfriend's breast forever, or dying a completely painless death by "swoon[ing]" – is likely to come true? We're not convinced. Not only because it simply isn't realistic to hope for such things, but also because the picture of human life he has already given us in the poem – in the reference to the "moving waters at their priestlike task / Of pure ablution round earth's human shores" – is simply too powerful to be brushed off so easily. "Ablution" is a form of ritual purification. It isn't clear if the waters are washing humanity, or if they are washing humanity away from the world, but, either way, it looks like humanity is in trouble.
Even though he doesn't go into the specifics of what makes humanity unclean, it's easy to imagine: pain, suffering, violence, hardship, and the briefness of human life. The speaker's insight at this point of the poem is so powerful that it's hard to imagine it simply going away by the end. Instead, it's better, though also more challenging, for us to imagine this truth as hovering in the background of the end of the poem – it's the unspoken truth that becomes more powerful for being unspoken. Thus, the final picture that emerges of the speaker might be of someone who takes a realistic, tragic attitude towards life, but who doesn't let that stop him from hoping for something better – even if he knows it might not be possible. Going back to our interpretations of the word "stedfast" in the third paragraph of this section, it's starting to look like "staying power" might be the main meaning. What do you think?