Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
- The speaker begins by calling by name the person he's talking to. Or, not the person, but the thing: the "Bright Star." But he's talking to it as if it were a person.
- Then he reveals why he's talking to the star: he wishes that he were as "stedfast" as the star is. (In case you didn't catch that, "would I were stedfast as thou art" is a shortened way of saying "would [that] I were [as] stedfast as thou art," which is an old-fashioned way of saying, "I wish I were as steadfast as you are." All cool?)
- From this, we can tell that he is talking to the North Star, also known as Polaris, which is the only star that remains motionless in the sky while the other stars appear to revolve around it (source). As a result, the North Star is often used for navigation.
- Because the North Star is often used for navigation, a person looking at it would typically be a traveler, especially a traveler by sea.
- Travelers are often homesick. If you're constantly on the move, you might start to think about settling down, becoming more "stedfast." Could this be why Keats's speaker is talking to the star, and saying he wants to be like it?
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,
- Now Keats surprises us – instead of throwing a fastball like we were expecting, he's thrown a changeup. (You might think the baseball metaphor doesn't fit Keats, but he was actually an occasional cricket player, as he reveals in the beginning of this famous letter to his brother and sister-in-law. If our man had grown up in America, we think he would have been a baseball player all the way.)
- So, what makes Keats's second line a changeup? Simple. He started off in the first line by telling us that he wanted to be like the star he sees in the heavens. But now, in the very second line of the poem, he starts telling us how he doesn't want to be like the star. Huh?
- On the whole, the description of the star still sounds pretty nifty, what with fancy words like "splendor" and the idea of being "aloft" (i.e., "above," or "at the highest point of") the night.
- So what's not to like? We don't know…maybe that word "lone" has something to do with it? We guess we'll just have to wait and see…
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
- It looks like "waiting and seeing" is the name of the game. That's because Keats is continuing his description of what the star does: it keeps an eye on stuff.
- And yes, we said "keeps an eye" on purpose. Sure, we know that the stars you learn about in astronomy class don't have eyeballs, or eyelids, but this is a poetic star, and if Keats says that it keeps its "lids" (i.e., "eyelids") "apart," then we've just got to take his word for it.
- OK, so the star spends its time watching, what's so bad about that? Could it have something to do with that word "eternal"? What's that word "eternal" doing there? What does Keats mean by "eternal lids"? That sounds pretty weird, doesn't it?
- To explain what's going on here, we have to bring in a little bit of fancy poetry terminology (sorry). The terminology we need is "transferred epithet." Now, we know that sounds really complicated, but it's actually really simple. Here's the deal:
- An "epithet" is basically just the same as an adjective: it's a word that gets stuck onto something else to describe it. A "transferred epithet," then, is an epithet that should be attached to one word in the sentence, but gets stuck on to another word just to mix things up a bit.
- In this case, you could say that the epithet "eternal" most naturally goes with the word "apart." Let's try rewriting the line to show what we mean here: "And watching, with lids eternally apart." That makes pretty good sense, right?
- So, the idea is that, not only does the star watch things and keep its eyelids open, but it does so eternally.
- Why did Keats transfer the epithet "eternal" from "apart" to "lids"? No one can know for sure, but we're guessing it has to do with sound. The way Keats ended up doing it works much better for technical metrical reasons (we will explain Keats's metrics in more detail in our "Form and Meter" and "Sound Check" sections). You can tell this just by sounding the two versions out: "And watching, with lids eternally apart" vs. "And watching, with eternal lids apart."
- Now, you certainly don't have to agree with us, but we're willing to bet that you will agree with us that the second version sounds better. (It's fine if you disagree, of course – after all, we didn't actually bet anything.)
- So, the way Keats ended up doing works well as far as the sound is concerned. But does it make any sense?
- If you think about it, it actually does, even if it isn't quite as clear as it would be if he had kept the epithet stuck on "apart," where it seems to belong most naturally.
- Think about it: if the star keeps its eyelids apart, and if its eyelids are eternal, doesn't that kind of add up to the same thing as saying that it will keep its eyelids apart eternally? It may be a little less clear, but we still think it works out OK, so Keats gets away with this one.
- But let's get back to the main story. Line 3 continues the description of what the star does. Remember, that this is still in the category of stuff that the star does that the speaker of the poem doesn't want to do, following from the "Not" at the beginning of line 2.
- Oh yeah, and one last thing. What is the star watching? We still don't know.
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
- Here Keats continues the description of the star. Now he mixes things up a little by throwing in a simile.
- What's that? A simile is when you explicitly compare something to something else: A is like B.
- Here, Keats is comparing the way in which the star is watching to the way "nature's patient, sleepless Eremite" might watch something. Makes things so much clearer, right? Uh, then again, maybe not.
- We're guessing that most of these words should be familiar to you, though there are one or two pitfalls. First of all, you should be aware that "patient" is here being used as an adjective (a word describing a noun), just as in the sentence "the patient poet took time in writing her poem." It isn't being used as a noun, as it would be in the sentence, "the poet took so long writing her poem that she ended up as a patient in an insane asylum."
- OK, so "patient" and "sleepless" are both adjectives modifying "Eremite," but this leaves a major elephant in the room. What the heck is an Eremite?
- Actually, it isn't that complicated. An "eremite" is just an old-fashioned way of saying "hermit." (If you look at the two words or say them one after the other, you can see how they are really just different ways of pronouncing the same word.)
- So why did Keats use this old-fashioned word "eremite" when he could have just said "hermit"? Was "eremite" just the normal way of saying it back in the early nineteenth century, when this poem was written?
- Actually, no. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the pronunciation "hermit" was actually the more common pronunciation ever since the middle of the seventeenth century. After that, people who used it were being deliberately old-fashioned, using it for poetic or rhetorical effect.
- But what poetic or rhetorical effect might Keats have been going for?
- Well, one obvious one is the rhyme: "Eremite" rhymes with "night" and "hermit" doesn't. Score one for "Eremite."
- But wait – the Oxford English Dictionary actually tells us something more! It says that, after the middle of the seventeenth century, people also sometimes used the word "eremite" to emphasize the Greek origin of the word, "eremia," which means desert. That's because the first hermits were people who moved into the desert to be closer to God.
- Could this be relevant to Keats's poem? We don't know about you, but we're pretty tempted to connect up the idea of the "hermit" or "Eremite" with the description of the star in line 2 as "in LONE splendour hung aloft the night."
- So, by calling the star an "Eremite," Keats's is emphasizing the star's aloneness.
- As for the fact that he capitalizes the word "Eremite"…we're not so sure, and are open to suggestions.
- Still, nothing says we can't try to think it through together. The description of the Eremite in the beginning of the line, "Nature's patient, sleepless" kind of singles it out as a singular, special thing. Maybe it's this idea of singling the one eremite out as the super-important one that makes Keats capitalize this word. And that kind of connects with the singular importance of the North Star as the one that doesn't move, right?
- So, from line 4, we know that the star is like a solitary dweller in the desert, is extremely patient, and never sleeps. Keep in mind that this whole simile got introduced to explain the way in which the star is watching. What's it watching again? We still don't know.