Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
The moving waters at their priestlike task
- Aha! Now Keats shows his hand! We know what the star is watching. Or…do we?
- Once we start looking at this line carefully, it seems to raise more questions than it answers.
- The star is watching "moving waters" – but which moving waters?
- And the waters are performing a "priestlike task" – but what is this task?
- Clearly, we're going to have to keep reading.
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
- Now we learn what the "priestlike task" of the "moving waters" is: it is a "task of pure ablution." We also learn where this task is performed "round earth's human shores." Huh?
- Let's take those parts one at a time.
- First of all: what the heck is "ablution"? The main meaning of "ablution" that Keats is using here is of a ritual cleansing. This matches up pretty well with the idea of the "priestlike" quality of the waters' task.
- OK, but what about the "earth's human shores"? Basically, the idea is that human activity has stretched all over the globe; the shores of a continent of land are the edges of human life – when the waters flow around these landforms, they are flowing around the boundaries of the human world.
- Now, we don't know if you're going to agree with this, but doesn't it kind of seem as if the ideas of the shores' being "human" and that of "ablution" are somehow connected, as if humanity's presence were some sort of pollution that had to be washed clean? Of course, we do know from contemporary life that humans are a great source of pollution, so the idea isn't crazy.
- But does this mean that Keats has a completely negative view of humanity? We don't think it does necessarily – but we'll just have to keep reading to see what happens.
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen masque
- Now we see Keats mixing things up once again. Instead of continuing with his description of the waters mysteriously cleansing or purifying the shores of the human world, he hits us up with an "Or" – we are going to learn about something else that the star does, instead of more about the first thing.
- Not to say that there aren't similarities between the first thing the star does and the second. Before, we're told that the star was "watching" something, and now we're told that it is "gazing on" something. These activities are pretty similar to each other. Did Keats just mix up the verbs to keep things interesting? What's the difference between "watching" something and "gazing on it"? We're not sure either, we just think it's worth thinking about.
- Something else is different in this second of the star's activities. The first time, when we learned that the star was "watching" something (in line 3), we had to wait until line 5 to find out what it was watching. This time, we're told immediately what it is "gazing on": the "new soft-fallen mask."
- But wait, is that any clearer? What the heck is a "new soft-fallen masque"? Don't worry about the weird spelling – "masque" here is just an old-fashioned, slightly fancy way of spelling "mask." But that's the least of our worries: the speaker still isn't really giving us much of a clue to what's going on here. It looks like Keats has cleverly forced us to keep reading once again.
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
- Now Keats lets the other shoe drop: the mask that the star "gazes upon" (line 7) is actually a "mask / Of snow" that is falling upon "the mountains and the moors."
- Learning this new detail in line 8 actually forces us to reinterpret line 7. Why? Because now we know that the mask that the star was watching wasn't a real mask, but instead a metaphorical mask. Literally speaking, the star is watching a layer of snow falling; Keats, in writing the poem, just chose to describe this layer of snow as a "mask."
- Why might he have done so? What is the effect of this image? Well, a mask is a covering, right? And in this case, the layer of snow is indeed covering something else. What's it covering? The "mountains and the moors."
- Of these two words, we're pretty sure you know what a "mountain" is, but a "moor" might be a little more unfamiliar – at least if you come from somewhere other than England.
- A "moor," according to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, is "an expanse of open rolling infertile land" or "a boggy area; especially: one that is peaty and dominated by grasses and sedges" (source). If you have read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles, or Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, or William Shakespeare's King Lear, you will have encountered moors before.
- The basic idea of a "moor," then, is that it is a barren, lonely, uninhabited place. And so are mountains, usually.
- So, really, Keats is talking about one blank, cold, barren substance, "snow," landing on, and creating a mask over, two blank, cold, barren, lonely landscapes: "the mountains and the moors." This is laying it on a little thick, isn't it?
- Either way, we don't know about you, but we're definitely getting a chilly feeling from these lines – one that echoes the mournful image of the waves washing the earth (lines 5-6) and the loneliness of the star (lines 2-4) earlier in the poem.
- Do all these sensations help explain why Keats doesn't want to be like the star? We sure think so. But what about why he wants to be like the star? Didn't he start off the whole poem by telling the star how he wishes he "were stedfast as thou art"? What about that? Did he just forget about it? What's going on here?