In today's English, we typically use the word "sympathy" to describe a feeling of connection with somebody or something, often including a sense of being on that person's or that cause's side. (Thus, a typical usage of the word would be in a sentence like, "The judge's obvious sympathy for the victim made the defendant's lawyer argue for a mistrial.") This usage certainly existed in Keats's day, but so did some other meanings that we have lost.
Back in Keats's time, "sympathy" was often used with a meaning closer to its root meaning, which comes from the Greek words "syn-", meaning "with" and "-pathy," meaning "experience." So, when you put these two ideas together into one word, you get the meaning of "experience-with" – in other words, experiencing something together with somebody else, feeling a connection with somebody else, and so on. It's pretty clear how this older meaning comes up in Keats's poem: in the final image of the speaker lying with his head on his girlfriend's breast, you could definitely say that that is an image of two people "experiencing [something] with" each other (i.e., "in sympathy with" each other). What's most mysterious about the poem is what (if any) sympathy exists between the Bright Star and the moving waters and life on earth. To get a deeper sense of this brain-teasing problem, let's take a closer look at the poem's exploration of sympathy on the line-by-line level.
- Line 1: The first image of sympathy we get in the poem comes in the first line. Because the speaker says he wants to be like the star, you could say that he is "sympathetic to" the star. This is "sympathy" in the modern sense: the speaker admires the star, and is thus in some way "on its side." The speaker expresses his sympathy through the figure of speech known as apostrophe, when an absent person, inanimate object, or abstract being is addressed directly. (We also talk about this above in the section on the concept of "Transience.")
- Line 2: But then, Keats suddenly pulls the rug out from under us in the poem's second line. Now, all of a sudden, the speaker tells us that he doesn't want to be like the star. This shows that the speaker feels sympathy with the star, but only up to a point.
- Lines 3-4: In these lines, the poem's treatment of the theme of sympathy becomes more complicated. Through the device of personification (when you treat an inanimate object as if it were a person), Keats starts by creating an image of the star as a living being "watching, with eternal lids apart." Then, in the next line, he uses a simile to underline the point even more. The simile is one of the most basic tricks of the poet's toolbox: it's when you say something is like something else, or "A is like B." Nothing more to it.
What's the simile here? It's when the speaker says the star is watching "Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite." The word "Eremite" is just an old-fashioned way of saying "hermit" – i.e., a person who lives alone, usually in the desert or some other abandoned place, and often for the purposes of spiritual devotion. So here's the question: we have this image of the star as watching for all eternity, watching like a hermit, but we still don't know what it's watching. Even though we don't know what the star is watching, it's still worth asking – does it sound like the star is watching in a sympathetic way? Or is it just watching in a cold, disinterested way? Do we even have enough information to be able to tell? Maybe not. But remember, this comes from the part of the poem when the speaker is talking about what he doesn't like about the star. If it turns out that the star doesn't have any sympathy for what it is watching, do you think that would make the speaker more sympathetic to it, or less?
- Lines 5-6: The mystery deepens. How so? This time, it's through another personification. Now we learn that, not only is the Bright Star a being that can "watch" and be "patient" and "sleepless," but the "moving waters" are beings as well, flowing around the world and performing the "priestlike task / Of pure ablution round earth's human shores." How we interpret this personification depends a lot on how we interpret what the waters are personified as: "priests."
Do priests perform their ablutions out of sympathy for what is being purified? Or is a priest performing ablutions simply doing his job, in which case the "ablutions" might start to seem pretty routine after a while, and hence lacking in sympathy. (This seems especially likely if the ablutions have to be performed for all eternity.) From Keats's poem, it really isn't that clear how we're supposed to interpret this aspect of the waters' "priestlike[ness]." In any case, you've got to wonder who benefits from the waters' ablutions. Doesn't it kind of sound like humans are a form of pollution on the shores, and the shores are being purified of them? If that's the case, then the waters' sympathy would be directed towards the earth, and not to humanity, right? And if the waters don't have sympathy, can Keats's speaker have any sympathy for them? After all, this description of what the star sees does come in the part of the poem where the speaker is explaining the ways in which he doesn't want to be like the Bright Star…
- Lines 9-13: In these lines, as the speaker turns away from the image of the star, it becomes clear that he is turning towards sympathy of a different kind – the other meaning of sympathy we talked about in the beginning of this section, where it means basically human connection. In these lines, Keats's speaker emphasizes physical closeness as a major part of this sympathy. The use of the rhetorical device known as parallelism in lines 11 and 12, with their repetition of "for ever," and in 13 with its repetition of "still," helps emphasize how the speaker wants the moment of sympathy to last forever, and the strength of his emotion. Do you think they could also sort of act out the repetitive heaving motion of his girlfriend's chest?
- Line 14: The end of the poem brings the theme of sympathy-as-human-connection to a climax. (Well, it is the end of the poem, right?) How does he pull this off? By reaching into his bag of poetic tricks and pulling out a figure of speech, that's how. In this case, Keats uses the rhetorical figure known as hyperbole. This figure of speech refers to when somebody exaggerates for effect.
The exaggerations here are pretty clear. First of all, it's obvious that nobody can spend all eternity with their head lying on their girlfriend's chest – and we're not sure anybody would really want to either. Also, even though we've sure seen some overreactions in our day, we've never seen anybody "swoon to death" when they found out they couldn't spend all eternity with their head lying on their girlfriend's chest. (Warning: if you are hearing this for the first time and begin to experience swoon-like symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.) Actually, we don't think we've ever heard of anyone dying by "swooning" period. That said, we're not convinced that the speaker of Keats's poem thinks this is likely either. Instead, we think it's possible that the speaker knows he is wishing for unrealistic things – permanent human sympathy or death by swooning. But just because these things are unrealistic doesn't mean he can't desire them, right?