Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art
by John Keats
It wouldn't make much sense to talk about eternity without talking about transience, would it? These two ideas are opposite sides of the same coin. In Keats's poem, the speaker makes clear that he actually is only interested in eternity because he is also interested in transience. That's because he wants the things that are ordinarily transient – like a moment spent with your head resting on your girlfriend's chest – to last for all eternity. The speaker makes it very clear that he isn't interested in eternity for its own sake. Spending all the time in the universe staring at barren scenes of lifeless loneliness isn't his cup of tea.
- Line 1: The theme of transience is first introduced in line 1, at the very same time that the theme of eternity is introduced. How can this be? Keats manages this neat trick thanks to the literary device known as an apostrophe. Basically, apostrophe is when an absent person, inanimate object, or abstract being is addressed directly. Can you guess what counts as an apostrophe in this line? That's right, the address to the Bright Star is a form of apostrophe. How is this connected to the idea of transience? Well, let's think about it. The speaker of Keats's poem is talking to the star and saying that he would like to be like it. Now, typically when you want to be like someone (or something) else, it's because you feel that the other person has something that you lack, or that you don't have enough of. What does the speaker feel that the Bright Star has that he lacks or doesn't have enough of at the beginning of the poem? He feels that the star is "stedfast" in a way or to a degree that he isn't or can't be. In this way, at the same time that Keats brings up the idea of the eternity of the star, he also sneakily works in the idea of the transience of the speaker. Pretty cool, huh?
- Lines 5-6: Keats brings up the idea of transience once again in these lines; once again, it seems connected with some idea of eternity. Let's try to see how this works out. Basically, these ideas get brought in through Keats's personification of the "moving waters," which become imagined as persons performing the "priestlike task / Of pure ablution round earth's human shores." We're not sure what you think about this, but we at Shmoop are tempted to say that the "moving waters" are an image of both eternity and transience. How? It boils down to a question of emphasis. If you say the waters are always moving, that shows how the personified waters are a symbol of transience. On the other hand, if you say that waters are always moving, then you could say that they are a symbol of eternity as well. But, no matter which way you slice the water image, there is one clear image of transience in these two lines: the "human shores," which are constantly washed clean by the waters of time as one generation replaces another. The "human shores" here are definitely a symbol of transience.
- Line 10: In the second half of the poem, Keats is clearly trying to create a beautiful, vivid image of transience – the transient moment that he wishes could last forever. But, if he's turned his focus away from the star in line 9, that leaves him only six lines – the "sestet" section of the sonnet-structure – to create this image. So how is going to do it? Clearly, he doesn't have space for any super-elaborate sensory description. Instead, he simply has to use the most efficient tools in his toolbox.
In terms of briefly sketching a larger scene, there are few tools handier than the figure of speech known as synecdoche. Don't worry if the term is a bit of a mouthful. Basically, it means when you use a part of something to stand-in for all of it. Thus, when the captain of a ship calls out for "all hands on deck," he is using a part of a sailor (his or her hands) to stand in for the whole person. (He isn't asking for a pile of disembodied hands to show up on deck – that would be gross.)
So, now that we've got the concept under our belts, where do you think Keats uses synecdoche in this line? That's right, you got it: "my fair love's ripening breast." Now, we admit that this is kind of a borderline case of synecdoche, since, as the word "Pillow'd" makes clear, Keats's speaker does, literally, want to rest his head on his girlfriend's breast, and it isn't true that, by putting his head on part of her, he puts his head on the whole of her. (Just because Keats had gigantic ideas doesn't mean he needed a gigantic head to contain them.) Even so, we think it makes some sort of sense to call this a synecdoche, because the speaker doesn't just want to hang out with his girlfriend's breast (at least, we hope not); he wants to hang out with her, the whole person. In this case, it might be more correct to say that the entire line is a metonymy: it's a detail that suggests a larger scene (in this case, a woman and a man lying down, with the man resting his head on the woman's chest). Of course, normally people don't use the word "metonymy" to describe an entire line of poetry. So, we're actually between a rock and a hard place with our terminology. Still, we think it's useful to bring up the term synecdoche because it is a close, but not exact, fit to describe what Keats is doing here. Anything that helps us get a deeper sense of Keats's artistry can't be all bad.