Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
The main theme of Keats's poem is the idea of eternity. This is the reason why the star is so important to Keats's speaker: because it lasts forever. Over the course of the poem, however, it becomes clear that the speaker doesn't just want any old eternity – especially not an eternity isolated in the top of the high heavens like the star. Instead, he wants to spend eternity with his head pressed against his girlfriend's chest. And if he can't have that, he would rather "swoon" away into another eternity: the eternity of death.
- Line 1: The first line of the poem, "Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art," closely links the star with the idea of eternity. Not only does Keats's speaker spell the connection out for us through the meanings of his words, he also (literally) spells it out through the sounds of the words. How so? Check out the alliteration on st sounds at the beginnings of the words "Star" and "stedfast." This makes the close connection pretty clear, right? At the same time, Keats gets some mileage here out of a pun (i.e., wordplay based on the double or multiple meanings of a word). The pun has to do with the double meaning of the word "as." Just from reading the first line of the poem, we can't tell if Keats means "as" in the sense of (1) "[as] stedfast as thou art" or (2) in the sense of "stedfast [in the same way, looking down on Earth] as thou art."
As the poem unfolds, it will become clear that Keats wants (1) but not (2). He wants to be just as eternal as the star is, but he doesn't want to spend Eternity in the same way as the star does – up in the high heavens watching barren scenes down on earth. Instead, as we will find out after line 9, he wants to spend all Eternity with his head resting on his girlfriend's chest. Finally, because the speaker uses the Bright Star as a highly resonant image brought in to illustrate what he's talking about, you could also say that line 1 of the poem introduces the star as a symbol. Of course, it's only as the poem continues that we start to get a sense of the full meaning of this powerful symbol.
- Line 3: When Keats describes the star as "watching, with eternal lids apart," he uses the literary device of personification to gives us a clearer image of what eternity might feel like. Instead of saying, "Oh yeah, you know, the star, it hangs out up there forever," he imagines the star as a person, with eyelids, who is always watching. We can picture being a star imagined in this way much more easily than we can picture being a vast sphere of seething gases. Good work, Keats.
- Line 4: The device of personification continues here, too, when Keats uses the adjectives "patient" and "sleepless" to describe the star. These also help us get a sense of the vast amount of time that passes during the star's existence.
- Line 9: This line marks the "turn" of the sonnet from talking about the star's eternity to the way the speaker would like to experience eternity on a human scale. He emphasizes the feeling of endurance that he desires through the figure of speech known as parallelism. Like it sounds, this involves the repetition of words for effect, as Keats does with the word "still" when he says "yet still stedfast, still unchangeable." It's also interesting to note that, just as Keats used alliteration to connect the "Star" with the idea of being "stedfast" in line 1, now he uses the same sound to join "still" and "stedfast." You can almost think of these alliterations joining the three words together into an unbreakable chain: "Star"-"stedfast"-"still." Can it be coincidence that these three words are all closely linked to the theme of eternity? We find it hard to believe. (Just to be clear, the word "still" is used in line 9 with its old-fashioned meaning of "always.")
- Lines 11-12: Clearly Keats knows a good thing when he sees it. In these lines, he also uses parallelism to suggest the idea of eternity. Here, what is repeated is the phrase "for ever": "To feel for ever its soft swell and fall, / Awake for ever in a sweet unrest." The idea of permanence is also emphasized by more alliteration. In line 11, you've got alliteration on f in "feel, "for," and "fall," as well as on s in "soft," and "swell." Then, in line 12, you've got an f alliterating with those of the previous line, while the sw at the beginning of "sweet" looks back to the sw at the beginning of "swell." All of these devices show how the speaker's thoughts are all flowing into one another at this point.
Also, in line 12, Keats emphasizes the intensity of his desire for eternity by using an oxymoron – i.e., the figure of speech where you combine two terms ordinarily seen as opposites. Can you see where Keats does this? That's right, in the phrase "sweet unrest." Normally, we don't think of not being able to sleep as "sweet," but Keats's description makes it sound not too shabby.
- Line 13: Did we say that Keats knows a good thing when he sees it? Are we repeating ourselves? Yes? Well, so is Keats's speaker. At the beginning of this line, we get even more parallelism to show the idea of Eternity; interestingly enough, the exact same word is being repeated here as in line 11: "Still, still." This time around, though, Keats gets extra bang for his buck. That's because it sounds to us like he is using a pun to play up a double-meaning in the word "still." Back in line 11, it was clear that "still" was being used with its old-fashioned meaning of "always" – so that what Keats was really saying was how he wanted to be "always stedfast, always unchangeable." Does that meaning of "still" still (hehe) make sense in line 13? We think so. But it seems that, in line 13, there's also a second meaning of still that creeps in, the meaning of "motionless." By bringing in this extra meaning of the word "still," Keats underlines the fact that he connects eternity with motionlessness, and that he wants to lie motionless for all eternity with his head on his girlfriend's chest.
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.
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?