Study Guide

Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art Love

By John Keats

Love

And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores (lines 3-6)

One of the most interesting things in this poem is how Keats weaves together similarities and contrasts between the way he would like to live and the way the Bright Star lives. We know that, after he shifts gears in line 9, the speaker makes it clear that the major problem with the star's existence is its lack of connection with human warmth. But does that mean the star is entirely without love? What do you make of the fact that the star is "nature's […] Eremite" who spends all eternity "patient[ly], sleepless[ly]" watching life down on earth? Does this description imply that the star has feelings of caring for what happens on earth, and is caring the same as loving?

Similarly, what about those waters "at their priestlike task / of pure ablution round earth's human shores"? Why did Keats choose the word "priestlike"? If you have a positive view of priests, you might interpret this as meaning that the "ablution" is performed with love. But then again, if you think that a priest is someone doing a job like anyone else, then those "ablutions" might start to seem pretty routine, and hence lacking in love – especially if the ablutions are destined to be repeated for all eternity!

Finally, doesn't it kind of sound like humans are a form of pollution on the shores, and that the waters are washing the shores clean of humanity? (We're not saying this is the only interpretation, just one possible one.) If so, who benefits from the waters' ablutions? Is it humanity, or the earth itself? If the waters love the earth, do they hate humanity? And, if so, what attitude would Keats's speaker take towards the waters? Each one of these questions is extremely challenging and thought-provoking, and it is hard to find clear answers to them in the text. Even so, if we ever hope to come to a full understanding of Keats's poem, we will need to come up with some answers; only by understanding where the star and the waters stand on love can we understand completely what makes Keats's speaker want to be different from them. What's your take? Remember though, these are the questions that even the most advanced readers of the poem ask themselves (or ask Keats). You don't have to answer them to enjoy the poem; instead, part of enjoying the poem is seeing what questions it gets you to ask.

No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable (line 9)

Even though we can't tell just from reading it on its own, if you look at the poem as a whole, it is clear that this line introduces the theme of love. It is significant that the theme of love is introduced by emphasizing the value of constancy. Does this emphatic position mean that constancy is what Keats's speaker values most when it comes to love?

Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast (line 10)

But now we see that Keats's idea of love isn't all in the mind: there is a physical aspect to it too. OK, to be clearer: it is still in his mind in the sense that he's imagining, but what he's imagining includes physical contact. Is there anything more we can say about this? What do you think about the word-choice "Pillow'd"? Does that risk transforming his "fair love" into something of an inanimate object? Now what about "ripening"; now she is definitely alive, but seems to be likened to a piece of fruit. Do these two words, "Pillow'd" and "ripening" harmonize with each other – that is, can you fit them together into a single picture? If not, do you think Keats's speaker is changing his mind over the course of the line? If this is true, and we are, in fact, watching his thought evolve, what direction is it going in? If you do think that "Pillow'd" gives off a hint of something inanimate, would you say that the progression of the speaker's words makes the beloved become more and more alive as the line goes on? (Not to get ahead of ourselves, but if this is true, you can see the progression continuing on into the next line.)

One additional way in which you could think about the beloved as coming to life over the course of the line is in the sound of the line. The way we hear it, there is a stress on the first syllable of "Pillow'd" and on the second syllable of "upon": "PILLow'd upON." Then, something interesting happens. The way we hear it, there is a bit of a crescendo of louder and louder syllables as you go up through "my fair love's ripening," so that it looks kind of like this: "my FAIR LOVE'S RIPEening." Then, "breast" is just your ordinary stressed syllable, so that the whole line sounds like this: "PILLow'd upON my FAIR LOVE'S RIPEening BREAST." When you have that crescendo effect up to "ripening," we think it's pretty likely that Keats was going for an effect of increasing intensity, which also means increasing life. What does this say about the speaker's thoughts on love?

To feel for ever its soft swell and fall (line 11)

This line brings out even more the sensual, physical aspect of the poet's feelings of love. (Hey, he's even got the word "feel" in there.) Also, the repetition of those soft s and f sounds creates a general atmosphere of softness and gentleness that goes with the physical picture he is describing. (We know, this sounds kind of weird, but just say the poem out loud and we think you'll know what we mean.) Now, some people might think it's a little weird – even possibly offensive – that the speaker spends all this time talking about "it" (i.e., his girlfriend's breast) without even mentioning "her" until line 13. But we don't think this is an accurate reflection of what's going on here. Remember that what he's really talking about feeling its "soft swell and fall" – so that feeling the breast move actually shows the living, breathing person underneath. This becomes especially clear in the second-to-last line of the poem. This emphasis on the physical aspect of the person might be designed to make the brevity of human life all the more poignant. What do you think?

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest (line 12)

Here, we get an even clearer picture of the speaker's devotion to the woman he loves. Instead of wanting to fall asleep with his head "Pillow'd" on her breast, he wants its movement to keep him awake forever – could this be so he can consciously savor the moment forever? That said, another possibility suggested by that word "unrest" is that the speaker is, you know, getting all "hot and bothered" by having his head on his girlfriend's chest for all eternity.

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death— (lines 13-14)

These lines bring the poem – and its discussion of the theme of love – to a close. The speaker says that he would like to live forever with his head motionless on his girlfriend's chest ("forever" and "motionless" capture the double meaning of the word "still" in line 13), and if he can't do that, he would prefer to swoon to death. This shows that, for the speaker at least, at least at this moment in his life, love and physical contact are the most important things on earth.