Study Guide

Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art Time

By John Keats

Time

Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art— (line 1)

When you say that you want to be like someone (or something) else, it's usually because you feel that the other person (or thing) has something that you lack, or that you don't have enough of. Thus, when the speaker says that he wants to be more like the Bright Star, and, specifically, that he wants to be "stedfast" as it is, that shows us that he feels that he doesn't have enough "stedfastness." Now, being "stedfast" could mean many things in the context of this poem (see our discussion of the "Speaker" for more details on this problem). But one thing it might mean is simple staying power: the star will last for all eternity, while the speaker, like all humans, is doomed to die. If so, then the first line would express a contrast between the star and the speaker based on their experience of time. To see if this is true or not, we'd better keep reading.

And watching, with eternal lids apart (line 3)

Well, the third line of the poem definitely seems to back up the idea that the speaker is mainly thinking about the star in terms of time. The clue to this is in the word "eternal." The word "eternal" has two main meanings – one is "outside of time," i.e., in some other universe where time doesn't exist. The second meaning of "eternal" is the more familiar one: "lasting forever." In the context of Keats's poem, it seems most easy to interpret the word following the second, more familiar meaning: the speaker is contrasting the star to himself because it will last forever, while he is doomed to die. That said, you could still make an argument for the other meaning, if Keats's speaker is trying to say that the star is "above it all." Based on the rest of the poem, which interpretation do you think is better?

The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores (lines 5-6)

Now we get to see what the Bright Star is spending all eternity watching: the endless flow of waters around the shores of the earth, performing the task of "ablution" – i.e., "purification" or "washing clean." Now, we don't know about you, but this kind of sounds like the waves are washing humanity off the shores, as if humanity itself were a kind of pollution.

That's interesting in itself, but things actually get even cooler (if kind of scarier). Did you know that the English word "tide" actually comes from the same word as "time"? In some old-fashioned English expressions, the word "tide" is actually used to mean "time" – like in the Christmas carol "Deck The Halls," when they talk about "the yuletide carol," the word "yuletide" actually just means "Yule-time" or "Christmas-time." Even when the word "tide" is used in its modern meaning of the rising and falling of the ocean because of the gravity of the moon, it is still often connected with the idea of "time," as in the old expression "time and tide wait for no man."

What does this all have to do with these two lines from Keats's poem? Well, he certainly doesn't mention the word tide, but the image of "moving waters" along the "shores" of the world kind of makes you think of it anyway, right? If so, you could basically think of the "moving waters" as…not quite a metaphor, but at least something that makes you think about time. It's almost as if the act of "pure ablution," the washing-away of humanity, refers to the passage of time that destroys one human generation after another. (Sorry to be such a downer, but it's true.) Of course, because the speaker is a human, this image of time's destruction of humanity underlines the contrast between the speaker and the Bright Star. Not just underlines it, but highlights it, puts it in ALL-CAPS and boldface, and makes it 72-point font.

Or gazing on the new soft-fallen masque
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors— (lines 7-8)

Here we get another contrast between different things based on how long they last in time. When Keats chooses the word "new" to attach to the "soft-fallen masque / Of snow," doesn't it seem like he's emphasizing the cyclical nature of the seasons? Think about it: if there was no time and the seasons didn't move in cycles, the snow would always be there, and you wouldn't need winter to roll around to bring more of it. Now, what about the mountains and the moors themselves; do they change with the seasons, or are they permanently there? We'd say they're permanently there; the layer of snow covers them as briefly as each generation of humans covers "earth's human shores," then, the passage of time puts an end to each one's existence.

No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast (lines 9-10)

Here we see yet another contrast between different things based on how long they last in time. First, the speaker says that he wants to be "stedfast," which we can take to mean "stedfast [like the star]." (The fact that he is repeating the same word from the opening line, when he compared himself to the star seems to point in this direction, don't you think?) So, he's saying he wants to last for all time – but then, he wants his head to be "Pillow'd" on his girlfriend's "ripening breast."

Now, the word "ripening" probably has two main meanings here. First, it suggests that the speaker's girlfriend is still fairly young and so is still in the process of "filling out." The second thing is that the word "ripening" gives us a feeling of sweetness and warmth that contrasts with the cold images of the "moving waters" and the snow falling on barren landscapes from earlier in the poem. But does this image only contrast with them – or does it have some similarities with those images as well?

We think it very well might have some similarities with them; if it does, there would be a third meaning to the word "ripening" in the context of this poem. If the reference to "new soft-fallen masque / Of snow" calls to mind the changing of the seasons, and thus the passage of time, it's hard to see how the image of "ripening," which happens to fruit in the autumn, doesn't do the same thing. So, really, what we have here is yet another image of an eternal thing (what the speaker imagines himself being) and a thing with an expiry date: the "ripening" breast of the girl. Why a thing with an expiration date? Well, doesn't ripe fruit eventually turn all wrinkly and then rot?

"But wait," you're probably saying, "Keats doesn't say anything about the girl's breast turning wrinkly and rotting! And anyhow, how could he keep his head on her breast forever if her breast doesn't last forever?" And you know what? If you do say that, we agree with you completely. The eternity of the girl's breast, and therefore of the girlfriend, really does seem to be part-and-parcel of what the Keats's speaker wishes for at the end of the poem here. So why does he say "ripening"?

Well, we think it's almost like a kind of reverse psychology move – as if Keats is saying, "Yes, ordinarily this breast would ripen and keep ripening until the woman dies, but in the world I want to live in, the world of my imagination and desire, it can keep ripening forever, and I will keep my head there forever." But if this is true, then it looks like we have to change what we said before – that this is "another contrast between different things based on how long they last in time." Actually, it's starting to look like Keats's speaker is talking about two things that both would ordinarily rot (the speaker and his mortal girlfriend), but which, through some miracle – if he could somehow have the "stedfastness" of the Star – will not rot, will not be subject to time. Pretty cool, don't you think?

To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death— (lines 11-14)

Here we get the climax of Keats's speaker's thoughts on the theme of time. He wants to be able to live forever, throughout all time, with his head on his girlfriend's chest. This desire for eternity is emphasized in the repeated use of the word "for ever," and also in the repetition of the word "still," which, as we've said elsewhere, means both "always" and "motionless" at this point. And yet, does it really look like Keats's speaker believes this is likely? When he says that he would like to "swoon to death" if he can't live forever that way, it sounds like he understands that his wish is impossible. We think that what the end of Keats's poem really does is emphasize the intensity of the speaker's desire for him and his girlfriend to live forever, but at the same time point out that no human being can last for all time.

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