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Historical Context in Bright Star! Would I Were Steadfast as Thou Art

British Romanticism: John Keats was one of the central English figures in the literary and artistic movement known as romanticism. Romanticism arose in England at the turn of the 19th century with the emergence of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798, just a few years after Keats’s birth. While Keats was acquainted with romantic poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, he was not recognized as a major poet until decades after his death. Along with his fellow romantic poets, Keats explored the relationships between humankind and nature, idealized beauty and sublimity, and looked to the classical past for wisdom.

John Keats’s Tuberculosis and Trip to Rome: In the autumn of 1820, John Keats set out for Rome at the advice of his doctors and friends. His tuberculosis had progressed to a dangerous state, and the hope was that Italy’s warm climate might ease his symptoms. One consequence of his voyage to Rome was that he had to leave behind his beloved Fanny Brawne. During the voyage, Keats was reading a volume of Shakespeare’s poetry when the idea for “Bright Star!” struck him. Inspired by his voyage, his love for Fanny, and his vulnerable state, he scrawled the poem in the margins next to Shakespeare’s verses.

Historical Context Examples in Bright Star! Would I Were Steadfast as Thou Art:

Bright Star!

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"swoon..."   (Bright Star!)

The verb “to swoon” means to faint or to sink into a state of rest. The emotionally charged and dramatic connotations that accompany the word “swoon” highlight Keats’s involvement in Romanticism, a literary movement from the 19th century that emphasized emotion, individualism, and man’s relationship to nature.

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"yet..."   (Bright Star!)

In a Shakespearean sonnet, line nine signifies the volta, or thematic turn, within the poem. The first two quatrains set up an argument that is then complicated by the final quatrain and couplet. In this poem, line nine marks a volta. However, unlike a traditional sonnet, the first eight lines do not build an argument to complicate. Instead, the speaker begins by stating the theme of the point, digresses to clarify the claim of the first line, then returns to his original point at the volta.

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"waters at their priestlike task..."   (Bright Star!)

Among other themes, Romantic writers explored humankind’s relationship with nature. Romantics distrusted the human world and chose instead to understand themselves and their emotions through a connection with nature. They used sublime aesthetics and emotional language of praise for the perfection of nature. In this way, the Romantics often conflated natural images with religious imagery; nature became a way to understand the self and God. The conflation of nature and religion in this poem reflects Keats's Romantic literary style.

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"night,..."   (Bright Star!)

Keats composes this poem in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet, a fourteen line poem in iambic pentameter with three ABAB quatrains and one rhyming couplet. While the sonnet was originally used to express unrequited love, Keats’s poem focuses on a different kind of longing. The speaker wishes to become everlasting and unchangeable like a star.

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