Text of the Poem

Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art— 
     Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night, 
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, 
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask 
     Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable, 
     Pillowed upon my fair love's ripening breast,                       
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell, 
     Awake for ever in a sweet unrest, 
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, 
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

Footnotes

  1. This final line underscores the paradox embedded in the overall poem. The speaker longs to be like the star, steadfast and unchanging, so that he can remain in this moment forever. However, the very nature of a moment is to be changeable. Thus, the speaker’s desire to “live ever” will always carry the haunting threat of his coming death.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. 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 18th century that emphasized emotion, individualism, and man’s relationship to nature.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. The repetition of “still” here takes on two meanings of the word. As an adjective, “still” can mean not moving or making a sound. As an adverb, it can also refer to time spent doing an activity, even now. In the repetition, the speaker says that he lies still in order to continue to hear her breath. In a sense, his only way to combat the progression of time is to make his body as motionless as possible. Notice the subtle irony that underlies this statement: the speaker must become motionless to make the moment last longer; he must mimic death in order to gain the feeling of everlasting life.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. The phrase “sweet unrest” is an oxymoron, or a figure of speech in which contradictory terms are placed in conjunction for emphasis. Sweet means pleasing to the senses; unrest, disharmony or strife. This oxymoron underscores the speaker’s internal struggle: the moment is sweet but his knowledge that it will eventually end causes him unrest. The moment is perfect and it makes it bittersweet.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. The speaker describes the woman’s breaths as a process of “fall and swell.” In this description, he once again shows the fluctuation between two things rather than the continuous existence of one thing. Notice that within this line the speaker juxtaposes the paradoxically opposing forces that command the moment: his desire to “feel for ever” and the rhythmic breath of his lover that signifies the progression of time.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. The verb “to ripen” signifies a fruit maturing to its full potential or sweetness. Ripeness represents the moment a fruit has the most robust flavor as well as the moment before the fruit rots and becomes completely inedible. Ripening suggests change over time, the process of developing. Notice how this characteristic of his lover’s breast contrasts the everlasting, fixed nature that he longs for. This word choice reveals the underlying paradox of his desire: he both recognizes that time will inevitably move on and desires for the moment to never change.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. The verb “pillowed” means to provide with a pillow, or to be cushioned with a pillow. The speaker uses this word to communicate to the reader that he is lying on his lover’s chest while she sleeps.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. This line opens with the word “no,” which reinforces the speaker’s claims about how he does not want to be like the star. The word “yet” here marks the beginning of a new idea. The speaker repeats his desire to remain “steadfast” and then goes on to explain what he means by this and why he desires it.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  10. According to the Bible, God sent a flood to cleanse the earth of all its sinful people. The Great Flood is featured in the story of Noah’s Arc. Keats’s speaker draws on this story when he says that the water cleanses the shores of the earth.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  12. The noun “ablution” means the act of washing oneself. It can refer to the ceremonial act of washing parts of the body, such as a the Christian tradition of baptism, which symbolizes rebirth and commitment to god. Read together with the adjective “priestlike” in the preceding line, the waters become aligned with religious purposes.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  13. The noun “Eremite” is a Christian term for a hermit or recluse. Eremites live away from humanity because they believe a secluded prayer-focused life will bring about clarity that frees them from the sins of humanity. Here, the speaker compares the star’s “sleepless,” ever-open eyes to those of an Eremite. This metaphor further emphasizes the isolation and estrangement from humanity of the star.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  14. The speaker personifies the bright star by imagining it with “eternal lids apart.” Personification is generally used to show a speaker identifying with inanimate objects in order to create a feeling of closeness or personal understanding. The speaker imagines its condition through his own restless perspective: the star is not simply alone and fixed in the sky, but forever awake and watching the earth.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  15. The first distinction the speaker draws between himself and the star is its loneliness. While the speaker wants to be “steadfast,” he does not want to be “lone,” an adjective signifying that one has no fellows or companions.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  16. Notice that the em-dash preceding this line is followed immediately by the word “not.” One function of the em-dash is to signal an abrupt turn in thought. Here, even though the speaker has just expressed his longing to be like the “bright star,” this turn signals to the reader that he will first tell us all of the ways in which he does not want to be like a star before elaborating on what he means by “would I were.”

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  17. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  18. Critics speculate that by “bright star,” the speaker is talking about Polaris, or the North Star. This star is famous for appearing to hold still in the sky while all the other stars and constellations move around it. It has been commonly used as a navigation tool for ships and travelers because of its brightness and unmoving nature.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  19. The adjective “steadfast” means unchanging, firmly fixed and immovable. With this opening line, the speaker tells his audience, the bright star, that he longs to be as unchanging as it is.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor