Kevin Saving on
'Bright Star! would I were steadfast as thou art'
by John Keats
Bright Star! would I were steadfast as thou art-
Not in lone splendour 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 loves' 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.
Eldest son of the manager of the stables/Inn, The Swan and Hoop, in Moorgate, Keats went on to study at Guy's Hospital before qualifying as an apothecary in 1816. His interest in writing poetry dates from just two years earlier. After having his work premiered in Leigh Hunt's radical weekly, The Examiner, he published his first collection, Poems, in 1817, which was followed by Endymion in April of the succeeding year. These were mercilessly ridiculed in Blackwood's Magazine as 'drivelling idiocy' and as products of the vulgar 'Cockney Rhyming school': young 'Johnny Keats' was advised to return to his pills and plasters!
There are two versions of this celebrated sonnet, once thought to have been Keats' last poem, but now placed with some probability in the period between April and October 1819. Some of the imagery resembles that in his sychronous correspondence, and the 'soft fallen mask/ of snow' may refer to an unseasonably heavy snowstorm that struck London (Keats was living in Hampstead for much of this time) on the 22nd of October. In this same month - a little before Keats' 24th birthday - Fanny Brawne, his secret fiancee, had transcribed 'Bright star' into her copy of Dante. The original, also copied out by the poet's friend and fellow writer, Charles Armitage Brown, was first published in The Plymouth and Devonport Weekly Journal on 27th September 1838. In this first draft, whilst both versions retain the same Shakespearean rhyme-scheme, the Octave (first eight lines) reads similarly to the revision reproduced above -though 'devout' precedes 'sleepless Eremite'. The Sestet (concluding six lines) differs considerably after the volta 'No - yet still steadfast, still unchangeable...'
Cheek pillow'd on my love's white ripening breast,
To touch, for ever, its warm sink and swell,
Awake, for ever, in a sweet unrest,
To hear, to feel her tender-taken breath,
Half passionless, and so swoon on to death.
'Death' to Keats - a keen student of Shakespeare - would have been punningly suggestive with its Elizabethan connotation of sexual climax. Brown's MSS is preserved at Harvard University.
The better-known revision - printed here - was first published in Monckton Milnes' Life, Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats (1848). It was inscribed into Keats' volume of Shakespeare's Poems (in the blank page opposite 'A Lover's Complaint') on the 29th September, 1820. Keats and his companion, the painter Joseph Severn - to whom this volume would later be gifted - were onboard the Maria Crowther en route to Italy, where he was travelling in the faint hope of finding improved health.
The tuberculosis which was affecting Keats had, in all probability, been contracted from his brother, Tom, whom the poet had nursed, back in late 1818. It seems to have taken hold of him in the autumn of the following year, whilst he'd experienced severe haemorrhaging in the February of 1820. His own medical training (coupled with the fact that his mother - as well as his younger brother - had died of the disease) would have left him in little doubt of its eventual outcome.
The 'My fair love' referred to in the text probably represents Fanny Brawne, whom Keats had met two years previously and to whom he'd become engaged in the October of 1819. Illness, financial problems and the failure of his literary ambitions were to thwart their immediate plans of marriage. Though he was in some doubt as to her constancy, Keats had written to her in regard to his proposed Italian venture 'It's certain I shall never recover if I am to be so long separate from you'. The 'Bright Star' of the poem is, presumably, the North Star, Polaris. Keats may have had in mind the lines from Julius Caesar: 'But I am constant as the northern star,/ Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality/ There is no fellow in the firmament...' (III, i, 60-62). An 'Eremite' is a hermit.
During the long, cramped and difficult voyage Keats' condition was to deteriorate still further. He was to die, aged 25, on the 23rd February 1821 in Rome, and be buried in the Protestant cemetry there. Although Shelly wrote the elergy, Adonais, in his memory upon hearing of his fellow poet's death, it was not until the Pre-Raphaelites championed his work, over a quarter of a century later, that Keats was to find a popular readership. This late fame might, perhaps, have agreeably surprised the young apothecary with literary pretentions who'd devised his own epitaph: 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water'.
Garrod, H., Keats, Poetical Works, Oxford University Press (1956).
Keats, J., Letters of John Keats, (ed. Gittings, R.), Oxford (1975).
Motion, A., Keats, Faber (1997).
Roe, N., John Keats and the Culture of Dissent, Cambridge (1997).
Ward, A., John Keats, The Making of a Poet, Secker & Warburg (1963).
Kevin Saving © 2008