Love, being one of the most debated topics in literature, often serves as a source of inspirations for many of writers and poets, including John Keats. Throughout his life, he wrote countless love poems and letters, addressing his lover – Fanny Brawne. The star, apart from being the symbol of steadfastness and constancy, it is also a metaphor representing Keats himself. Through Keats’ idea of “Mansion of life”, the poem is consisted of two floors where the first floor displays his passionate love for Brawne while the second floor talks about his inner desire for death.
Keats first expresses his ideal, however paradoxical love. There are two essential yet conflicting qualities in this poem – the reality verses the ideal and the immortal verses the mortal. On one hand, he would like to be like a star, steadfast and unchanging. On the other, he dislikes the solitude of the star as it has to watch “the moving waters” and “the new soft-fallen mask/Of snow” from afar like a “sleepless Eremite”. He continues to state that if he “has to live ever”, he would rather “pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast”. The ideas to be eternal and to love simultaneously do not go hand in hand.
To love, one has to be human and therefore not an immortal, steadfast star. In the last line of the poem, Keats acknowledges that he would like to “live ever” in love, but he has to be human in order to experience love, which hints that the love between Keats and Brawne will not last and will eventually fade away as time goes by. The other possible alternative to immortalize their love is “swoon to death”. One of Keats’ letters from 3 May 1818 to Fanny Brawne echoes the idea of “swooning” and it says “…I love you; all I can bring you is a swooning admiration of your Beauty. ”(Poet. org)
This can be interpreted that he wants to die while experiencing intense, ecstatic love or according to the letter, overwhelmed by her beauty. While I was reading Bright Star, I could not help but catch the similarity between Keats and Shakespeare’s idea of love. In the opening of Shakespeare’s sonnet 116, Shakespeare talks about his ideal love and marriage. Keats, being a reader of Shakespeare, is in some way affected or inspired by him. Shakespeare describes love as an “ever-fixed marks” that “is never shaken” even in the wildest storms. Keats transformed Shakespeare’s “ever-fixed” into steadfastness.
Keats then moves on to talk about a more sexual and sensuous love. With more explicit descriptions of “my [his] fair love’s” body parts, those descriptions hint the idea of sex and orgasm. He imagines himself “pilliow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast”. The word “ripening” gives a notion of youth, implicating that the lady is young and energetic. Keats also describes the rising and falling of her chest when she takes her “tender-taken breath”. If he could, he would “so live ever”. However, it is impossible to live forever and the only solution would be “swoon to death”.
Keats did not explicitly tell the readers what it means to be “swoon to death” and leave us a lot of room for imaginations. The word “swoon” and other erotic images of the lady’s body parts bring us to the subtext of the poem – sex. La petite mort is a French idiom or euphemism for orgasm, meaning little death. According to Oxford Dictionaries, “swoon” means “to enter a state of ecstasy or rapture”. Whether he intended to talk about sex at the end of the poem is still indefinable as we have no idea of what Keats was thinking when he wrote the poem.
Though Keats did not write any overly sexual poetry, there is always a strong erotic indication in many of his works. If the sexual subtext is intended in the poem, I believe that it creates a nice denouement to the poem. Keats’ obsession with death and his love for Fanny are intertwined seamlessly throughout the poem. In one of his letters, he states “I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death” (Poet. org). Not only is Keats intimidated by death, to some extent he is also intrigued by it. Even though he is worried about the approaching death, to him the promise of death is comforting and soothing.
The only resolution to achieve the paradoxical ideal of being eternal as well as experiencing love is death. Through death, immutability and steadfastness can be achieved. Keats has seen many people died in his lifetime. His father died when he was eight; his mother died from tuberculosis when he was 14; his brother Tom died also from tuberculosis when he was 19. Along with his family’s deaths, he has also seen a lot of patients died as he was also a medical student. Therefore, constantly seeing people die in a way reminds him of the transience and the mutability of life.
There are some religious references in the second quatrain of the poem. All these references, other than conveying the loneliness and the solitude of the star, also illustrate his longing for the promising death. The poem was written in 1819, the same year when Keats contracted with tuberculosis. The word “ablution” is heavily loaded with connotations, both religion and about death. From the Oxford Dictionary, “ablution” refers to the washing or cleansing of the body”. In Christianity, there are different forms of ablution and one of them is the preparation before the burial of a dead person.
Here Keats is hinting that his death is near and the priest will cleans his body after his death with “the moving waters”. Further Keats also mentions the “soft-fallen mask/Of snow” in the following two lines. Seasons always act as symbols of different stages of human life in literature. Spring refers to birth or new beginning; summer means maturity; autumn represents old age while winter symbolizes death. In line 7-8, with “the mountains and moors” covered in snow, such explicit image suggests that death is approaching.
Though death is coming, Keats is not browbeaten. Yet, he is fascinated with death as it helps him to accomplish the co-existence of eternity and love. Bright Star is a poem that can be read on many different levels. To me, the poem is not merely a declaration of his ardent love for Fanny Brawne. It is also an expressive lyric poem addressing his awe as well as obsession with death. The main themes of the poem are smoothly woven together and this showcases Keats’ expressiveness and his wit.
Keats, John. Bright Star. n. d. http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/21012