Essay: John Keats

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SAMPLE EXCERPT:

[. . .] The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks.

They are all fire and every one doth shine,

But there's but one in all doth hold his place.

So in the world. (III.1.65-71, 1157)

Keats seems to have mingled this use by Shakespeare with the more traditional evocation of constancy in love from Shakespeare's sonnet 116, which declares

Love is not love?

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O! It is an ever-fixed mark ?

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken. (Sonnet 116, 1855)

I would suggest that Keats' "Bright Star" is best read as a mingling of these two modes of star image from Shakespeare -- the commanding and hierarchical image ("there is but one in all doth hold his place") of the Northern star, which indicates superiority, and the image of love as the "ever-fixed mark" and "star to every wandering bark," which softens the image to one of love's constancy. Keats' sonnet weighs both Shakespearean alternatives and spends all of the first two quatrains declaring he will "not" aspire to the commanding and hierarchical interpretation -- this is repeated with the "No" that begins the third quatrain. Keats' "stardom" wants to be domesticated, intimate and femininely inclined: "pillowed upon my fair love's ripening breast." The use of "ripening" is typical of Keats -- it traps the desires of the moment in mid-process, like the lovers frozen mid-ecstasy in Keats' "Ode to a Grecian Urn."

It is worth noting, though, that the image of the star in "Bright Star" is predominantly a love poem even if it also seems to represent the way Keats' imagination negotiates the idea of illustrious writers of the past (like Shakespeare) whose company he hopes to join. Yet we can see in his sonnet "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" that this kind of stargazing imagery is something that seems close to Keats' imagination when the subject being discussed is great literature. The sonnet "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" to a certain degree reflects Keats' origins in the working class; Keats' Eton-educated contemporary Shelley was fluent in classical Greek, and regularly translated Greek poetry. Keats had to read Homer in translation, and the discovery of a translation by Chapman. The sonnet begins with a kind of Homeric imagery, depicting Keats as an ocean voyager like Odysseus, exploring strange realms:

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been?

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told?

That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene?

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies?

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes?

He star'd at the Pacific -- and all his men?

Look'd at each other with a wild surmise -- ?

Silent, upon a peak in Darien. (Poems 43).

But the imagery begins to shift immediately after suggesting a failure to explore the "wide expanse" and "pure serene" of Homer, which already depicts the environment Homeric poems as being more like sky than earth, or is perhaps just an evocation of the breadth of epic as a genre. But the exploration imagery of searching westward evokes Homer's Odysseus at the same time as it prepares us for the final image in the poem, in which Keats presents Cortez (incorrectly, it was really Balboa) being the first explorer to glimpse the Pacific Ocean. It is in between these two shifts that Keats employs the stargazing metaphor: "some watcher of the skies / when a new planet swims into his ken." Of course, there had been a new planet discovered (Uranus) only about forty years before Keats wrote the poem -- there is also a similar description in Paradise [END OF PREVIEW]

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