Bright Star! - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

The star personifies a quiet and universal fixedness, the limitations of which are implied even as the star itself is praised. Shakespeare had used the same image in Julius Caesar when Caesar likens himself to the pole star:
But I am constant as the northern star, 
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality 
There is no fellow in the firmament. 
The skies are painted with unnumber'd sparks; 
They are all fire and every one doth shine; 
But there's but one in all doth hold his place.      
And Shakespeare also celebrates love using similar imagery in Sonnet 116:
Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no; it is an ever-fixéd 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.    
Despite these positive associations, although the star may be unchangingly lovely it has a ‘lone splendour’. Likening it to an ‘Eremite’ emphasises the sense of the star’s removal from the tangible world of humanity. Although attentive, its beneficent oversight of the world is ultimately passive. By contrast, Keats wants to be fully in contact with the beloved over whom he watches - ‘Pillow’d’ conveys the sense of sinking down within the ‘fall and swell’ of his girlfriend’s bosoms. However, both the star and Keats share an inability to sleep – the star because of her role as the world’s overseer; Keats because he is in a state of erotic ‘sweet unrest’.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in Bright Star! 

  • What is the effect of the ascetic religious imagery?
  • What connections can you see between Keats’ use of imagery and Shakespeare’s (quoted above)? 
    • How do these connections illuminate your reading of Keats’ sonnet?

Themes in Bright Star! 

In this sonnet Keats reflects on the discontinuity between man and nature, as well as a longing for identification. The poet aspires to the fixed and ethereal beauty of the star, yet is aware of its limitations: though bright, steadfast and splendid, it is at the same time solitary and non-human. 
As so often in Keats’ poems, there is a tension between what is ‘still steadfast, still unchangeable’ and the restlessness of romantic passion. The permanent and the eternal may constitute an ideal but Keats is also aware that to attain such a state is impossible. The human heart can never be tranquil like the star, for human emotions know the conflict of joy and pain. Ultimately desire and death are inseparable. 
Humans may desire the steadfastness of the stars only in a paradoxical ’sweet unrest’, an ecstasy of passion both intense and annihilating, a kind of ‘swoon to death’, fulfilling but inhumanly ‘unchangeable’.
Investigating themes in Bright Star! 
  • ‘Keats reflects on the discontinuity between man and nature…as well as a longing for identification.’ Do you agree that these are central themes in the sonnet? 
    • How does Keats present these ideas?
  • To what extent is this poem about human mortality?
  • How do the themes of this poem compare with those of other Keats’ poems you have read – for instance the Ode to a Nightingale?
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