The sonnet, Bright Star written by John Keats, was heavily discussed during one of our class sessions. Much of the classroom was in agreeance that the speaker was listing ways he did not want to be steadfast. However, I had a very different view on the sonnet. My difference in view happened because I noticed something different in the form of the sonnet, and the beginning of a line that gets overlooked, which no one had mentioned during the class discussion.
The sonnet is written with an octave, a sestet, and a volta to separate them like a classic Italian sonnet, yet has an English form rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG. There is quite possibly a second volta as well, and I strongly believe it qualifies as one. It is in the last line and indicated by a dash when it says, “And so live ever—or else swoon to death.” It is a clear transition from listing the things he wants to feel forever to wishing death if he is unable to have it. The first volta was after line eight when the tone shifts from the undesirable things of being a steadfast star to the things he desires most; forever with his love.
That was not the only difference in view I had with the class. I also read with more emphasis on the phrase, “And watching…,” from line three. I read it as he did not want to be forever watching the things nature does. Which is what he spends the entire octave describing. An example is, “The moving waters at their priestlike task,” from line five, or “Of snow upon the mountains and the moors,” from line eight. Both those lines are used to give a visual of the environmental things the star watches, purposefully not including any human connections. However, it felt like the class missed the watching part and only thought he was listing off things he did not want to be steadfast like.
I believe the class overlooked “watching” because the speaker then describes in long detail how the star watches. In fact, it is described how in both lines three and four. “And watching, with eternal lids apart,” from line three and “Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,” from line four. By the overshadowing that those details cause, the reader seems to forget that it is describing how something is watching all together. It all gets mistakenly chunked together as things he does not want to be. There was far too much emphasis on “the how” of the star watching, and not nearly enough on what the star watches.
The reason I so passionately think it was meant to be interpreted as watching those things instead of being them is because after the volta he states he wants to be steadfast and feel his love forever. He makes this clear in lines nine, “No — yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,” and line eleven, “To feel forever its soft fall and swell.” He makes a clear distinction between just watching and actually feeling that wouldn’t have even been able to be seen unless the focus was better placed on the watching phrase of the sonnet.
To actually feel and be connected is obviously hugely important to the speaker. Almost immediately that claim is supported by what is said in the very second line when he says, “Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night,”. He flat out states he does not want to be alone. He then makes an interesting statement in line six when it is listing the things he does not want to see as a star, “Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,”. What stands out to me so heavily is that by saying earth’s human shores he is disassociating the star from being human in any way with just that one line. Which is the connection he seems to want so desperately.
Another noticeable difference between the octave and the sestet is the isolated tone that the octave is written in opposed to the deeply connected tone that the sestet is written in. The octave speaks of the star being alone at night in the sky, the moving waters on earth’s shores, and even the new and cold fallen snow. All of those intentional details leave the reader with a chilling sense of isolation. However, by speaking of being pillowed on his loves breast, her tender breath, and to feel forever her soft fall and swell of breathing the reader is now left with a much warmer and connected feeling.
All of these things that Keats does with the tones, all of the words that are selected, etc. it is all intentional. He purposefully gets those reactions from the reader. Every one of the sentences that Keats wrote is meant to be in its specific place to get the specific effect across. A good example of this is when he says in line ten, “Pillowed upon my fair love’s ripening breast,”. By using “pillowed” he makes us think of him softly with his head just gently laid on her chest. Had he instead said his head was propped up on her breast we wouldn’t have the same reaction and would have felt a much less sense of connection and care for his love.
Knowing some background on an author can also change your view on their written work. Keats was dying of tuberculosis when this specific sonnet had received its final revisions. He was on his way to live out the rest of his days in Italy. Having to leave behind the love of his life, Fanny Brawne. After knowing it could be from a sad, lonely, and sickly man’s point of view, it seems rather transparent why he is seeking some sort of immortal life to be spent appreciating the feel of his lady.
Keats is able to describe an intimate moment that fortunate people get to experience. Laying with someone you love, watching them breathe gently in their sleep. Time stands still and your heart beats only for them in that brief but significant moment. Without understanding the speakers deep need to feel and not just watch, we would not have been able to be reminded of that soul warming feeling. Suddenly, we understand why the speaker wants so badly to be steadfast in this specific and almost magical moment.
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