In literature, a sonnet has always been considered to be the most romantic poetic form. The majority of outstanding poets, William Shakespeare among them, have resorted to the sonnets to express their romantic feelings and inspiration. John Keats is not an exception to the rule. His marvelous and well-known sonnet “Bright Star” is a bright example of his literary talent and the commitment of deep and controversial feelings towards a beloved person to paper. The basis of the poem is love affair between John Keats and his beloved woman, Fanny. Still, the sonnet is full of controversial feelings symbolizing the uneasy inner state of the poet’s soul. The main theme of “Bright Star” is the theme of love, which is a many-sided feeling that can arouse a whirl of emotions in a person’s soul. The poet combines the theme of love with one more urgent theme for people of art: the theme of eternity and everlasting of art. These themes become entangle in the sonnet.
The first four lines of the sonnet introduce one of the main images of the whole work: the image of a star. This image is highly symbolic; it stands for the height, the greatness and the theme of eternity are disclosed through it. Stars live for billions of years, for human beings they may be considered immortal, this is why the poet appeals to the star with a solemn entreaty to become like a star. In these four first lines the image of star is dominating and the image of the author is oppressed, as it is mentioned only once in the first line: “Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art” (Keats 213). The epithet “steadfast” suggests the stability and invariability that are so desirable and so unattainable for the author as a human being. This is a quality that can be possessed only by a star; this is why the poet admires it. The star is majestic and its power is unquestioned, it is described with the help of the epithet “bright”, which strengthens its unique nature, because it is shining in complete darkness. At the same time, the poet says that he does not want to be alone in the sky, it is clear that eternity is doomed to loneliness, as everything is mortal on the earth, and the star’s destiny is to be a quiet observer of the changes that take place in the world of human beings. The static image of eternity is built with help of the author’s resorting to epithets “lone splendor”, “eternal lids” (Keats 213) and an allusion to the myth about Eremite, an immortal hermit who is sentenced to sleepless life by the gods. Thus, in these four lines the immortal star symbolizes the art, or the artist himself, this is why the poet as human being is mentioned only once. Keats resorts to the figure of speech called “personification”, as he describes the star in order to create analogy with the poet. Art is eternal, it stands above everything, says the poet.
The next four lines present two more symbolic images that in complex create the atmosphere of purity: “the moving waters” and “mask of snow” (Keats 213). The first helps the poet to wash off human sins, like a priest who grants the remission of sins, which is suggested by the epithet “priestlike task” (Keats 213). The second implies purity due to the white color of snow and it’s being untouched: “soft-fallen”. These lines describe the process of purification that makes human life better. Besides, the calm atmosphere of purity and stability is also created on the sound level, with the help of alliteration, the repetition of sound “m” in “mountains and the moors” (Keats 213).
In the next four lines the theme of love can be observed, and the overall atmosphere of stability vanishes. Here the reader may observe the complex feeling of the poet towards his beloved, she gives no peace to his soul; in comparison with art the woman arouses a storm of feeling in his soul. The only dream and desire of the author are to live with his beloved forever, for their love to be eternal. Still, it is evident to him that it is impossible, as they are only humans. His desire is shown by the author’s resorting to the same epithet he makes use of in the first line: “steadfast” and the repetition “still steadfast, still unchangeable” and one more repetition: “forever”. These repetitions create the atmosphere of great emotional tension and the author’s understanding that his dream will never come true, as human love cannot endure forever, because people are mortal and their feelings die with the people’s death. The realization of the theme is accomplished with the help of the oxymoron “sweet unrest”.
Final lines contribute greatly to the creation of rhythm on the basis of the repetition “still, still” and alliteration “tender-taken breath”, and present the reader the upshot, which is realized by the word combination “swoon to death”, which means that the poet finally finds the best solution for him, he wants to die at that very moment when he gets at complete and perfect love. He wants to imprint this moment on the body of eternity, thus, staying alive forever, at least partially.
In conclusion, it should be mentioned that John Keats has managed to disclose the main themes of his sonnet: love, art and eternity with inimitable beauty of verse and moving honesty of feelings. The sonnet is especially impressive due to symbolic images and masterful usage of bright figures of speech.
Keats, John and Elizabeth Cook. Selected poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.