Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Keats's bright star

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art--
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors--
No--yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever--or else swoon to death.

I'm not sure I'd previously clocked how puzzling this poem is: it is saying 'I want to be like that bright star' and then immediately qualifying with 'not in the sense of being in the sky and watching the world below' but in the rather specific sense of being upon his fair love's ripening breast. In what sense is any star like that? Obviously the main focus here is on the 'steadfast' nature of the star: but isn't it a lovely touch that the poet cannot even be steadfast about the consistent spelling of the word steadfast? ('steadfast' in line 1, 'stedfast' in line 9). To start out by saying: 'I wish I were like that enormously distant cold star up there, which is to say I wish I were warm and close to my lover's bosom' just looks contradictory.

I'm drawn to the rather banal interpretation that, whatever the implication of the opening lines, Keats has in mind a star-shaped necklace round Fanny B.'s neck and resting on her decolletage; or else (to become more fanciful still) that the poem is actually addressed to Fanny B.'s star-shaped nipple. That breast is properly galactic, of course; the Latin for nipple (papilla) is related to the word for butterfly (papilio), that lover's insect, softly fluttering like the woman's breast. Or then again, 'Stella' is the conventional pseudonym by which the masculine poet addresses his female lover. The poem then becomes: I wish I were like that star ... no not that star, the one in the hermitage of the sky ... but that star, that papilla that cleaves so closely to the object of my affections ...'

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