Max Bartges 11/6/07 LHUM-318 Dr. Michael Heyman Paper #1: Bright Star! Analysis In examining Keats’ “Bright star!
would I were steadfast as thou art!” one can find much in the way of metrical and sonic devices combined subtly to achieve an overall temper beyond the raw words alone that acts both as support and guide in the understanding of the poem; the form is very straightforward, and this lends itself well to smaller deviations. The ambition of this poem is a simple beauty, often going unnoticed in a conventional framework. There are no jarring line breaks nor is there any profane language, so the interest becomes the gem stuck here and there amongst the ordinary rocks. The meter in the first half of the piece begins with an exclamation. It is not strident, but rather has the effect of invoking the image of an incantation or prayer, and the break at the end of the first line outlines the premise of the entirety. The slowness of “hung aloft the night” is reminiscent of clouds drifting in texture, and really draws out the softness and gentleness of the image perhaps not possible if otherwise phrased. When preceded by “lone” the tender night sky has being infused with loneliness, leading to a quiet melancholy precisely fitting the description. And then, the quickness of “And watching” tows the reader forward into “eternal”; for an instance we the meter brings the possibility of hope, but with “patient, sleepless” following and then a pause the reader has time to reflect on the entirety of the illustration. These first four lines, then, comprise a
single thought doled out little by little: the building of tension and then release through rhythm is a very powerful backdrop over which to impose the inimitable loveliness of pure language. Looking once more at the first line, we see “would I were”, which is very open sounding followed by “steadfast as” which is staccato, followed by the open “thou” and the abbreviating “art” and a pause. Resulting from this is a pulsation, the “steadfast” ‘heartbeat’ of the star, and furthermore “steadfast” is doubly accented to create a sonic and rhythmic icon of the word’s ‘meaning’ in context. Most of the second line is open in tone, complementing the airy feel of the meter, until “night And watching” which builds tension in its quickness and playing across the bar-line of the form. Glancing at the second half on the piece, one finds, metrically, a plethora of pauses, which emphasize and isolate the two key words of the line: “steadfast” again, and “unchangeable’. Thus, in a very simple and delicate fashion, Keats has refreshed his imagery and separated the grain from the chaff of his archetype. Further, all through the second line: “Pillowed upon my fair love’s ripening breast”, the reader finds a swell, or acceleration that directly corresponds to the image at hand, creating a purpose for the language, and without which would render the it useless. Skipping to the last line, very cleverly Keats has placed after a pause “or else swoon to death”. The double ‘o’ requires space, and consequently isolates “death”, as the only image after it. This landing on “death” is not heavy, however, and therein lies the effectiveness. Juxtaposing the meter in an elegant approach, the sound contains
numerous little allusions to Keats’ compositional prowess: even in the first line the open “No” robs time for the following important accents. In the third line: “To feel for ever its soft fall and swell”, the reader unconsciously recognizes the undulation of the meaning, the rhythm and the sound all at once…a masterful achievement indeed! “Soft fall” requires space, and as it drags prepares the upward swing of “swell.” Also, in the last line, “swoon” as a long open sound creates momentum for the quiet “death”, a very light and subtle accent making a tremendous difference in tone and interpretation. Perhaps most fortunate for the reader is the ability to compare the original version of this poem with the final one I have been discussing above. It is always illuminating to uncover what has been revised…for what reason, and has the original ambition of the artist’s composition remained “steadfast”. The most obvious alteration the reader will notice is the layout. In the original the form was very tight and compact, line under line neatly squared away. In the final version the layout reflects a flowing and wandering that is not disparate with the intentions of the poetic icon. There also appears a break between the two theme variations, (between lines eight and nine), which better serves to create tension for the ninth line not released until the end of the line. Continuing, and small but significant change occurs in the second line: the substitution of “aloft” for “amid”. This may not seem consequential, but the open sound pursues the floating, hazy quality, whereas the brevity of “amid” kills the effect. The result is a line at least twenty times more powerful and ‘truer’ to the macrocosm of the poem.
There is, naturally, much more one could dissect in the analysis of this masterwork, but the fundamental tenets of poetic, (or generally artistic) composition remain ever constant. Wonderful words lie languid and limp without the interplay of the introspective and sometimes intuitive forces of meter and sound. In the words of the esteemed C.S. Lewis, “A stone may determine the course of a river”i, and so too may the veiled and inconspicuous subtleties transform beautiful language into a beautiful poem.