Romantic readings: 'Bright Star' by John Keats

By Pamela Davenport
I was first introduced to The Romantic Poets at primary school, where we learned to recite Wordworth’s Daffodils – oh how I tried hard to imagine those golden daffodils “fluttering and dancing in the breeze”. I never thought that I would appreciate poetry of the 18th and 19th century, but still those meaningless daffodils haunted me. By the time I was faced with O levels and A Levels I meet and was taught by Mr Hamer, a truly inspirational teacher who brought the words and symbolism of the Romantics and other great writers to life, my journey had begun.
For me Romanticism represents a complex artistic, literary and intellectual movement. It is the predominance of the poet’s imagination over reason and formal rules and its symbolism and creativity that grabbed by my attention and drew me into their world.
The art of each key member of the Romantic movement became an expression of their personality. With encouragement I returned to Wordsworth who epitomised English Romanticism and with inspirational teaching, “my heart with pleasure fills And dances with the daffodils”. I was guided to read Coleridge with his mesmerizing long poem The Rime of theAncient Mariner, which was brought to life for me in the classroom but also with many visits to Watchet Harbour in Somerset and his cottage at Nether Stowey.
The ‘boy band’ was enhanced by the controversial Shelley, who appeared to exemplify the concept of Romanticism but often appeared sceptical with his radical and political ideas and controversial lifestyle. Although on the fringes of the Romantic movement, with a clear dislike for Wordsworth and Coleridge, the flamboyant and notorious, defiant and often melancholic Lord Byron, “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, was a natural satirist in an age without humour. He was passionate in his insistence on his revolutionary thinking sincerity and spontaneity. Their fabulous poetry captivated my attention, mind, heart and soul, better than any ‘chick lit’ book.
But it was the vulnerability and fragility of John Keats, with his dazzling intuitive and emotional work representing beauty and truth who has always fascinated me. To me, John Keats was the bright young star of the Romantic movement. Through his poems, sonnets and letters I see him as the lover who loses his life almost as soon as he finds it. Like the other Romantics, Keats can be viewed as an outsider and in this way his dreams and imaginations come alive. When I was first introduced to and read The Eve of St. Agnes I felt that all my sense were being appealed to at one time or another throughout the poem. The deliberate emphasis on the bitterly cold weather is clearly conveyed. The owl, the hare, and the sheep are affected by the cold, “The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold…”
When he describes the stained glass window in Madeleine’s room, with its “diamonds with panes of quaint device, Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes”, I can see the wonderful colours within the window lit by candlelight. This evocative use of words clearly appealed to my imagination, and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck.
The way in which Keats uses words, symbolism and imaginary can be found in his writing, including his personal letters to his friends and his fiancée. In a letter to Fanny Brawne in May 1818, Keats wrote, “I love you, all I can bring you is a swooning admiration of your Beauty…You absorb me in spite of myself-you alone….I will image you Venus tonight and pray, pray to your star like a Hethen”. This letter was the beginning of my love affair with Keats which continues to this day. To me the letter is clearly connected to the sonnet Bright Star, Keats appears to be making reference to Fanny as a star and there is connection to death, love and swooning. Hence a complexity of emotions are being explored. Although critics like to debate whether this was his last poem, in my imagination it is. I think of him in his room in Rome near the Piazza di Spagna reflecting on life and his love for Fanny. So for me the inspiration to write Bright Star appears to be linked to his great love for Fanny Brawne and his intense desire to live his love for eternity. Tragically, tuberculosis was to prevent this happening.
In his sonnet Bright Star, Keats explores the same desire to be timeless he expressed in a letter: “I almost wish we were butterflies, and lived but three summer days. Three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain”. Perhaps he feels this to be a way to transcend the limitations of human life, the changes and eventual decay that results in death. The sonnet is gripping from start to finish, “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art….Not in the lone splendour hung aloft the night And watching, with eternal lids apart, Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite” This suggests to me that Fanny is the central focus of the poem, eternal and unchanging, but gradually moving beyond the speaker’s immediate grasp. The star is immortal and watching over the speaker “with her eternal lids”, unlike Keats, who is sick and knows he is going to die soon. Reading these lines my heart missed a beat, the words are intensely profound and full of wisdom. Keats conveys his feelings of the way to transcend the limitations of human life, but also making humans pure and spiritual: “The moving waters at their priest like task. Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores. Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask Of snow upon the mountains and moors”.
The Romantic movement began in an era of extraordinary upheaval and revolution with huge changes in culture, politics and society in general. Whilst other Romantic poets attacked the status quo through their radical thoughts and critical writings in exile, John Keats was the great exception, the true outsider true to himself and his own creativity. From his sickbed, he listens to the song of the nightingale, celebrating the alternative power of the imagination. His life was one of sensations and also of thoughts, which was formed by circumstances as well as wonderfully creative: “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 to hear her tender-taken breath, And so live ever-or else swoon to death.”
The immortality which Keats sought was to be denied him. On the 23rd February 1822 he died, his face composed as if he were asleep.
So thank you to Mr Hamer, an inspirational English teacher who started me on an incredible journey with the Romantic poets, and offered me a glimpse into their world.
Pamela Davenport is an experienced Higher and Further Education teacher, who has substantial experience working with children and young people in social care, community and educational settings including thPamela De British Council’s Erasmus/Socrates Teacher Mobility Project. Writer on social Care Values in Practice, The Invisible Child, The Rights of Children and co-author for Teacher’s Handbook for HUGS Charity. She is a passionate lover of art and literature, in particular Shakespeare, the Romantics, and the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.