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Updated: Jul 17, 2020


John Keats was born on 31st October 1795 in Finsbury, London. He was one of the main figures of the second generation romantic poets. He published fifty-four poems, in three slim volumes and a few magazines. Keats was not at all a precocious poet. Indeed his early artistic development was rather slow than rapid. Later he became not only one of the principle voices of English and European romanticism but also a poet whose stature has grown through all the vicissitudes of taste and outlook that have marked the past century and a half.

At the age of eighteen he began to write and fell into meretricious style, the style of swarm. It took several years to work free of that conventional idiom, a flaccid, sentimental, erratic mixture of ‘poetical’ language both rhetorical and familiar. But over his short development he took on challenges of a wide range of poetic forms from the sonnet, to the Spenserian romance, to the Miltonic epic, defining their possibilities with his own distinctive fusion of earnest energy, control of conflicting perspectives and forces, poetic self-consciousness, and occasionally, dry ironic wit. On the literature plane, there is the fascinating phenomenon of Keats’s artistic growth. He wrote sonnets, odes and epic. In 1817, the first volume of Keats poems was published. And in 1818 came out his great narrative poem Endymion. All his greatest poetry was written in a single year, 1819: Lamia, The Eve of St. Agnes, The great odes like On Indolence, On a Grecian Urn, To Psyche, To a Nightingale, On Melancholy and To Autumn, and the two unfinished versions of an epic on Hyperion.

John Keats died four months after his twenty-fifth birthday on February 23, 1821 in Rome. Because of the active illness, his last years counted only in terms of mental and physical suffering. His body was buried in the city’s Protestant Cemetery. His last request was to be placed under a tombstone bearing no name or date, only the words, ‘Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water’. No other major English poet would be a major poet like him if he had cut off so soon.


Keats’s relationship to Fanny Brawne has fascinated the generations of lovers through his poetry. Unfortunately, some key aspects of that relationship are, and will likely remain, obscure. It seems that on 25 December 1818 they declared their love; they were engaged (though without much public announcement) in October 1819. But Keats felt he could not marry until he had established himself as a poet (for financial stability). He soon realizes that he got the tuberculosis. In September 1820 he left to a warmer place for the cure, they were agreed to be married on his return unfortunately Keats passed away in Rome. Fanny came out of mourning in 1827 (6 years after his death), later married and lived most of her life abroad; her written remarks about Keats reveal little about her feelings. From Keats’s letters we get a picture of her as a lively, warm-hearted young woman, fashionable and social. She respected Keats’s vocation but did not pretend to be literary.

Readers of Keats’s love letters are moved or shocked by their frank passion. But it would be wrong to judge Keats (or Fanny) by the letters of 1820, written by him at times desperate and confused, feverish and seriously ill. Almost certainly, as would have been conventional in their day for a couple so uncertain of their future, their relationship was not sexual. But it was passionate and mutual, certainly becoming the central experience of intense feeling in both their lives. It was to Fanny he addressed one of his most direct, passionate love poems, “Bright Star”. When they were in Dilke’s Wentworth Place, Keats and Brawne were able to see each other every day. Keats began to lend Brawne books, such as Dante’s Inferno, which they would read together. He gave her the love sonnet Bright Star as declaration. It was a work in progress which he continued until the last months of his life, and the poem came to be associated with their relationship.


“Bright Star” is a love sonnet which has 14 lines broken into an octave and a sestet written in 1819 by John Keats. Bright Star focuses intensely on affair of the heart. Keats met Fanny Brawne in December 1818 but he had troubles for fully committing to their relationship. He wrote several letters to Fanny during his stay on the Isle of Wight and one in particular seems to give the insight into “Bright Star! Would I Were Steadfast as Thou Art”. In the letter, he writes, “I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute.” When he wrote Bright Star, Keats knew that he was dying from consumption or tuberculosis. It was officially published in 1838 in The Plymouth and Devonport Weekly Journal, 17 years after Keats death.


Bright star, would I were stedfast 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.


The poet addressing a bright star in the night sky wishes to remain unchanging and constant like that star (The star Polaris, often called the North Star were used by sailors as the fixed points to help their navigation because of its stability and constancy). The Poet’s desire is to try to be like the star above him. The star is lonely with its great beauty and is isolated from everything. It hangs in the sky by watching all the happenings on earth from far away. The Poet wants to be constant and steady like the star, but not to be isolated like it. He compares the star to a patient sleepless hermit (Hermits are the ones who lives alone in wilderness). The star from above watches waters in the shore like a hermit watching the earth’s ocean washing the sea shores. It also looks at the new soft snow fallen on the mountains and in the barren landscape. The act of the moving water is compared with a priest’s ceremonial act of washing people in order to purify them.

He doesn’t want to be lonely like the bright star but still wants its quality of being constant and fixed while lying on his beautiful lady love’s “ripening breast”. He wants to feel her chest rising and falling without unrest by hearing her tender breathe in and out. He wants to spend eternity locked in passionate embrace with his lady love or it is better to pass out by death.

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever—or else swoon to death.


John Keats by Douglas Bush


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