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Bright Star: John Keats’ dichotomy of life and death

Bright Star by John Keats

Bright Star: John Keats’ dichotomy of life and death

Q. How does Keats present dichotomy of life and death in his sonnet, Bright Star?

Answer: A Romantic self is always in love with life and since “We receive, but what we give.” (Dejection: An Ode by S.T.Coleridge). Such an attitude to life very often negates the negatives associated with death. Keats’ Bright Star presents such an Ideal. 

While making a voyage to Italy in the autumn of 1820, Keats sees the ‘Bright Star’ i.e., the polestar dazzling. According to Palgrave the sight revives his drooping heart. Thus the star brings the poet away from a semi-death situation, and takes him to a situation of love for life. The opening exclamation to the pollster as “Bright star!” is therefore a tribute to the star. Needless to say, the association of ‘Bright’ with the ‘star’ is both literal and metaphorical.

The adjective ‘steadfast’ creates an impression of the polestar as an ideal lover. However, the expression, ‘love splendour hung aloft’ establishes the fact that the ‘star’ is a Platonic lover of the Earth- one whose love operates from a distance. However the word ‘Not’ coming at the forefront of the expression suggests that though the poet hankers after the ‘steadfast’ nature of the polestar; he does not want the aloofness of the polestar from the beloved. The idea, that the polestar has ‘eternal lids’, only reinforces the fact that the polestar is steadfast in his love. Since the ‘bright star’ is a Platonic lover he cannot partake in any sensuous activity; rather he can only watch and gaze at the beloved:

“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 the moors:”

The total action of passive watching is akin to that of a hermit (‘Eremite').

Thus the spiritual association with the love of the polestar cannot be denied. The reference is here to a spiritual life. As mentioned earlier to one like who is in love with life, this life is bound to be akin to death in the sense of unenjoyable.

So in the sestet very precisely, Keats negates the idea of complete association with the polestar: “No- Yet still......”

Now one comes to realise that the images of ‘sleepless Eremit’ and of the ‘priest’ are clearly suggestive of the kind of life the poet wants to avoid at any cost and which the ‘bright star’ epitomizes.

However, the poet who has seen how youth grows pale, spectre thin and dies” and “beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes" (Ode to a Nightingale) very naturally tries to become ‘steadfast’ and unchangeable’ so far as his love for the beloved is concerned.

However, the kind of life he wants to enjoy is a sensuous one and so is full of enjoyment. The phrase, “Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breasts” suggests both passionately charged love as well as the poet’s sensuous enjoyment of her youth and beauof. “Fall and swell” suggests the heartbeat of the lady-love as well as the various phases of their sensuous association.

Since the movement of sensuous enjoyment is temporary and is likely to die down with the passing away of passionate intensity in the love-partners, the lover who is almost crazy to enjoy life to the full will always feel a kind of ‘sweet unrest'. While, the joy of enjoyment will have a sweet sensation the apprehension of its being temporarily will cause ‘unrest’.  

“Tender-taken breath” will add to the enjoyment of the poet-lover. However, the poet can but ignore the fact that he is mortal by nature and so his life is likely to be replaced by death. The enjoyment of this life till death and painless death, thereof, will add bliss to his life and thus will give him a veritable immortality. Thus the existence of death is thrown to the winds by making life full of enjoyment, so to say.

Thus the dichotomy of life and death is skilfully poetized by Keats in his Petrarchan sonnet, Bright Star by his optimistic philosophy of life.


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