On this, the 14th February, I reach the end of my series ‘Love poems you wish you had written’ with one that most who know me would have anticipated from the very beginning.
This poem still offers the John Keats reader much to think about. When was it written? To whom? Does Keats want to be like the star? Or is he rejecting its lonely view of the world, cold and distant and unable to do anything but observe its beauties?
The film ‘Bright Star’ (Jane Campion 2009) brought this sonnet to the attention of a much wider audience, who saw it for what it actually was – a poem for Fanny Brawne, the woman to whom he was, at the end of his life, secretly engaged and who inspired the following exclamation of passionate love:
“I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion—I have shudder’d at it—I shudder no more—I could be martyr’d for my Religion—Love is my religion—I could die for that—I could die for you. My Creed is Love and you its only tenet…”
Some still believe this to be his last poem, written on the boat that took him to Italy in the autumn of 1820. He had just five months to live and his best poetry was behind him then. He found it difficult to write anything and even to think of Fanny caused him great pain. This sonnet was actually written to Fanny much earlier, when he was in better health, and probably revised on that last voyage. In it he is, I believe, admiring that ‘bright star’ so steadfast, so splendid and spiritual; but rejecting the aloof, eternal view it offers in favour of a reality that allows him the physical contact he so desires and the unchangeable love that is subject only to death.
by John Keats (1795 to 1821)
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.
Here is the sonnet read by actor Tom Hiddleston. His voice has for me, after the lovely Ben Wishaw who played Keats in ‘Bright Star’, been one of the best of all those actors who record poetry readings. Some are too theatrical, insufficiently reflective of his London roots and accent. It is still a bit ‘posh’ perhaps (Mr Hiddleston is Eton and Cambridge educated, unlike Keats who always suffered critically for his ‘Cockney’ background) but he sounds as if he means it!!
And of course, as it is the Big Day itself – St Valentine’s Day – I dedicate the following to Peter. His name means ‘a rock’. He certainly is mine. 25 years this year says much and the last two lines of Anne Bradstreet’s poem speaks for me here.
To My Dear and Loving Husband
by Anne Bradstreet (1612 to 1672)
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov’d by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me ye women if you can.
I prize thy love more then whole Mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that Rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee, give recompence.
Thy love is such I can no way repay,
The heavens reward thee manifold I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.
I hope the day brings you all the love you seek.