The best of poems has the potential to offer us a depth of profound realisation with lasting insights.
I regard Bright Star as such a poem. Pointing to the eternal, such precious poems serve as one of the greatest resources for our spiritual nourishment. Our greatest poets, past and present, voice the deep truths. They abide as our gods and goddesses, via the sacred word, to enlighten our life.
John Keats, one of the most beloved of all English poets, knew he faced death due to the impact of tuberculosis, an incurable disease during his life. TB savaged his lungs.
Symptoms of TB include sickness, chest pain, coughing up of blood, weight loss, fever, and night sweats.
He completed his poem in 1820 – a year before he died in a room on the Spanish Steps in Rome, aged 26. He travelled by ship to Naples and then by road to Rome in the hope the warm weather would extend his life.
If Keats had lived, he intended to start writing plays. His mastery of the English language might well have placed him in the elite category of illustrious artist expression in the way we regard William Shakespeare.
It was not to be.
On his grave in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, he requested these words revealing the selflessness of a name while the lines of poems live on.
The gravestone says, ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’.
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 forever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.
BRIGHT STAR IN PLAIN ENGLISH
‘Bright Star, I wish I were steady and eternal as you are.
Not because you are alone up there in the night sky
And constantly watching with eternal eyelids open
Like nature’s patient and eternally awake hermit.
The seas are in constant action – a priestly baptism on the shores of the Earth.
And also witnessing what covers up everything,
Such as falls of snow on the mountains and the moors
No, instead, I want to be steady and unchanging
While resting my head upon my lover’s breast in her fullness,
To feel forever her soft rise and fall
Abiding eternally in this sweet movement
Still hearing the tenderness of her breathing
And so know this, rather than slide into death.
The Poem Falls into Two Parts.
Keats looks up at the star eternally awake compared to his sickness with TB and approaching death.
The poet prefers to connect with the tender rise and fall of life on Earth
He doesn’t want such a transcendence beyond life like the star.
He wants a transcendence in his intimacy of life – a rise and fall like his lover’s breast, like waves rising and falling in the ocean.
His deepest wish is to abide as close as possible to the earth and air element
To know an unchanging depth within this experience rather than die in a painful way.
The words of Keats express a similar message as the Buddha. who pointed to realisation of an unchanging, unconditioned freedom, amidst the intimacy of the rise and fall, coming and going of events.
A Film – Bright Star
A thoughtful film on the life of John Keats made in 2009 had the title Bright Star. The drama is based on the last three years of Keat’s life and his romantic relationship with Fanny Browne. A BBC film written by Jane Campton.