Keats’s Last Poem

[First published in 1838 titled “Keats’s Last Sonnet” in the 1848 edition of Keats’s “Literary Remains” and thus throughout the 19th c; now known as Bright Star. In the summer of 1818 Keats remarked that the scenery of the lake country “refine[s] one’s sensual vision into a sort of north star which can never cease to be open lidded and stedfast over the wonders of the great Power”; sometime before summer 1819 he drafted this sonnet, and in early autumn 1820 wrote it out again, with some variants, in the volume of Shakespeare’s poems he took to Italy. The opening line of this Shakespearean sonnet chimes with Caesar’s heroic declaration:  “I am constant as the Northern Star, / Of whose true-fixed and resting quality / There is no fellow in the firmament” (Julius Caesar 3.1.58-62).]

BRIGHT star, would I were steadfast 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 steadfast, 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.