Though perhaps not as well known as several other poems by John Keats, “Bright Star” is considered one of his loveliest and yet most paradoxical. Still only twenty-three, it now appears that Keats wrote this untitled Shakespearean sonnet in the Spring of 1819. He then revised it in 1820, most likely on his final trip to Italy, where his friends and his doctor had encouraged him to go to help the tuberculosis from which he was now suffering. From his own early medical training, however, and from the experience of losing several members of his immediate family to the disease, he almost certainly already understood he had not long to live.
In the poem he implies his frustration at his own mortality, unlike the eternal and unchanging star, and expresses his wish to be with his lover for ever, or else die in her arms. The lover in question was Fanny Brawne. In 1818 Keats’s friend Charles Brown had let part of his Hampstead house to Fanny’s mother, and when Keats met the daughter a passionate romance developed, despite early misgivings on his part, and a surprising lack of self-confidence in the company of women. Not only ill, he was also painfully aware that he could not offer her financial security on the basis of the little he had earned so far from his published work. Not surprising that when Mrs Brawne and Charles Brown found out about the relationship, they were thoroughly perturbed. For all these reasons, despite being completely in love, Keats realised that he and Fanny would probably never be married, and this seems to be what he means when in the poem he wishes he could be more steadfast.
The imagery was probably inspired by the memory of seeing Venus, the so-called Evening Star: he watched it as it rose while in the middle of composing one of his letters to Fanny. He wrote “. . .I love you; all I can bring you is a swooning admiration of your Beauty. . . . You absorb me in spite of myself ― you alone: for I look not forward with any pleasure to what is call’d being settled in the world; I tremble at domestic cares ― yet for you I would meet them, though if it would leave you the happier I would rather die than do so. 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. I hate the world: it batters too much the wings of my self-will, and would I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it. From no others would I take it. I am indeed astonish’d to find myself so careless of all charms but yours ― remembering as I do the time when even a bit of ribband was a matter of interest with me. What softer words can I find for you after this ― what it is I will not read. Nor will I say more here, but in a Postscript answer any thing else you may have mentioned in your Letter in so many words ― for I am distracted with a thousand thoughts. I will imagine you Venus tonight and pray, pray, pray to your star like a Hethen.”
The capitalisation, spelling and punctuation in this setting may surprise some, but they are taken from the original manuscript of the poem. There are variations of each of these features to be found in different printed versions of this poem. None of these variations, however, affects the sound of the piece. On the other hand, the manuscript does have “… swell and fall”, a word order that is reversed in many published versions and which does affect the sound materially!