The most widely respected source for the history of the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary, records as early as Chaucer in the fourteenth century a meaning for the word "star" used (as the OED puts it) "with reference to the pagan belief that the souls of illustrious persons after death appear as new stars in the heavens." This metaphor seemingly takes a long time to devolve to the contemporary usage which seemingly alludes to this classical tradition: the OED dates the earliest recorded usage of "star" to mean "a person of brilliant reputation or talents…one who is distinguished in some branch of art, industry, science, etc." To the 1820s (offering examples from 1824 and 1829). It is worth noting these derive just immediately after the astonishingly young death of poet John Keats in February of 1821. Keats, a working-class boy from London who began training as a doctor only to discover tuberculosis infections first in his brother (whom he nursed on his deathbed), then in himself (probably contracted from the brother). Keats had also ambitiously abandoned medical training in the prospect of a career in letters, which led to a substantial anxiety in his work about the idea of success. A letter to his brother George from 25 October 1818 (just days before his twenty-third birthday) complains of the hostile reviews his early work had received by saying: "This is a mere matter of the moment - I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death. Even as a Matter of present interest the attempt to crush me in the Quarterly has only brought me more into notice…" (Letters 151). Yet by this point Keats knew all too well that his own death, and the assessment of his career, would come sooner rather than later. I would like to look at three images of stars in Keats' poetry, which I believe are used in a way that mixes the classical and emerging contemporary meanings alluded to in the Oxford English Dictionary. These come from the sonnets "Bright Star" and "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer," and also from the longer "Ode on Melancholy." I hope to show how the astronomical imagery that Keats uses is meant to be deliberately ambiguous: the sonnets depict a more traditionally classical use of stars as imagery, but the "Ode on Melancholy" complicates and problematizes the image by suggesting that stardom is something like what Keats, in letters written during his illness, would call a "life of allegory" (Letters 203). Ultimately I hope to show how this represents a deliberate change in Keats' use of the metaphor over time, and represents his own anxieties about poetic "stardom."
Keats' sonnet "Bright Star" dates from 1819, in what is considered the more mature period of Keats' short writing career.
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. (Poems 461)
The form of the poem is a Shakespearean sonnet, which testifies to the profound role played by Shakespeare in Keats' own literary imagination. Keats, who may have written this sonnet as a love-poem for Fanny Brawne, did not publish it during his lifetime: instead it was written in the front leaf of a copy of Shakespeare's poems. This seems to me like a possible allusion, which indicates that the "star" being addressed may be a star in the sense of one immortalized for great achievements, or simply an artistic celebrity -- namely Shakespeare himself. It is worth examining this more closely, though. Keats uses the imagery of the star here for one purpose only -- as an emblem of fidelity and unchanging nature. In other words, the "bright star" is quite specifically the Northern star, which holds its place in the sky while the zodiac shifts seasonally. It is…