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 in death.
In his John Keats: the Living Year Robert Gittings ventured to pin down the composition of this famous sonnet. He later revised his opinion, and it seems that every critic and biographer has a pet theory of his own. Both his revision and these pet theories rest on some dubious assumptions. Poets, it seems, are not possessed of memory, so a poet can write about snow only if composing in the midst of a blizzard. Nor do they have tricks of language to which they may return, even after a period of years. If the poet mentions green socks in a letter dated March 14th 1900, a poem in which he mentions green socks must have been written on March 14th 1900. Gittings’ original view seems at least as tenable as any other, and astrology supports it a good deal better than it does various other options. Accordingly, this chart is cast for 11.00 pm on October 24th, 1818 in London.
What is this ‘bright star’? H.W. Garrod’s bold assertion ‘The Bright Star is the North Star’ (Keats: Poetical Works) is unquestioningly accepted, even though Garrod doesn’t think much of the sonnet - which might incline anyone with either ear or heart to stringently question anything he might say. He claims that Keats must have been thinking of Shakespeare’s Let me not to the marriage of true minds... and the line from Julius Caesar, But I am constant as the northern star. So the poem is the product of Keats’ library. But is it not possible that Keats, more awake to the beauties of nature than any among the English poets, might have stuck his nose outside the library door?
Steady the North Star may be; bright it is definitely not. Whyever should Keats have addressed it as ‘Bright star’? Especially when, had he stuck his nose outdoors, he would have seen something far brighter hung aloft the night. Saturn was high in the sky not only on Gitting’s proposed date, but on many of the alternatives. With nothing else of note in that area of the sky, nor any other planet above the horizon, Saturn certainly was in lone splendour. Nor do planets come any more stedfast, especially when, as here, Saturn is approaching station. While no astrologer, Keats’ reading would have sufficiently acquainted him with the nature of the planet, should the evidence of his eyes have needed any support.
He is writing a poem, so we must look at Mercury. It exalts Saturn, this bright star, so it is fitting he should write thus of it. It is ruled by Venus, so it is also concerned with matters of love: his fair love’s ripening breast. Despite their sharing power over Libra, Venus and Saturn do of course make uneasy bed-fellows, hence the tension in the poem - the tension that Garrod finds so unacceptable. Mercury is itself on another bright star, Spica. Spica is associated with Our Lady, specifically as Stella Maris, the Star of the Sea, the stedfast guide and protector of all who venture on physical or metaphorical oceans.
This poem is not a mental exercise, but a thing of feeling, so we must also turn to the Moon. The Moon here is in its last quarter: it is a phlegmatic Moon, a feeling Moon, a Moon whose priority is to feel. What sort of feelings? It is in an earth sign, a melancholic sign. As the phlegmatic wants to feel, the melancholic wants to have or to hold. So we have the yearning for permanence of feeling, to feel for ever its soft fall and swell, that word ever twice repeated in the final lines. By antiscion the Moon is on the North Node, so we have a big yearning for permanence of feeling. How will this be expressed? The Moon is in a Mercury sign, so through this Mercury with its profound interest in love and bright stars.
Further linking Mercury and Saturn is the Sun. It has just entered Scorpio, the fixed water sign, the sign of ocean, which does for ever fall and swell. It is on the star Princeps, whose Mercury/Saturn nature it is that forges this further link. Princeps is in the spear of Arcas, who was rescued from the snares of mortality by Zeus, who set him in the heavens as a constellation. Which is exactly the consummation that Keats desires:
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art... Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breastTo feel for ever its soft fall and swell.