“The Starlight Night” by Gerard Manley Hopkins sustains me like Frodo’s phial from Galadriel (which contains a little light from the Start of Eärendil—a light created by the Silmaril that the mariner carried into the sky aboard his ship). I memorized and recited “The Starlight Night” once a few years back, and I should probably make it into a monthly recitation for the rest of my life. You will find ten years worth of readings about stars in relation to both angels and humans in all of the pages tagged for “stars” across this blog. However, no passage or sage that I have found approaches Hopkins in his totality of vision.
He opens with a triple appeal to look up at the stars, at the skies and finally at “all the fire-folk sitting in the air!” “Look” occurs four times in two lines. This ecstatic intensity does not slow down as seven images pour over us within the next five lines:
- “Fire-folk” gives way first to “bright boroughs” or “circle-citadels” as we think of great cities and commonwealths teaming with majestic activity.
- In “dim woods” we might see “diamond delves,” and that is to say deep mines flashing with gem-light.
- We might also see “elves’-eyes” as creatures from another realm gaze back across our shared world.
- On “grey lawns cold,” we see “gold” and “quickgold,” calling to mind the patches of sky with fewer stars, alluding back to the mines filled with gems, and playing with ‘quicksilver’ (another name for the liquid element mercury) so that we might envision pools filled with yellow light amid the expanses of cold grey sky.
- “Wind-beat whitebeam” refers to the popular name of a flowering tree with leaves that flash white on their undersides, especially as stirred by the breeze. The poet George Meredith mentions these leaves showing bursts of white in the wind with the line “flashing as in gusts the sudden-lighted whitebeam” from his poem “Love in the valley” (line 207). These trees with leaves that turn magically white in the wind also flower with bright white blossoms.
- With another wonderful tree, “airy abeles set on a flare” are white poplars which have leaves like a palm with fingers extended and covered on the underside with dense silvery-white hairs. These sentinels stand signaling, waving silvery hands that we might take notice and take heed.
- Finally, “flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare” ends this first stanza by foreshadowing the barnyard imagery that will end the poem. We might think of doves that scatter into the air when startled in a farmyard or of snow-flakes or flower petals stirred up by the feet of frightened farm animals. Whatever the case, this imagery brings the stars down to earth just before the poet appeals to the beholder that they participate in or at least aspire toward the life of the stars.
Finally, the poet slows down to catch their breath and to reflect with us, “Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.” There is a hint of melancholy at the unattainableness of all this mysterious life and beauty that is so lavishly on display before us. At the same time, there is an admonition to recognize the value in this vision and to invest our lives in the attainment of such priceless treasure.
With the second stanza, this admonition become immediately and insistently explicit. Now, the listener—who has been asked to behold so many things—responds with some consternation at the intensity of these demands or perhaps hopelessness at such unattainable glory. “What?” Can I purchase the stars and make all of this mine? What could I offer that could possibly attain all of this? It is like Abraham: while unsure that he can have a son who will father kings, he is told that his children will not only be kings but will live forever in celestial light like the stars of heaven. (See “‘So Shall Your Seed Be’: Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:5 in Romans 4:18 in Light of Early Jewish Deification Traditions” by David Burnettin in The Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters, vol. 5 no. 2. 2015.) These stars might be my inheritance? How?
Within the first line of the second stanza (which contains an entire conversation), we get the reply: “Prayer, patience, alms, vows.” What can you do to purchase the life of the stars? You can be present, quiet, generous and faithful—following the core commitments of Christian ascetic life.
With the second round of admonitions to “Look!” (this time, with three repetitions in two lines), we find that a harvest has begun. No longer are we simply asked to behold, but we are asked to receive. We prepare to partake as all the language turns to fruitfulness: “a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!” The white flowers of these fruit trees promise food. “March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows” refers to the heavy clusters of yellow, pollen-laden flowers that cover willows in the Spring. The use of meal again suggests a bountiful harvest—pointing backward to the colors of gold as well as forward to the next two images of “barn” and “shocks.”
We arrive home as we read: “These are indeed the barn; withindoors house / The shocks.” Our feet firmly upon the ground, our eyes no longer look up upon distant, glorious cities, deep mines or enchanted woods. We are looking instead at a plain wooden storehouse filled to bursting with golden grain. “This piece-bright paling” describes a fence or wall of rough-sawn wooden planks with many chinks and knotholes allowing the warm yellow light to pour out into the surrounding night. Within this enclosure and shedding warm light like great sheaves of wheat is “the spouse.” This phrase is filled out for us in the last line, and it suggests a wedding feast. “Spouse” calls upon all the rich language of Christ and his apostles about Jesus as our bridegroom and about God’s people as his bride. Here, of course, we should also see the bridegroom of Psalm 19:
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.
Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun,
Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.
This pile of images—with stars, storehouses of wheat, a wedding party and God’s household—requires some slowing down. We return to old stories with Jacob who dreamed of his entire family as both stars and sheaves of grain. Christ speaks of fields ready for the harvest. All of this is, most fully, eucharistic. It is an image of Christ’s life offered to us in the very food that sustains us. It is a harvest in which the saints and martyrs join with Christ as those who bring light and life to this dark world through their prayer, patience, alms and vows. It is a home where the royal household of God with Christ, his mother and all his hallows, welcomes all those who are poor in spirit, all those who behold the face of God.
With this analysis, I have not noted the most beautiful aspects of these lines which is their poetry: the rhythms, the full, playful, and layer harmonies in sound, the newly-combined words and the heavy hyphenation. These elements can only be felt and heard as the poem is alive when you learn speak it.