Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! The elves'-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
Wind-beat whitebeam! Airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!--
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.
Buy then! bid then!--What?--Prayer, patience, alms, vows.
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.
Well, the first thing that strikes me is that the speaker here doesn't feel the way we do about the sky. Instead of an infinite expanse of space, it's more like the upper storey of the world. The stars, "the fire-folk," are not separated from us by an abyss-- they're almost our upstairs neighbors. We're in an older cosmos, where nature is peopled through and through.
In harmony with this homier feeling about the universe are the earthy images used for the stars. I can't decide whether lines 4 and 5 are describing starlight shining on the ground-- making woods and lawns look like diamond and gold mines-- or whether the sky itself looks like glimmering woods and lawns. But either way, there's a mingling of earth, air, and sky. And then in line 7, the metaphor is even more earthy: the shimmering of starlight is the motion of doves startled out of a farmyard. The repeated "f" sounds even give us the fluttering sound they make.
The next line is a puzzling summary, one that seems obvious to the speaker but maybe not to us-- all this wealth of delight is a "purchase" and a "prize." He doesn't stop to explain, but goes on to the next logical step: who wouldn't give anything to possess this prize? A life of austerity would not be too high a price. The argument has become more complex, but the imagery continues the same mingling of earth and sky: now the stars look like cherry branches covered with blossoms-- "a May-mess," the meal produced by May. For the next line I needed the dictionary; I think "mealed-with-yellow sallows" means willow trees whose bark is speckled as if sprinkled with yellow grain or flour. Both lines suggest food-- connecting us back to the farmyard of the earlier line, and leading to the next strange image: "These are indeed the barn; withindoors house/ the shocks." With the dictionary's help I translated this as "Inside are housed the bundles of grain."
As the images become earthier, the meaning they carry becomes higher: the barn is heaven where Christ dwells eternally. When we see the beauty of the stars (which seems to contain all the earth's beauty as well) we are only seeing the outside of this barn. On the other side of this "piece-bright paling"-- this shining fence or wall-- is the real wealth. And of course to get to the other side would be to die, or die to self with "prayer, patience, alms, vows." Hopkins seems to have parables of the kingdom in mind-- the pearl of great price, the wheat separated from weeds and gathered into the barn. To lose everything is finally to gain eveything; if we are cut down and bundled up like wheat, we will also be gaining the harvest, which is Christ himself-- Christ joined together with all the saints. Together with Christ we will both be the harvest and gain the harvest.
It's quite a leap, isn't it? From star-gazing to the entire Christian vision. But all held together by this moment of insight, this sudden burst of metaphor.