Talking about poems just for the pleasure of it

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Gerard Manley Hopkins, "The Starlight Night"

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.


  1. tried to comment a moment ago but messed up -
    Just wanted to tell you I am glad you are doing this blog and let me know about it...looking forward to many more posts from you.

  2. Thanks, Lisa! I'll see if there's anything I can do to make it easier to comment.

  3. That is exactly what every class (in school) ought to strive to be: The whole or essence of the subject "held together by a moment of insight, this sudden burst of metaphor." I think you're right, the poem takes the loftiness of the Truth and pulls it through the barn to us folks here in hopes that we might cast our vision up again. Nice choice of poem. When I first read it, I was ready to move on to something else. Godd thing you provided some guidance or might still be out chasing elves-eyes.

  4. Sarah, Loved reading your comments. I had a difficult time once I arrived at the May-mess, etc., and you cleared it up. I was thinking of apples (because of "orchard"), and then cherries, and it of course didn't jive with starlight, but then I realized that he meant those explosions of white cherry blossoms (thanks to you). Anyway. Loved thinking about this all day. Made diaper-changing a lot less dreary. Beautiful poem.

  5. Oh -- and hi, Reggie! Great to "see" you! Will have to check out your blog, too.

  6. If you love Hopkins, you may love the recent biography of him by Paul Mariani, "Gerary Manley Hopkins: A Life". I read it last fall with much interest and would recommend it highly. It gives real insight into his connection with nature and the places he found which stimulated his writing.

  7. Thanks, Judy-- I will need to look that up.

  8. This is a favorite poem of mine. Enjoyed your commentary! Your opening lines about "our upstairs neighbors" remind me of when Chesterton says: "I like this cosy little cosmos, with its decent number of stars and as neat a provision of live stock as I wish to see."

    Also, shocks of wheat in connection with stars recalls Joseph's dreams.

  9. AWSM I lyke this poem .IT is one of the popular poems of HOPKINS. IT was composed at st.BEUNO'S 1877. HOPKINS asks 'what is the price of a true love and understanding of the beauty of the universe?' THE answer is:"prayer" patience, alms vows'. THE stars are the boundaries of christ's own home.........

  10. AWSM I lyke this poem .IT is one of the popular poems of HOPKINS. IT was composed at st.BEUNO'S 1877. HOPKINS asks 'what is the price of a true love and understanding of the beauty of the universe?' THE answer is:"prayer" patience, alms vows'. THE stars are the boundaries of christ's own home.........

  11. This is a great synopsis, but I wish it would go line by line so I could understand each individual piece. :)