Meditation 2: “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! 5
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, aims, vows.
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs! 10
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.

Today we come to our second poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, entitled “The Starlight Night.” You recall from last week’s look at “Pied Beauty” that Hopkins had a keen eye for seeing the deeper connections between nature and nature’s creator, between what we can observe and the response our observations ought to evoke. “The Starlight Night” is no different.

Upon first reading this poem, I was struck by two things. First, Hopkins uses many words I am unfamiliar with (most of which I found refer to trees of some kind: whitebeam, abeles, sallows). Secondly, he uses an abundance of exclamation marks—fifteen to be exact! (See what I did there?) The first of these observations shows me that Hopkins had a developed and trained appreciation for horticulture and the natural world around him. Now, I knew this from reading his poems, but his use of various names and lively descriptions further proves the point. His namings show a genuine care and admiration. As for his generous use of exclamations, we can see clearly that he is enlivened by what he sees on this particular night. He’s enlivened and practically bursting with enthusiasm. He would have his reader or hearer see what he sees.

So what does Hopkins see on this particular night? Well, stars, right? True, but these “stars” signify much more to him than mere specks of light. They are very well alive and varied in their appearance. Some are clustered so as to look like entire cities in the sky; some look to be quarries in deep woods (“diamond delves”); some look as if they’re scattered upon a lawn like “quickgold”; some look like adorned leaves (“wind-beat whitebeam”) or poplar trees set afire (“airy abeles”); some look like scattering of doves at “a farmyard scare.” The scene before Hopkins as he scans the sky is vast and each area he scans is unique, yet like things he’s seen on the earth. And, what he sees he would have us know is “a prize”—one he enthusiastically bids us to purchase: “buy then! bid then!”

Just what is the price and what is it that we are to purchase? Hopkins tells us both. The price is “prayer, patience, alms, vows,” all Christian disciplines and virtues. Whatever it is that he sees and shows us are somehow gained by way of the Christian life and practice. And what is bought? A place in the “barn,” the sides of which are seemingly shot through with stars as if they are knotholes in actual wood. Inside this “barn” are “the shocks,” which is an agricultural term for sheaves of cut grain. These “shocks” were an ancient symbol for souls harvested. Hopkins is telling us that we ought to “buy” a place among the purchased souls, that we might be shut in with our “spouse,” Christ. What he means is not necessarily that there is some way to buy our place with “Christ and his mother” and thus be with “his hallows” (saved souls); Hopkins earnestly desires that we see this grand scene… that we see and grasp it and desire what it signifies. For the sky is, at least symbolically, the dwelling of the risen Christ and his bride. [CLICK TO TWEET This Quote]

~~~*~~~~

What do you see when you look to the night sky? Do you see “a million points of light,” perhaps that are little more to you than mere specks or flecks of light? Or do you see illumination? Are you drawn to peer beyond the curtain or “barn” wall of the sky, and see what lies beyond? Hopkins’s “The Starlight Night” challenges and enthusiastically encourages us to do the latter, to see and savor more than just whitish specks strewn across an ebony canopy of night.    

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About Kent Travis

If you are enjoying Kent Travis' teaching on reading poetry, then check out this short book, You Want Me To Read What?  It's packed with helpful tips for enjoying poetry. I didn't believe I could understand poetry until I read his book. It's awesome!

Kent Travis is the Humanities Department Chair at the Brook Hill School.  

http://mkenttravis.com

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