A summary of an underrated Hopkins poem
‘The Starlight Night’ is not a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem whose title is on everyone’s lips. Nevertheless, it’s a vivid example of his idiosyncratic writing style, and its theme – a starry night – is a perennial one for poets. But of course, Hopkins being Hopkins, he gives this age-old poetic theme the Gerard Manley Hopkins treatment, making the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar. Here is ‘The Starlight Night’ and a few words of analysis about this cryptic poem.
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.
In summary, the poem entreats the reader to look up at the stars on a ‘starlight night’; Hopkins likens the stars to numerous other things, from people or ‘fire-folk’ sitting in the night sky, to the eyes of elves, and to diamonds – ‘diamond delves’ likens the stars in the night sky to diamonds in dark mines or caves. (The description of the stars as ‘airy abeles set on a flare’ anticipates Hopkins’s later poem ‘Binsey Poplars’, since ‘abeles’ are poplar trees and Hopkins will later describe the poplars as ‘airy cages’.) The idea that the darker patches of the night sky (where there are fewer stars) are like ‘grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies’ shows Hopkins’s linguistic inventiveness: ‘quickgold’ picks up on the idea of mines containing precious minerals (recall those ‘diamond delves’), linked by the mention of ‘elves’ (drawing on the mythical idea of elves living below-ground guarding treasure such as gold). But ‘quickgold’ (a Hopkins coinage) suggests ‘quicksilver’, another name for the element mercury (but also faintly suggesting the planet of that name?).
This link between the stars and precious minerals – gold, diamonds – is then strengthened by Hopkins’s concluding remark in the octave (or opening eight-line section of the poem): ‘Ah well!’ he sighs: ‘it is all a purchase, all is a prize.’ Why so? Because one only gets out of it what one puts in: if we don’t take the time to look up at the sky and admire the stars and heavens, we’ll never be able to appreciate their beauty. Here it is relevant that Hopkins may have been inspired to write ‘The Starlight Night’ after he missed the total eclipse of the moon on 28 February 1877 – partly because nobody else had been interested in the phenomenon and Hopkins had not been made aware that it was happening.
It is also arguably significant that ‘The Starlight Night’ was one of two poems which Hopkins sent to his mother as a birthday present (and what a present!), the other poem being ‘God’s Grandeur’. Both poems are about people failing to notice things, about the modern world’s indifference to nature. People have no time, to borrow from another poet, to stand and stare. As the concluding sestet or six-line section of Hopkins’s poem makes clear, this is a failure not just to admire nature but to admire God’s creation (Hopkins was a Jesuit priest as well as a poet). For in this final section, Hopkins makes it clear that the way we ‘Buy’ or ‘bid’ for the privilege of looking at the stars is through ‘Prayer, patience, alms, vows.’ Hopkins follows this with a few more metaphors for the bright stars: the ‘mess’ or cluster of stars recalls white blossom on fruit trees in an orchard in May, and ‘March-bloom’ or blossom on willow trees (‘mealed-with-yellow sallows’).
The final few lines of the poem are the most problematic, but Hopkins appears to be comparing the stars to the souls of the dead in heaven, by way of a Biblical metaphor (Matthew 13:30: ‘in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn’). In essence, then, the ‘shocks’ or bundles ‘withindoors house’ are the souls of those in heaven, and so the stars, in representing those heavenly souls, are also like bundles of wheat. (The ‘chaff’ or ‘tares’ are presumably in hell, hence the Bible’s reference to burning them.)
Hopkins then ends the poem by suggesting that the night sky is a fence (‘bright-piece paling’) keeping heaven separate from Earth: the ‘spouse Christ’ and ‘all his hallows’ (i.e., the saints or holy souls in heaven) are up there in their ‘home’, and the stars are their souls shining down to us. Much like Hopkins’s other poem ‘The Windhover’, then, the poet starts by talking about a natural phenomenon but then moves to linking this with Christianity. Although ‘The Starlight Night’ is not so famous a sonnet as that other poem, it is nevertheless a fine example of Hopkins’s linguistic creativity.