The best starry poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Stars, like flowers and the moon and sunsets, are part of the ‘paint-by-numbers’ poetry toolkit: if you want to write a passable poem that sounds consciously ‘poetic’, you can, as S Club 7 put it, reach for the stars.
But poets throughout the centuries have put the stars to more thoughtful and interesting use than mere poetic decoration, offering songs in celebration of the starry firmament and more pessimistic takes on the stars in the sky and what they tell us about ourselves. Here are ten of the best poems about the stars.
1. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 14.
Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck;
And yet methinks I have Astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well
By oft predict that I in heaven find …
So begins Shakespeare’s Sonnet 14, one of his ‘Procreation Sonnets’, which urges the Fair Youth, the addressee of the early Sonnets, to marry and sire an heir. The poem takes astrology as its (rejected) trope, and begins with the line ‘Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck’.
Shakespeare rejects the idea of ‘Astronomy’ (which in Shakespeare’s time was still used more or less interchangeably with ‘astrology’, or divining the future by the stars) as a way of making predictions about the future. But although he may not be able to predict any man’s fortune by observing the real stars in the sky, he can prophesy the future by looking into the ‘stars’ that are the Fair Youth’s eyes…
2. William Wordsworth, ‘The Stars are Mansions Built by Nature’s Hand’.
The stars are mansions built by Nature’s hand,
And, haply, there the spirits of the blest
Dwell, clothed in radiance, their immortal vest;
Huge Ocean shows, within his yellow strand,
A habitation marvellously planned,
For life to occupy in love and rest …
In this example of the Italian sonnet, Wordsworth celebrates the beauty of the stars in the night sky, seeing them as the abode of ‘the spirits of the blest’. The stars are reflected in the surface of the waters of the ocean, allowing us to glimpse the night sky from a different angle, the better to apprehend how ‘marvellously planned’ it all is.
Wordsworth evokes the idea that each star is a structure built by God, but also conjuring the notion of heaven, too (people must live in those mansions, so presumably it’s the souls of the blessed dead up there). Wordsworth celebrates the beauty of the stars in the night sky, seeing them as the abode of ‘the spirits of the blest’.
3. John Keats, ‘Bright Star’.
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors …
So begins this sonnet which muses upon the fragility and inconstancy of human life. It doesn’t actually have a title, and instead is known by its first line, ‘Bright star! Would I were stedfast as thou art’, and sees Keats comparing his own condition with that of a star ‘stedfast’ in the night sky.
Keats copied the finished version of the sonnet into a volume of The Poetical Works of William Shakespeare, placing his poem opposite Shakespeare’s A Lover’s Complaint. The first two words of the sonnet were used as the title of the 2009 biopic about Keats’s life, Bright Star, starring Ben Whishaw as Keats.
4. Emily Dickinson, ‘Ah Moon – and Star!’
Ah, Moon—and Star!
You are very far—
But were no one
Farther than you—
Do you think I’d stop
For a Firmament—
Or a Cubit—or so …
In this poem, Dickinson does a bit of star-gazing, and concludes that, far away from her though the moon and stars are, they are not as far away as her beloved. The end of the poem is ambiguous, allowing for us to interpret this unspecified beloved as Jesus Christ, making this a religious poem (or, more accurately, a poem about religious doubt) as well as a fine poem about the stars.
5. 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 …
This sonnet by Victorian poetry’s most idiosyncratic writer entreats the reader to look up at the stars on a ‘starlight night’; Hopkins likens the stars to numerous 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 Starlight Night’ was one of two poems which Hopkins sent to his mother as a birthday present, the other poem being ‘God’s Grandeur’. What a birthday present!
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).
6. A. E. Housman, ‘Stars, I Have Seen Them Fall’.
Stars, I have seen them fall,
But when they drop and die
No star is lost at all
From all the star-sown sky.
The toil of all that be
Helps not the primal fault;
It rains into the sea,
And still the sea is salt.
Like many of Housman’s poems, this one is untitled, so we’ve given its first line here. Although the stars seem to fall, they remain in the sky; although rain falls into the sea, the sea remains the same saltwater it has always been. Housman’s poem is about futility, and offers a less celebratory take on the stars in the night sky.
7. T. E. Hulme, ‘The Embankment’.
Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie …
In just seven lines, the father of English modernist poetry, T. E. Hulme, captures the mood of a ‘fallen gentleman’ sleeping rough by the Thames. Looking up at the beautiful night sky, the homeless and hapless man longs to grab the ‘star-eaten blanket of the sky’ and wrap himself in it for warmth. A sort of reversal of Oscar Wilde’s famous line, ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’: here, we can all look at the stars, but some of us are in the gutter …
8. Louis MacNeice, ‘Star-Gazer’.
To look at the night sky is to look into the past: we are looking at stars, not as they are now, but as they were thousands, perhaps even millions of years ago.
Written in 1967 but looking back to his eighteenth birthday some 42 years earlier, MacNeice’s ‘Star-Gazer’ thinks bigger than man’s three-score-and-ten, reflecting on the fact that some of the stars now bursting into life will never be seen by the poet, because they are so far away their light will only reach earth a long, long time in the future.
9. W. H. Auden, ‘The More Loving One’.
Like Dickinson’s poem above, here we have another poem connecting the stars to unrequited love. Looking up at the stars, Auden says, he knows they are indifferent to him, but then if equal affection between two things – or between two people – is impossible, he would rather be ‘the more loving one’.
We might summarise the thrust of this poem as follows: as an individual, we can respond by believing that the universe has a purpose for us; or we can respond by saying it doesn’t, and ask what the hell’s the point of anything. Or we can meet the universe’s indifference to us head-on and take pride in the fact that we, products of nature, have been instilled with the ability to care, to feel awe in the face of nature’s sublime aspects, and to love.
We have analysed this poem here.
10. Sylvia Plath, ‘Stars Over the Dordogne’.
‘Stars are dropping thick as stones’: so begins Plath’s poem about the stars, in which her speaker sits and watches the stars dropping into the landscape, prompting her to consider the universe, eternity, and other seemingly boundless things. A fine but lesser-known Plath poem that concludes our pick of the greatest poems about the stars.
For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market. If you enjoyed these poetry recommendations, you might also enjoy these classic night-time poems, these poems about evening, these classic poems about the sky, and these great moon poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.