‘Lucifer in Starlight’ by George Meredith is a narrative-based fourteen-line sonnet that is composed in a form referential to the traditional Italian or Petrarchan sonnet. The poem is divided into one opening octave (eight lines), that can be further separated into two quatrains (four lines each), and then a sestet (six lines). The octave follows a rhyming pattern of abba abba, exactly as prescribed by the sonnet form.
The following six lines diverge from the “Italian” pattern and rhyme: cdc eed. This is a very unusual pattern for the concluding sestet. It is important to note that although the lines do not follow a common rhyme scheme, Meredith has still been able to give it a unified feeling. The end sounds “scar” and “Awe,” although not perfect rhymes, come close to slant or half-rhymes due to the sound of the vowel. In turn, this holds true for “law” as well.
Summary of Lucifer in Starlight
The poem begins with the speaker describing how “Prince Lucifer” rose up from the hell he had been damned to after revolting against God. He was tired of his “dark dominion” and chose to fly up above the earth and into the obscuring clouds. His dark mass takes the place of the sun and shadows to stretch out across the earth. They touch Africa and the Arctic in equal measure.
In the second half, the Devil comes to a stopping point. Eventually, he is unable to rise any higher and is forced to return back to his damnation with the realization that he cannot return to God’s side.
Analysis of Lucifer in Starlight
On a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose.
Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend
Above the rolling ball in cloud part screened,
Where sinners hugged their spectre of repose. ‘
In the first section of ‘Lucifer in Starlight’, the speaker starts a narrative regarding the life and circumstances of “Prince Lucifer,” more commonly known as the Devil. In his current form though it would be appropriate to envision him as a fallen angel. The speaker is telling the reader that there was one particularly starry night that Lucifer decided to rise up from his “dark dominion.” This is a reference to Hell, into which God cast him and his followers after they attempted to rebel.
The Devil has grown weary with the darkness and general nature of his new home and flies up into the clouds. He ends up somewhere that is the complete opposite of where he began. He is now in a position that is reminiscent of the sun. His power is shining down from the sky, through the clouds by which he is partially “screened.”
The final lines add in some additional information on the part of the speaker. He is now injecting his own interpretation of the situation. He calls the sky and the place in which the sun should hang, as the dedicated spot of devotion for sinners. It brought “repose” to those who needed it but only in theory. The space is referred to as a “spectre.” This could mean that it is not physical or that it does not really exist at all.
Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.
And now upon his western wing he leaned,
Now his huge bulk o’er Afric’s sands careened,
Now the black planet shadowed Arctic snows.
In the next set of lines, it becomes clear that the Devil is blocking out the sun, or at least the “sinner’s” access to their “spectre of repose.” They are the “Poor prey” to the Devil’s wanton flight and to the original sin which made Adam and all his sons and daughters sinners.
At this point, the Devil turns and leans upon his “western wing.” This is significant because the “west” is commonly associated with death and therefore the afterlife. He is looking in that direction as if seeking out an alternative to the eternal afterlife he has been condemned to. The speaker specifically states that the Devil is oriented above “Afric’s sands” or the sands of Africa. His mass is so large it is referred to as a “bulk.” The Devil can block out the sun and cover the continent. He is “careening” or moving wildly back and forth. This speaks to a lack of control on the part of Lucifer and adds to the theory that this flight is entirely emotion-driven.
Whether Lucifer is truly able to “shadow” the sun or not, his massive presence in the sky is planet size. It is moving over the face of the earth and by the last line of the octave his shadow is over “Arctic snows.” A reader should take note of these two contrasting environments. The speaker first mentions the desert and then the snowy wilderness.
Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars
With memory of the old revolt from Awe,
He reached a middle height, and at the stars,
Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.
Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.
In the second half of ‘Lucifer in Starlight’, the speaker expands on the mythology surrounding Lucifer. The speaker describes how the Devil moved on from his initial height. He is now hovering above the continent of Africa and the Arctic, to “wider zones.” This is a reference to the areas of Heaven in which he once leads his revolt against “Awe,” or God, and his power. By now many years have passed since the “revolt” happened, it is “old” and long since past.
In the third line, the Devil makes it to a “middle height” where he is not quite in Heaven or on earth. He takes a look around at the stars and the speaker describes them as “the brain of heaven.” They are its most important contents and its controlling features but not the main body or heart.
After reaching this point he sinks. There is below him, “Around the ancient track,” an “army.” They are marching in great number and composed of “unalterable law.” This last line could refer either to the angels who remain in heaven and all those who follow God’s will on earth or to the demons who were also damned alongside Lucifer. Either way, his attempt to return to Heaven has been stymied when he remembers the new order of the realms.