‘The Starlight Night’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins was written in 1877 and is one of his most popular sonnets. Hopkins separated the text of the sonnet into two stanzas. The first is an octave, meaning that it contains eight lines. The second is a sestet, containing six lines. As is common within Petrarchan or Italian sonnets, the first eight lines follow a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA. The following six lines often diverge into a variety of patterns, usually containing three different end rhymes. It is the same in ‘The Starlight Night.’ In this case, the pattern is the unusual, CCDEED.
The most important image of this piece is that of the stars. They come in a variety of forms in the text, but always represent something beautiful and otherworldly. This is emphasized through the comparisons to “elves’-eyes” and shining cities in the sky. The stars are physically out of reach to all those on earth, but that doesn’t mean that one should ignore their presence. It becomes clear as the poem progresses that the speaker sees the stars as intimately connected to God and his creation.
Summary of The Starlight Night
The poem begins with the speaker imploring his listener to look up at the sky and observe the stars closely. He doesn’t have scientific knowledge of space. Instead, he uses metaphors to express his appreciation for the beauty of the stars. The first comparison is “fire-folk sitting in the air.” The stars seem to have an agency all their own.
He continues on with a number of other metaphors, comparing the stars to “circle-citadels” and “diamond delves.” No matter what he thinks of, it is magical and fantastical in nature. It is through these striking comparisons that Hopkins hopes to encourage a reader outside and into a proper state of mind.
The second set of lines is more complex. Here, the speaker expresses his disappointment that God’s creation is taken for granted. People do not seem to have the energy to observe the beautiful world around them. The poem ends with the speaker giving the stars greater meaning by stating that they are the souls of the dead.
Analysis of 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!
In the first stanza of ‘The Starlight Night’ the speaker begins by making an exclamation. It is meant to draw a reader’s attention to “the stars!” And to the beginning of the poem itself. One should be encouraged to read on, especially since the speaker’s voice is so demanding. He clearly wants the reader to take the time to “look up at the skies.” There is so much to be seen there that goes beyond the obvious.
Hopkins personifies the stars in the second line, referring to them as “fire-folk sitting in the air.” They move, they twinkle, they seem to have a proud presence. This re-characterization of them as something more than pinpoints of distant light is engaging. He continues on, throwing a few more comparisons at the reader. He also states that the stars are “bright boroughs” and “circle-citadels.” They, to the speaker, hold the endless possibility of life. There is so much to them that one should imagine a thriving, bright city at the origin of each one.
He goes on to describe how the empty space above one’s head is like a “dim wood.” The diamonds of stars are always up above, breaking up the monotony of the “grey lawns.” They are magic, like “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.
In the next lines of ‘The Starlight Night’ he uses the phrase, “where quickgold lies!” This is a reference to mines that contain unknown numbers of precious stones as well as to the element quick-sliver, now better known as mercury. Mercury the planet holds its own spot in the sky, increasing the connection.
The final lines of the section bring the reader to Hopkins’ main goal with this piece. His speaker states that the sky, and all its shining stars are “all a purchase” and “all…a prize.” This is because one is only rewarded with the sight of the stars if they take the time to look.
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 the final stanza of ‘The Starlight Night,’ which contains six lines, the speaker makes clear that he sees humanity as having no time for the things that are really worthwhile. The nature Hopkins is depicting is directly related to God. He thinks God’s creation is neglected, on top of everyone neglecting an opportunity to see something truly beautiful.
The following lines are the most complex of the poem. He uses a few more metaphors to depict the stars as bundles of flowers, such as those on willow trees. He goes on to use Christian imagery in his reference to a barn filled with bundles. In this case, the bundles are stars, which have come to represent the dead. They are the souls of those who have passed on and all are contained within Christ’s barn.