The Light of Stars by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow often wrote about deeply personal, emotional, and spiritual topics that set his poetry apart from many of his contemporaries; poems such as The Light of Stars demonstrated the emotional depth of his literary skill. His use of symbolism and commonplace connotation to explore these kinds of ideas is a central aspect of the poem and is one of the reasons it stands out as strongly as it does.

The Light of Stars by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


The Light of Stars Analysis

Stanzas One and Two

The night is come, but not too soon;

And sinking silently,

All silently, the little moon

Drops down behind the sky.

There is no light in earth or heaven

But the cold light of stars;

And the first watch of night is given

To the red planet Mars.

Longfellow begins The Light of Stars by describing the state of the night sky, applying his own unique touch to the poetic descriptions. Despite the awkward introduction to the poem, a result of the rhyme of the first verse being based on sight rather than sound, the reader is given an almost mystical atmosphere to digest for this piece. The first verse takes place presumably over a number of hours, as the moon has enough time to both appear and disappear over its course. Using such a loose concept of time gives this poem a quality that displaces the reader from the setting, because time is not a significant aspect of this piece; all that exists for the reader is the night sky.

Despite the low word count per verse, Longfellow is able to perfectly create a particular atmosphere through sparse, but strong descriptions. When he describes the “cold light” of the stars, for instance, it is easy for the reader to imagine the dark and vast nothingness of space, broken up only by stars in the distance. Against this, the description of Mars as “the red planet” makes it stand out — red is certainly not a “cold” colour, and Mars is certainly not a star.


Stanzas Three and Four

Is it the tender star of love?

The star of love and dreams?

O no! from that blue tent above,

A hero’s armor gleams.

And earnest thoughts within me rise,

When I behold afar,

Suspended in the evening skies,

The shield of that red star.

The third verse references the mythological roles played by Mars as a deity of the Ancient Romans. Mars was not a being associated with love or dreaming, but was the Roman god of warfare (and also of agriculture, but that doesn’t seem to be very relevant here). The perspective taken here is that Mars is heroic, and an inspiration to the beholder. The colour of the planet makes it stand out, and its place in ancient mythology gives it a heroic aspect, though the idea of the planet being like a shield feels a little out of place in this poem about the black and cold sky. Why is a shield necessary to have against the cold light of stars?


Stanzas Five and Six

O star of strength! I see thee stand

And smile upon my pain;

Thou beckonest with thy mailed hand,

And I am strong again.

Within my breast there is no light

But the cold light of stars;

I give the first watch of the night

To the red planet Mars.

The inspiration summoned from the Red Planet quickly becomes the central image in The Light of Stars. Longfellow describes the aura and connotation of the planet much more strongly than the planet itself, and builds it up in a way that makes it significantly greater than the celestial being it simply is. The character that narrates the poem sees a star that has symbolized strength for centuries and personifies the planet into its mythological namesake, imagining the hero armoured in plate mail, encouraging them to overcome their weaknesses or pains and be “strong” once more. It is unlikely that this poem is simply about literal strength, however. Longfellow’s use of romanticized language — such as in “beckonest with thy” — and use of the planet and mythological figure of Mars as a focus suggests that the idea behind the work has more to do with finding inspiration in the world and the many ways through which people discover their motivations.

Longfellow uses Mars, an Ancient Roman deity, as his inspiration, and it is an image that works extremely well for his purposes. As a planet and mythological figure, Mars is both a natural phenomenon and a divine one, as well as being a celestial body that is simultaneously knowable and unknowable in various ways. The very idea of Mars means something different to different people, and this is what makes it a wise choice for an inspirational symbol to make up the core of The Light of Stars.


Stanza Seven

The star of the unconquered will,

He rises in my breast,

Serene, and resolute, and still,

And calm, and self-possessed.

Personification also plays an important role in this work — after all, the red star has to be more than a simple red star, and Longfellow is conscious of the fact that extremely few (if any) people worship the Ancient Roman Pantheon with any conviction in his own time. The description of Mars in its deified form is helpful, however, for describing the level of awe and power that radiates from this red light, for any of the reasons speculated earlier.


Stanzas Eight and Nine

And thou, too, whosoe’er thou art,

That readest this brief psalm,

As one by one thy hopes depart,

Be resolute and calm.

O fear not in a world like this,

And thou shalt know erelong,

Know how sublime a thing it is

To suffer and be strong. 

The final two lines break the fourth wall, so to speak, and communicate directly with the reader. Here, Longfellow is acknowledging the similarities between his own character that narrates the work and his reader. In the end, he makes an argument for the value of suffering, and, more importantly, of overcoming suffering, however, the person does. He suggests this as something to keep in mind as the reader’s hopes abandon them — and this is presented as a factual thing that happens to everyone. Everyone feels hopeless from time to time, and everyone experiences despair in some form. Longfellow describes this as a sublime process, because at the end of the despairing process is a sense of strength. In The Light of Stars, the narrator sees the sky as dark and cold, something that would require assigning watch to the bravest and strongest member of a group. By the end, it is an inspiration and a triumph, beautiful and serene, as suffering changes to strength before the reader’s eyes.

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Andrew Walker Poetry Expert
Andrew joined the team back in November 2015 and has a passion for poetry. He has an Honours in the Bachelor of Arts, consisting of a Major in Communication, Culture and Information Technology, a Major in Professional Writing and a Minor in Historical Studies.
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