‘Apostate’ by Léonie Adams is a fourteen-line Shakespearean sonnet which can be separated into three sets of four lines and one final couplet, for easier analysis. Shakespearean sonnets can be identified by their rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefefgg. This sonnet, and those which conform most closely to the traditional form, are written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line is made out of five metrical feet, or beats. Each of these feet are composed of one unstressed and one stressed syllable.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that she is watching the stars and marveling in their movements. They are not out of control as humanity is, but gracefully “throbbing” with “joy.” She sees this as an ideal way to live. In the following lines, she explains how the stars have been able to pierce the darkness of the sky and still shine out for all to see. They have a power that is not controlled or regulated by any other than themselves.
In the final section, the speaker wishes that she could live as the stars do— without masks to hide behind or rules to follow.
Analysis of Apostate
From weariness I looked out on the stars
And there beheld them, fixed in throbbing joy,
Nor racked by such mad dance of moods as mars
For us each moment’s grace with swift alloy.
In the first set of four lines of ‘Apostate’, the speaker begins by referring to herself in the first person and describing how she is looking up at the sky. It is clearly night, as she is able to see “the stars.” She has decided to cast her gaze up at their lights from a place a “weariness.” While the speaker does not inform the reader why it is she feels weary with her life, this fact does not take away from one’s ability to connect to the story. In fact, it allows one to imagine themselves in the same situation and how they might feel looking up at the sky after a terrible and exhausting day.
It is from her position on the ground the speaker decides to take some time and analyze the stars she sees. She beholds them in the sky. The use of the world “beheld” in this line emphasizes the majesty of what she is seeing. The speaker does not “watch” or “look” at the stars, she beholds them. They are “fixed” in the sky, but at the same time seem to “throb…joy.”
Adams has chosen to personify the stars. This is done through the projection of the speaker’s own emotions onto what she is seeing. They appear to be full of joy because she is.
She also notes that the starts are not “racked,” or controlled, by the constant need to move in a “mad dance.” The speaker compares this lack of need to the need that “mars,” the red planet named for the God of war, has to do the opposite. This planet represents humankind and its continual need to take, control, and dictate.
She sees the planets as being chaotic and ever-moving, while the stars are fixed. This is also another example of how the stars are taking on human characteristics. They exist in peace, quiet, and stillness while on earth everything is in constant motion. The stars do not disrupt their own lives with unnecessary movement.
After this first section, the reader is able to make an assumption about what it is that wearies the speaker. She is tired of her own life and the lack of control she feels she has over it. She sees the stars and feels that they have the freedom she can only wish for.
And as they pierced the heavens’ serene deep
An envy of that one consummate part
Swept me, who mock. Whether I laugh or weep,
Some inner silences are at my heart.
In the next set of four lines, the speaker continues her description of what it is about the stars that have caught her eye on this particular night. Once more, the speaker does not reveal the most personal details about her own situation. This is done in an effort to leave the narrative open-ended. It gives a reader ample room to make their own assumptions and determinations.
The stars are able to emotionally and spiritually move the speaker. She continues to watch them as they “pierce” the deepest part of the “serene,” and quiet, “heaven.” Their light travels so far that it reaches all the way to the beginning of the universe. It is also strong enough to break through the darkness of space. Rather than being “pierced,” which an act of subjugation, the starts are doing the piercing. They reach where they choose to and go where they please.
The fact that she envies this way of living bothers the speaker. She wants to experience a free and bond-less life, but at the same time she worries over what that might mean for her. Whatever emotions she experiences, “Whether [she] laugh[s] or weep[s],” she will know she is able to return to the silence and beauty of the stars within her. They have become a confirmed and consummate part of her being. They have pierced the “heaven’s serene deep” as they have pierced her. She will not be able to forget them.
Cold shame is mine for all the masks I wear,
Belying that in me which shines and sings
Before Him, to face down man’s alien stare—
A graceless puppet on unmeaning strings,
In the third set of four lines of ‘Apostate’, the speaker refers to the problems she has within herself. It is clear she is trying to find a way to resolve the conflicting views of herself and the various personalities she adopts. She feels a “Cold shame” over all the masks she wears. She becomes different people for different settings and is ashamed of this fact. Although she wishes to change, so far she has been unable to.
These emotions impact the speaker long after they are gone. They help to keep her from all that “which shines and sings.” The world in all its most beautiful qualities, which are made by “Him,” or God, are kept from her sight and mind when she worries over how she lives. This is an experience she no longer wants to have. She no longer wants her negative emotions to hide her other shiny and song-filled ones.
The positive emotions which she is fighting to return to allow her to confront mankind. She can stare down the worst situations, people, and parts of existence. This is the ideal form she would take—the person she is striving to be. But, it is not how she is at the moment. She, and others who live as she does, are like “graceless puppets.” They are controlled by “unmeaning” fate set out by society. The speaker is an apostate from the world she lives in.
I that looked out, and saw, and was at rest,
Stars, and faint wings, rose-etched along the west
In the final lines, the speaker discovers an amount of peace with the internal conflict which has been haunting her throughout the poem and her life. She once more looks out at the earth, the sky, and the stars which tower over her and everything is silent. These features of the universe have the freedom that she can only hope for. They are not controlled by a force, group of people, or meaningless rules which determine how they should live.