‘Star-Gazer’ was published in The Burning Perch in 1963. This was Macneice’s posthumously volume, published after his death that same year. He is remembered as an Irish pet and playwright and part of the Auden Group. His poetry was well-loved during his lifetime due to his use of simple accessible language and emotionally poignant imagery such as is seen in this poem. He is now regarded as one of the most important contemporary Irish poets separate from Auden and his broader fame.
Summary of Star-Gazer
In the first stanza of ‘Star-Gazer’, the speaker begins by recalling a time forty-two years ago when he was running from one side of a train car to another in order to see the light of the stars. He emphasizes their beauty, the power of their light, and the pleasure he takes from knowing anything about them. He goes on to describe their lifespans and allude to his own. The speaker knows that the light from some of the stars won’t reach earth until after everyone has died.
You can read the full poem here.
Themes in Star-Gazer
The most important themes in ‘Star-Gazer’ are time and memory. These two themes come together as the speaker depicts a scene from his past. This memory involves a night train moving west, as with the setting sun, and the speaker trying desperately to get a look at the stars on either side before his time runs out. The stars live and die as human beings do, but their life spans are prolonged, reaching out years in either direction from the time period the speaker is living in. He notes the brilliance and truth of this and admires the fact that some of the light from stars might not arrive at earth until after the death of humankind.
Structure and Form
‘Star-Gazer’ by Louis Macneice is a two stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza has nine lines and the second: eight. Macneice chose not to make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern in ‘Star-Gazer’ meaning that it was written in free verse. But, the poem is not devoid of rhyme entirely. For example, lines two, four, five, and eight of the first stanza all rhyme with the words “night,” “sight,” “bright,” and “light”. This puts an emphasis on the stars right from the start.
Macneice makes use of several literary devices in ‘Star-Gazer’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and imagery. The latter is perhaps the most important literary device at work in this pome due to the poignancy of the images. For example, the line “So darting from side to side I could catch the unwonted sight / Of those almost intolerably bright”. Here, the poet is using images that require the reader to tap into more than one sense in order to imagine the scene. One has to use sight, sound, and feeling to imagine it.
Alliteration and enjambment are more formal techniques that influence the way that a reader moves through the poem. Enjambment is seen through the use of line breaks before the end of a specific sentence or phrase. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza as well as between lines five and six of the same stanza.
Alliteration refers to examples of repetition in which the poet reused a consonant sound multiple times in succession. For example, “side,” “side,” and “sight” in line four of the first stanza and “light” and “leaving” in line two of stanza two.
Analysis of Star-Gazer
Forty-two years ago (to me if to no one else
The number is of some interest) it was a brilliant starry night
Had left them (some at least) long years before I was.
In the first stanza of ‘Star-Gazer,’ the speaker begins by casting his mind back to the past. Specifically, he’s interested in something that happened “Forty-two years ago”. He knows that it’s very possible that no one else is interested in that “number” or that time period but he is. Since this is his poem, he’s going to describe his experiences for whoever wants to listen.
The next lines set the scene. Its a beautiful starlit night and he was on a train going west. Readers should take note of the fact that Macneice doesn’t actually say “a” train but “the train” as if there is one specific train that everyone is aware of. It is “the westward train”.
In this instance, the train is empty and corridor-less. This means that the speaker was able to “dart…from side to side” and “catch the unwonted sight / Of those almost intolerably bright” stars. At this point, the poem is taking on a dreamlike quality. Why is the train empty? And what does the speaker mean when he says it has no corridors? These are the observations of a poem, one that is more focused on the experience than creating a realistic image.
He refers to the stars as “Holds, punched in the sky”. He found himself entranced by these stars. Partially because of their Latin names and his knowledge of them but also because of their distance. They were in that moment, and all moments since, untouchable. But, at the same time, powerful. This is seen through the use of the word “punched”.
Some of the stars, he knows, are dead and have been dead “long years before I was”. This suggests that the stars were dead before he saw them and before he was born and died himself.
And this remembering now I mark that what
Light was leaving some of them at least then,
Admiring it and adding noughts in vain.
In the second stanza, Macneice’s speaker comes back from this memory of the past into the present. He remembers feeling as he did back then and speaks again about the power of the star’s lights. The light was leaving some of those stars on the way to earth but it will take so long that it won’t “arrive / In time for [him] to catch it”. It exists in a world that is entirely undefined by human beings.
The light of stars is in a realm all of its own. In fact, he says, by the time that the light from some of the stars gets to earth “it” may find that there is no one left alive. This is a good example of personification and a reference to the distance the light has to travel. The people of the earth might all have died before the star’s light gets here.
In the final two lines of the poem, the speaker returns to the image of himself running from side to side in the train car trying to catch the sight of the star’s light in the sky. Through this image, he depicts the inevitability of the progression of time. He’s continually moving forward, speeding forward even, on the train toward his death. The manic rush back and forth might be seen as a metaphor for humankind’s attempts to find meaning in the brief span of their lives.
This poem is just one of many that spend time talking about the universe, time, stars, and humankind’s place among them. In fact, we have assembled a list of 10 of the Best Poems about Stars and the Universe that has many of the most notable on it. For example, ‘Bright Star’ by John Keats, a poem about a speaker’s changing emotions in regards to the steadfast and lonely nature of a star. Another good example is ‘Ah Moon—and Star!’ by Emily Dickinson. In the second poem, the speaker looks up at the sky and describes the great distance between her and the stars, using it as a metaphor for the distance between her and her lover.
Readers might also be interested in ‘Time, Real and Imaginary’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and ‘Time’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley.