Reversals: Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Starlight Night”

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. – Colossians 1:16-17

What do we see when we look up into the night sky?Large Magellanic Cloud - NASA Caltech

Darkness; scattered points of light; and the vast empty spaces between the stars. We are looking out, from a tiny little ball of earth and water and air, into a void…

Or are we? C.S. Lewis, in his book The Discarded Image, reminds us that this is but one“image” of the universe; it is not the way that people saw the world in medieval times. They were just as aware as we are that the earth is exceedingly small compared to the rest of the cosmos, but instead of looking up and seeing the cosmos as empty and vacant, a vast and frighteningly lonely place, they saw the seven heavens, arrayed with order and meaning.

Modern science would have us believe that we are nothing but clever mammals scrabbling for existence on a cosmically insignificant bit of mud and rock circling in the vacuum. One could see the cosmos as meaningless – the same way that one can stare at a page of print long enough for the words and letters to blur into meaningless black marks on the page. But what if it’s not? What if we could blink and look afresh at the page, to see the letters re-shape into words, the words jump out with meaning?

We might then catch a glimpse of the meaning of the heavens, a snatch of the music of the spheres – a hint of the way that “all things hold together” in the Word who made all things…

Gerard Manley Hopkins gives us such a glimpse in his sonnet “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!   

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.      

Buy then! bid then!—What?—Prayer, patience, aims, 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 opening line of the poem, Hopkins calls our attention upward: “Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!” Ecstatic, he calls the stars “fire-folk” and “circle-citadels,” compares them to windblown white flowers: “Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!”

And, having connected those bright points of light far above to the here-and-now of trees in a farmyard, to a “May-mess, like on orchard boughs,” he takes one more imaginative leap. These stars are a barn: “withindoors house / The shocks.” And this barn, with its “piece-bright paling” of stars, houses Christ himself, the firstfruits of the Resurrection.

A lovely image, but a distant one, it seems: Christ far above us in the heavens, separate from us here on the earth… but wait! Where are we in this sonnet? We are the saints, the souls made holy or “hallowed,” to use the old term; and in a swooping change of perspective, Hopkins shows us, delightedly, that the stars are not walls shutting us out into the darkness, excluding us, but walls that surround us, making the whole cosmos into our own home:

…This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse

Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

A dizzying change of perspective: we are at the center, because Christ is at the center, and we are in him.

Dr. Holly Ordway is the chair of the Department of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University (hbu.edu/maa). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. She blogs at Hieropraxis.

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Image credit: Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech (Large Magellanic Cloud).

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