After a brief hiatus due to general busyness with work and/or just plain ol’ living the dream, I’m finally back to it. Please forgive the unnecessarily long title – this sort of thing is cathartic for my soul. Mea culpa.
With a dram of Talisker 10 in hand (sláinte and amen), I thanked the good Lord and toasted to the birth of my boy Robert Frost on March 26 while reading from our copy of The Poetry of Robert Frost. I just so happened upon his “Take Something like a Star” and discovered that it was inspired (in part) by John Keat’s sonnet “Bright Star, would I were steadfast as thou art.” Reading the two poems together felt something akin to Samwise dropping eaves on a conversation he ought not have been privy to. This series of posts revolves around thoughts churned from the kind providence of my listening in.
First, the poems:
TAKE SOMETHING LIKE A STAR by Robert Frost
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud —
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light. 5
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat. 10
Say something! And it says “I burn.”
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend. 15
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here. 20
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid. 25
BRIGHT STAR, WOULD I WERE STEADFAST AS THOU ART by John Keats
Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task 5
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —
No — yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast, 10
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death.
Frost’s poem begins with what feels something like quasi-praise of the mysterious heavenlies: O Star, fairest, lofty – kingly. Surprisingly, the Star we look to happens to simply be the brightest one in sight, particulars matter not. Frost is simply looking for a revelation, the object to whom he looks is less important. He concedes that some mystery, some silence becomes the Star, the revelator. It is this very darkness that radiates its light, after all. This clearly refers to the pitch of nightfall without which distant stars are outshined by the nearer one. But there is also a sense of an intrigue in the Stars transcendence and seemingly stalwart indifference towards him
Note also the disappointment in the stars revelation: “I burn.” This is little more than saying simply, “I exist” or “I am.” Initially this word seems insufficient but perhaps the existence of another subject and predicate is a comfort. At the very least, we are not alone in the world. Despite the acknowledgement of its existence, its statement indicates no reference. There is no regard for another. Disappointed, Frost beckons it for more – more detail, more precision and the star “gives us strangely little aid but does tell us something in the end.” Despite its reticence, the star does speak a word to him: steadfast. Steadfast as Keats’ Eremite.
Strangely, in reference to Keat’s poem, Frost appeals to the reclusive characteristic of the star – the precisely characteristic of the star that Keats finds to be inimitable. Keat’s eremite refers to a religious hermit that living a solitary life. Keats views the steadfastness of the star from a different angle. He wishes to be as steadfast as the bright star, though precisely not in its eternal watching and wide-eyed solitude spectating the earth’s goings on. Instead, he longs to forever live in love with his love – steadfastly and unchangeably. He paints the tender scene of lying on his lover’s chest, feeling the gentle swell and fall of her living breath – the sense of joy in togetherness that longs for eternity. The two poets focus on a similar subject matter, appealing to the stars for direction, but do so in interestingly different ways.
Back to Frost, the irony of the poem is that neither the star nor the word it utters actually matters. His counsel is simply to take something like a star. The star is expendable. What matters is not the object, in itself, but the revelation from the likes of such an object acting as a guiding principle or anchor preventing the pendulumming from one extreme to another in the midst of modern mob currents. To avoid the vicissitudes in life, man needs something like a star to stay grounded.
This begs the question: to what object, what stalwart, steadfast, “something like a star” do we look to “to stay our minds on and be staid”? Does our particular object, indeed, matter not as Frost asserts?
The poems of Frost and Keats are illuminating in that they reveal that it’s a very human to find our way via celestial navigation. We forge our path in the world by staying our eyes on some transcendent thing that seems steadfast like a virtue or a tradition. Unlike Frost, however, I will argue that the particular object matters a great deal.
In the next post, I hope to make a case for love as our Polaris. I will explore love as a guiding star in Dante’s Paradiso, Canto XXVI and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116.