There is no quick reading of some poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Slow going and thought are essential to picking out his meaning from his often odd phrasing, uncommon word choices, and lack of complete clarity.
Such a poem is The Starlight Night.
In it, as in some of his other poems such as The Windhover, Hopkins mixes Nature with aspects of his adopted religion, Roman Catholicism. He often uses the former (Nature) as an introduction to the latter (religion).
Without careful reading, this poem would quickly dissolve into incoherency after its simple beginning. And even with care, as we shall see, there are some ambiguities in interpretation. But let’s give it a try nonetheless.
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!
Hopkins urges the reader to look up at the stars in the night sky. He compares the stars to living beings of fire, to “fire-folk” sitting in the air. And he likens the groupings and clusters of stars to “bright boroughs,” that is, to star towns, and to “circle-citadels,” to fortresses within the circle of the night sky, like the fortress refuge within or above an old town in medieval and renaissance times. We might also understand “circle-citadels” to refer to the circular dots of light in the sky that are stars.
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
There are two possible interpretations of that. The first is to understand it as referring to the sky, seeing it as having dim woods (dark areas) and “grey lawns” (the “Milky Way”). The second interpretation, which perhaps makes more sense, is to understand it as viewing the stars from different locations — from within a dim wood where the trees are bare, so the stars may be seen among the dark night branches as “diamond delves,” (diamond caves or hollows, from an old meaning of “delve”) and as “elves’-eyes” (bright, sparkling eyes of supernatural creatures). Also as stars viewed from grey (all colors turn grey or black at night) lawns where “quickgold” lies, meaning that golden stars (a likeness here to “quicksilver”) lie upon (above) the night lawn like shining, fluid gold. Neither interpretation comes off perfectly, and we may see this as a flaw in Hopkins’ communication of meaning.
Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!
Hopkins gives us more metaphors for stars: he tells us they are “wind-beat whitebeam!” A whitebeam is a tree that has clusters of little white blossoms in the spring, so a “wind-beat” whitebeam is one that scatters its white blossoms (i.e. stars) in the wind. He also likens them to another English tree, to white poplars (“abeles”) “set on flare,” that is, with branches set alight with burning stars like torches. He further likens the stars to “flake-doves,” that is, to flakes of scattered light like bright, white doves that scatter into the air when startled in a farmyard.
Ah, well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.
The starry skies described in the poem are “a purchase” — something to be bought — as well as “a prize” something won as an achievement, something to be highly valued.
The first part of the poem is designed to draw the attention of the reader to the stars and their glittering, sparkling beauty. Hopkins is like a man selling his wares in a marketplace; he first shouts out to catch your attention and fix it on what he is selling (stars, in this case), and then he urges you to buy and tells you the price:
Buy then! bid then!—What?—Prayer, patience, alms, vows.
With that line we realize that the long beginning of the poem was just an introduction, a sales pitch for selling his religious notions. This will be elaborated as we continue. Having shown us the wonders of the stars in the night sky, Hopkins tells us we should then “buy,” should “bid,” meaning to offer a price for the stars. And what is the price?
It is prayer; it is patience; it is alms (money or goods given to the poor); it is vows (promises to perform this or that religious and/or moral act). In short, it is a religious life that will enable one to purchase the starry sky. That is the price.
Now this is an odd notion. Why would one want to purchase the stars in the night sky? Before he tells us, Hopkins returns to his colorful sales pitch, directing our attention back to the stars:
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
By “mess” here, Hopkins means a quantity, a large number (of stars), like white blossoms on the boughs of fruit trees in an orchard in May. Then he likens the starry sky to sallows (willow trees) in early March that “bloom” with their catkins that release a golden dust like yellow flour (meal) — a comparison to the stars dusted like willow pollen across the sky.
Now we come to the point of the whole thing, and are told at last what Hopkins is selling:
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.
All of the bright stars in the sky, which Hopkins has compared to fire-folk, to bright boroughs, to circle citadels, to diamond caves and elves eyes, to quickgold, to blossoming or fiery trees, to doves, to willow pollen, all of these comprise, to Hopkins, a structure, a building. Hopkins likens it to a barn, and inside the doors of that barn (“withindoors”) are housed the shocks, meaning here the bundles of cut grain. This is an old Christian symbol for human souls, who are to be harvested into heaven as in the old Protestant hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves.” So we see that Hopkins views the starry sky as the great heavenly barn in which redeemed souls are housed, and not only souls. He goes on to tell us,
This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.
Hopkins takes his likening of the starry sky to a heavenly barn one more step; he compares it to a “piece-bright paling,” a barrier (like a fence or palisade), a wall of bright stars pieced together (each star a “piece”) that “shuts” (encloses) Christ in his home, that is, in heaven — the great barn of heaven; and with him are his mother Mary (very important in Catholic teaching as an intercessor for humans) and “all his hallows,” meaning all of the saints of Christ. “Hallows” (“holy ones”) is an old term for saints, which is why we have All Hallows Eve, the evening before the day on which all saints are celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church — the origin of our modern festival name “Halloween.”
Christ himself is the “spouse,” which is a notion derived from the New Testament, in which the Church and those in it are the “bride of Christ.” It is also a term significant in monasticism, because nuns are considered to be married to Christ as their spouse.
The appeal of this poem lies in its colorful imagery and alliteration — “fire folk,” “diamond delves,” etc., rather than in its overall meaning, which takes a great deal of effort to extract. That difficulty and its spotty ambiguity make this one of Hopkins’ less successful efforts as a whole, which is why people tend to remember the clear and bright parts of the poem — like the first two lines — and forget the rest.
I have compared this poem to a sales pitch for Hopkins’ adopted Roman Catholic religious views (he was a convert), but given his introversion and persistent state of depression after his conversion, one is left with the feeling that the person Hopkins was really trying to sell on these religious views was himself.