UNSEEING STARS

Someone suggested a discussion of this wintry poem by Robert Frost.  It is among those in A Boy’s Will, the first “professionally” published book of his poems, which appeared in England in 1913, and two years later in the United States.

We will take it stanza by stanza:

STARS

How countlessly they congregate
     O’er our tumultuous snow,
Which flows in shapes as tall as trees
     When wintry winds do blow!—

The stars gather together in the sky over a landscape covered deep in snow that moves and piles in drifts and mounds as high as trees when the winter wind blows it about.

As if with keenness for our fate,
     Our faltering few steps on
To white rest, and a place of rest
     Invisible at dawn,—

One can take this literally or metaphorically.  Literally it means the stars appear in the sky as if they are concerned about the fate of humans — those humans out walking beneath the stars, then going back their few hesitant and uncertain steps to home, where they sleep amid the wintry whiteness until the light of dawn reveals even the home so covered in blown drifts of snow that it is invisible.

Metaphorically it can be understood to mean the stars appear in the sky as though concerned about the fate of humans, who walk their hesitant and uncertain few steps through life until they rest in wintry death, with even their graves hidden in the snow, their lives ultimately entirely forgotten and obliterated.

Which did Frost intend?  I suspect the literal.

And then we come to the point of the poem:

And yet with neither love nor hate,
     Those stars like some snow-white
Minerva’s snow-white marble eyes
     Without the gift of sight.

The stars, after all, have no concern for humans or their lives or fate.  Like the sightless, snow-white eyes of a statue carved in pure white marble  of the Roman goddess Minerva (the goddess of Wisdom), they are sightless and without emotion, empty of love or pity or hate.

The Universe, in other words, is emotionless, unfeeling, impartial and unconcerned about the brief lives of humans.

If one were to punctuate the second stanza slightly differently, it would suddenly take on clarity, but with quite a different meaning:

As if with keenness for our fate,
     Our faltering few steps; on
To white rest, and a place of rest
     Invisible at dawn,—

It would then mean the stars gather in the sky as if concerned for the fate of humans and their faltering few steps as they live and walk beneath the stars; and then the stars move on to their white rest above the snow as dawn comes and makes them invisible.

It is not one of Frost’s best poems.  It suffers partly because of the lack of clarity in the second stanza, and partly because Frost takes so many words to say simply that the Universe — symbolized by the stars — has no more concern for the fate of humans than do the sightless eyes of a marble statue.  Nonetheless, it does give us a wintry atmosphere and the chilly feeling of the icy, emotionless stars high in the sky above endless drifts of snow.

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