Study Guide to The Starlight Night
This poem is the second of the eleven widely-admired sonnets Hopkins wrote during 1877, an extremely fertile year for him. He was studying theology at St. Beuno’s College in North Wales at the time, and his imagination benefited greatly from the picturesque landscapes, the wildlife, and the peaceful pace of life. Hopkins focused often on the beauties of the sky during his time in Wales (see “Hurrahing in Harvest” and parts of “The Wreck of the Deutschland”), but the “The Starlight Night” is Hopkins’s most intense, sustained, and enthusiastic consideration of the night sky. As with other poems from this period, Hopkins focuses intently on seeing nature as it really is in all its specificity and particularity, a task that, for him, requires glimpsing the divine in nature.
Here are some things to think about regarding this poem:
- Why so many different descriptions of the stars? Is there a logical progression, order, or movement to the different terms Hopkins uses to describe them?
- Hopkins was interested in meteorology (several years later he would send letters to Nature magazine describing the atmospheric changes caused by the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa). How does Hopkins’s eye for scientific phenomena show up in this poem?
- Compare line eight with these lines from George Herbert, one of Hopkins’s favorite poets: “Take stars for money; stars not to be told / By any art, but to be purchased” (“Church-Porch” stanza 29). What do Hopkins and Herbert mean by connecting stars’ beauty with currency?
- In the last three lines of the poem (the final tercet of the sonnet’s sestet), the perspective changes, and nature becomes an analogy for Christ, Mary, and the saints. How does this change of perspective fit (or fail to fit) with the poem as a whole?