(I delivered what follows a couple of years ago at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Manhattan, Kansas, as part of a service on stars and the cosmos in poetry and song and physics. The choir sang a choral version of Frost’s “Choose Something Like a Star.” I sang with the choir and shared my thoughts on the poems afterword.)
Reflections on a Star
Choose Something Like a Star
by Robert Frost – 1947
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Our cultural heritage—and I am sure this is not the case solely for Western Judeo-Christendom—reserves several linear feet of library space to the star. They twinkle and shine, they guide our way, they remind us of our contingency in the universe, they represent that wee speck of light in the darkest night to which we can cling—hoping for the sunrise tomorrow. We wish upon stars, we set our hopes on them, we reach out and grab them—symbols of our lofty goals.
Many believe that Robert Frost was gently (or not so gently) criticizing T.S. Eliot in these verses: Eliot himself as the proud star, whom Frost beseeches to reveal something about his inspiration, his gift, his talent. That’s fine with me. I am sure that Frost felt the need to poetically needle a man such as Eliot. But really, I could care less about what Frost INTENDED this poem to mean, what intertexts are involved. I have no patience for poetry a clef, and I don’t think you need to, either. When I read or hear or sing the lines of this poem, I know deeply that I am demanding that a mystery be revealed. To that light twinkling up in the heavens I shout: hear me now, tell me what it means, give me something to hold on to, GRANT ME MY WISH.
The star, however, has no interest in my plea. The universe, in its vastness, in its chemical and organic complexity, cares not one whit if I exist as breathing flesh and blood, pulsing with joy, or if my blood, tissue, and bones return to the earth to fertilize it for another season. The star burns whether or not I acknowledge its light.
I don’t think Eliot responded to Frost, either—or at least not in the way the poem suggests he should: “tell us what elements you blend; use language we can comprehend.” And so, at that point in the poem, Frost gives up on the star. Forget it. It burns; there are chemicals involved; it’s really hot and really far away.
So he then turns his attention to us. He tells his readers, “It gives us strangely little aid.” US—we are in this together, whether the star wants to participate in our meaning-making here, or not. So, as lofty and taciturn and disinterested as the star would appear, its very presence reveals something to us. That twinkling light in the heavens can serve as a point of reference—a compass by which we will not guide ships, but our own hearts and minds. Should praise or blame, should fortune or despair shower down upon us, we can look to the heavens, choose a star and be still, be comforted and staid. And, as Keats is explicitly mentioned and Eliot obliquely, perhaps Frost is telling us that any star will do—any point upon which you can rest and focus your mind and attention can stay you, support you, remind you that it is not the mob of the moment that matters but something more lasting, if more distant.
What role does Keats have for Frost here? Why does he get mentioned? What does he have to do with the star? Well, let’s look at Keats’ “Bright Star”:
by John Keats
Bright star, would I were stedfast 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
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,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever— or else swoon to death.
Here, Keats wishes to be like the bright star in the heavens. Where the star is steadfast in his lone vigil over the night earth; Keats wants to keep his unsleeping vigil pillowed upon his beloved, whose breast here becomes the entire earth, while Keats—who here plays a patient religious zealot—feels the earth of her body rise and fall in slumber. He remains awake in “sweet unrest.”
The Eremite, however, remains the star—“nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite”—an entity to which one can aspire; an admirable steadfastness that suggests the unending cycle of time and tide on this earth. The star suggests, to me, that we may (or perhaps MUST) choose to find our meaning, catch hold of our inspiration, where we can. In the absence of a god, benevolent or vengeful, we must look and find something like a star in the heavens or on earth onto which we can pin our hopes and dreams. Keats chose his lover; Frost knew that both the poet and the scientist can reveal that which burns brightly within us. What do we wish upon?
The star is there—it burns; it keeps watch over the night. Should we be awake or out and about during those dark hours when the map of the universe twinkles in the heavens, perhaps we should look up. Perhaps we should fix our eyes on that star and remember the purity and the beauty of the earth and be strengthened in our purpose; in our purpose to live a life of meaning.