“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!
Down in the dim woods the diamond delves! the elves- eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quick-gold lies!”
I began my semi-autobiographical novel ‘Freak or smoothy‘ with this quote from Starlight night by Gerard Manley Hopkins and, indeed, throughout the story there are scenes of star gazing- on the Yorkshire Wolds and in the back garden of our house in Barnsley. There was less light pollution then, and even urban South Yorkshire was darker that London where I now live, so I saw plentiful stars then whereas now I am largely cut off from the heavens except when we holiday in a remote Landmark Trust property. Seeing the stars, though, has always been important to me- it is grounding experience and one that evokes a variety of combined responses.
The night skies evoke feelings of wonder, as epitomised by Hopkins’ words. This is coupled with a sense of beauty- and plenty of my other favourite poets have captured this: W B Yeats in the Wandering Aengus described how “the moth-like stars were flickering out” and William Blake chose a similar metaphor- “his starry heavens a moth of gold and silver.” (Jerusalem chapter 4 stanza 91). Besides the stars, the moon too can elicit similar sensations, as in Hopkins ‘Moonrise’:
“I awoke in midsummer, not-to-call night, in the white and walk of the morning;
The moon, dwindled and thinned to the fringe of a fingernail held to a candle,
Or paring of paradisiacal fruit, lovely in waning but lustreless,
Stepped from the stool, drew back from the barrow, of dark Maenefa the mountain.”
Moonlight drowns out star light though, and is generally not to be preferred. I like pitch black nights and the endlessness of the cosmos arched above my straining neck.
The greatest attraction for me of star-gazing is that it impresses upon you a sense of the immensity and permanence of the universe and the transient tininess of human life. This may sound gloomy, but I find it strangely comforting and reassuring. Poet Ivor Gurney captured something of this in Boughs, when he wrote of “the aloofness, the dread of starry majesties.” The distance of the “numberless” stars and our comparable insignificance is emphasised, but he still felt that constellations and planets could be his companions when walking at night; Capella, Orion, Jupiter and Mars travel with him on his nocturnal wanderings, somehow ensuring protection and security. He appreciated “each most tiny baby-star as fine/ As any king’s jewel” on one cold, cloudless night. Gurney’s verse also stresses the constant motion of the skies- “Heaven’s ordered cavalcade” as he termed it. This awareness is best described in Stars sliding:
“The stars are sliding wanton through the trees,
The sky is sliding steadily over all.
Giant Bear to Gemini will lose his place
And Cygnus over world’s brink slip and fall.
Follow-my-leader’s not so bad a game.
But were it leap-frog: O to see the shoots
And tracks of glory; Scorpions and Swans tame,
And Argo swarmed with Bulls and other brutes.”
This perception of motion has always been another important element to me. From my auntie I have inherited a Philip’s Planisphere, a rotating cardboard map of the heavens, which was a source of fascination and delight to me when I visited her as a child. It cleverly reproduces the constant circling of the night skies above our heads and reminds us of the hugeness of the galaxy spinning around us.