The Star of Love

Venus has been astonishingly bright in the sky this month. A planet, not a star, but it’s so much richer to see it as a ‘wandering star’. In any case, it got me thinking about the fixed stars, those guiding signs for sailors. Metaphorically, our lives have so often been compared to a boat at sea. Sometimes storm-tossed, sometimes lost, sometimes becalmed as in Coleridge’s evocation of depression:

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Pursuing the fundamental poetry of sea and star, Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 116 of Love as a fixed star above whatever lives we live, a guide to centre us in our bleakest moments. It’s a popular reading at weddings though I think the Love pointed to here transcends the marital:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
We cannot know this Love directly. Its ‘worth unknown’, it is a mystery. Yet it is something to which we turn with certainty, something beyond us yet crucially important. The poem could, of course, be interpreted as a Christian viewpoint. Buti interpretation can go far beyond that. However we may conceive of it, our ‘ever-fixed mark’, if we are lucky enough to find it within us, is an ultimate tranquillity and comfort. It does not speak or offer magic. It is above human joy and suffering, the point through which we contemplate, at least for brief periods, a benevolent cosmic principle.
I think Robert Frost’s Choose Something Like a Star resonates with Shakespeare’s sonnet. It’s always fascinating to see different treatments of similar ideas across the centuries:
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.
Frost’s star, like Shakespeare’s, cannot be experienced through words or measurements, facts or calculation. The star, too, is obscure, mysterious. It does ask of us ‘a certain height’ (as, say, a beautiful painting asks awe of us), that height both looking upwards to a fixed transcendental point, and the height of standing tall when passions run high and ‘the mob is swayed’. This poem is not about Love yet it shares the same ‘idea pattern’, offer sus the choice of ‘something like a star/ To stay our minds on and be staid.’ A Stoic such as Marcus Aurelius would have liked this poem. The Stoic’s ‘fixed point’, of course, was the central belief in the benevolence of the cosmos, a form of Love.

* Keats’ Eremite is a reference to John Keats’ poem Bright Star which celebrates sensuous, romantic love in contrast with the permanence of the bright star:
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.

 

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