Commentary on The Starlight Night


The octave is a simple, celebratory description of the stars in a particularly brilliant night sky. ‘Look...look, look' he keeps saying in his enthusiasm. He piles one image on another to try to help us to share the intensity of his feeling. Gazing at the night sky is a universal experience, but we need to capture Hopkins' artist-like entrancement with the stars.

Usually, the octave in a sonnet poses some sort of problem or question, especially in its Petrarchan form. Here:

  • nothing seems in the slightest bit problematic
  • it is all exclamatory
  • quite an incredible number of exclamation marks dot the end of each line but one, plus a few elsewhere.

The problem

Hopkins waits till the first line of the sestet to pose the problem. Is someone making an objection to all this praise?

The implied debate is, ‘What about all those things that you are supposed to be doing as a Christian priest? Are you really supposed to be spending your time hedonistically enjoying all this beauty?', the sort of problem that has troubled Hopkins in the past.


The sestet then moves into its traditional role of trying to resolve this:

  • it is not an either/or choice- either the enjoyment of beauty or Christian devotion
  • it is both/and, and what is more, the beauty actually captures the religious dimensions of life.

To put it another way: such experiences of Creation concretise devotion and motivate it.


The barn is a biblical image which helps determine the meaning of the resolution:

  • One suggestion, which you may have in the notes of your edition, is that Hopkins is referring to Matthew 13:30:
‘Let both (i.e. wheat and tares) grow together until the harvest... Gather ye together first the tares and bind them into bundles to burn them; but gather the wheat into my barn.'

This reference of Jesus to the Last Judgement is quite similar to a saying of John the Baptist:

‘His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff...' (Luke 3:17)

The meaning would thus be that humans cannot decide what is good and what is sinful now. Let them live alongside each other, and at the judgement, it will be sorted.

  • However, another possible biblical reference would be to Jesus' words:
‘Behold the fowls of the air, for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?' (Matthew 6:26)
  • The context is that God provides amply for his creatures, which should make humans mindful of God as provider.
  • Certainly, the barn image relates to terms of enclosure: ‘withindoors house', ‘paling', ‘home'. I.e. the beauty of the creation is the container, the ‘barn'; though what is inside is more significant, the barn is necessary.
Investigating The Starlight Night
  • Which Bible reference do you think is the nearer one?
    • There are still other Bible references to barns (Luke 12:18 for instance).
  • What do the words ‘Prayer, patience, alms, vows' convey to you?
  • What exactly is the ‘purchase' or the ‘prize' referred to in l.8?
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