Imagery and symbolism in The Starlight Night

Welsh influences

The octave is densely packed with images. It has been suggested Hopkins was influenced by Welsh poetry:

  • when he came to Wales, he started learning Welsh
  • he later studied Welsh poetry, which is very patterned.

One of its devices is to describe something by heaping up a whole pile of images, often very opposite from each other. This is what Hopkins seems to be doing here.


The initial images are personifications:

  • the stars are ‘fire-folk', with ‘elves'-eyes', ‘flake doves'
  • the clusters of stars remind him of little towns and ‘citadels'.

Then Hopkins inverts looking up to looking down, as down a well or mine:

  • ‘delves' is an archaic plural of ‘delf', meaning a mine
  • the stars up above seem like diamonds at the bottom of a mine-shaft.

Then he turns to the Milky Way and the sweep of diffuse starlight:

  • he uses the image of trees, the whitebeam and the white poplar (‘abeles'), both of whose leaves show white when windblown.

In terms of his own poetic theory, Hopkins is creating the inscape, the uniqueness of this particular sky scene.


The images gluing the octave and the sestet together are quite opposite, taken from the commercial world:

  • purchase, prize from l.8 are linked to buy, bid (as at an auction) in l.9, echoing Jesus' parables taken from the world of commerce:
    • the parable of buying the magnificent pearl by selling everything else (Matthew 13:45);
    • the field containing the hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44).

So such experiences of beauty are to be grabbed hold of as precious.

Gathering natural beauty

The sestet also contains natural images of beauty

  • the image of trees in blossom could be read as further metaphors of the stars; or they could be read as separate images altogether
  • they lead up to the climactic image of the barn (see above). This is a man-made structure, though associated with pastoral imagery, set in parallel with ‘this piece-bright paling', a man-made structure of enclosure
  • the ‘shocks' are the harvest sheaves of wheat gathered in, from the Bible reference. It might seem that what is gathered must be the experiences and memories of beauty that can be stored away; but that does not make sense with the last line, which suggests that what is stored away is a greater faith in Christ.

Beauty and faith are not the same, but nor are they different, either. Hopkins dwells on this in a further sonnet, ‘The Windhover'. In Hopkins' theory, the sestet is defining the instress, the particular way in which the scene impinges itself upon the poet, capturing its essence. The imagery of enclosure in ‘shuts' is thus especially significant.

The Second Coming

The reference to ‘the spouse / Christ' comes from biblical imagery of Christ as husband, or bridegroom, to the church, as in:

‘for the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready' (Revelation 19:7)


‘I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.' (Revelation 21:2)

The highly symbolic language refers to the teaching of the Second Coming of Christ. Associated with this, the church is often seen in Christian religious language as ‘the bride of Christ'. Indeed, traditionally, the Old Testament book of The Song of Solomon, which is a love song, has been interpreted allegorically as an image of Christ and his bride, the church.

Investigating The Starlight Night
  • What metaphors does Hopkins use to convey a sense of value?
  • What is the effect of the image of ‘a farmyard scare'?
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