Thursday, January 15, 2015

Faith in the Night Sky: Frost's "Choose Something Like a Star"


Winter nights are best for stargazing. The dark comes on early, and the air--if bitter--is beautifully clear. Often, if I happen to be outside for a moment on a cloudless winter evening, I stop to greet a few old friends--the sweeping Big Dipper, the jagged Cassiopeia, the faint but distinctive Pleiades, and marching over all, the majestic Orion. They're not much compared to the grandeur of the Milky Way, but considering that I live in a Chicago suburb, I just take what I can get.

On that note I'd like to pull out a Robert Frost poem concerning stars. "Choose Something Like a Star" is one of the final pieces in Frost's Complete Poems 1949. It's one of his more metaphorically profound poems (and Frost is really, really good at being metaphorically profound), and, I think, a particularly pointed reminder to us as Christians and American citizens. Read away.

Choose Something Like a Star
By Robert Frost
 
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.
 
Let me say it outright. I think the entire poem is one long metaphorical reflection on faith in God. However, the metaphor is gorgeously layered. Take a look at the first three lines from this angle:
 
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud--
 
To me this comes across quite clearly as an appeal to a Divine Being. I.e., "Dear God, you are so infinitely greater than our human minds, that we admit we can't understand you fully. So go ahead--be a little mysterious." Of course, "we" don't stop there. We'd like a word or two of guidance:
 
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.'
 

The cryptic poignancy of that response echoes the scene of Moses and the burning bush. Indeed, since it is a star that is speaking, "I burn" seems a similar statement of essence to the Lord's "I AM"--in poetic terms, of course. But "I burn" also carries the meaning, "I desire." Desire what? It's no wonder we're a little confused:
 
...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.
 
Here, on the surface, Frost contrasts the poet's understanding of the star with the scientist's. The scientist wants something to measure; Frost makes it clear this star's meaning is immeasurable. The line of thought is the same if the star represents God. God's existence cannot be explained (or unexplained) by time- and matter-bound measurements. Not that He is irrational--rather, He is rational and more. The next lines give us a hint of this.
 
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height...
 
A certain height--the height, hope, and dignity of faith. A height that lets us think and act above the bewildering vicissitudes of changing times and social mores:
 
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.
 
(The pun in the final line is brilliant, by the way.) This is the bit I thought particularly relevant to us as Americans. Although we may technically live in a republic, when it comes to general culture we are definitely a democracy--as in, mob rule. The pressure to be politically correct, "to carry praise or blame too far," can be almost overwhelming. That's why "we may choose something like a star".
 
But even that isn't quite the right way to put it, considering what we've seen from the rest of the poem. Remember? "It asks a little of us here. / It asks of us a certain height". The title of Frost's poem may be "Choose Something Like a Star", but that is a line of ultimate understatement and irony. In reality, the Star chooses us.