The Light of the Stars


The night is come, but not too soon;
And sinking silently,
All silently, the little moon
Drops down behind the sky.

There is no light in earth or heaven
But the cold light of stars;
And the first watch of night is given
To the red planet Mars.

Is it the tender star of love?
The star of love and dreams?
O no! from that blue tent above,
A hero’s armor gleams.

And earnest thoughts within me rise,
When I behold afar,
Suspended in the evening skies,
The shield of that red star.

O star of strength! I see thee stand
And smile upon my pain;
Thou beckonest with thy mailèd hand,
And I am strong again.

Within my breast there is no light
But the cold light of stars;
I give the first watch of the night
To the red planet Mars.

The star of the unconquered will,
He rises in my breast,
Serene, and resolute, and still,
And calm, and self-possessed.

And thou, too, whosoe’er thou art,
That readest this brief psalm,
As one by one thy hopes depart,
Be resolute and calm.

O fear not in a world like this,
And thou shalt know erelong,
Know how sublime a thing it is
To suffer and be strong.

*

Longfellow wrote “The Light of Stars” in the summer of 1838 and called the poem “A Second Psalm of Life.” The poem first appeared in Knickerbocker’s, and despite not receiving payment for his poems, Longfellow was encouraged to publish “The Light of Stars” and other early poems in Voices of the Night in 1839. This poem was published posthumously in Longfellow’s Poetical Works in 1891.

Voices of the Night was written during a series of emotional hardships Longfellow faced in the 1830s. In years leading up to Longfellow’s “psalms,” his first wife had a miscarriage, which led to a deep decline in her health, concluding in her death in 1835, leaving Longfellow a grieving widower. In 1837, Longfellow threw himself into his work after facing more heartache at Fanny Appleton’s rejection of his marriage proposal. Longfellow wrote and published this poem when he was in his early 30s. As Edward Hirsh adds, Longfellow was also writing during a time of significant industrialization and was interested in the “human misery caused by financial panics.”

“The Light of the Stars” uses a consistent ABAB rhyme scheme and alliteration in lines like “And sinking silently / all silently that little moon.” Longfellow uses images of the night sky, daunting planets, and images of darkness and lightness despite the short lines in each verse. Mars carries a shield, and the narrator speaks directly to Mars, “O star of strength! I see thee stand / And smile upon my pain; / Thou beckonest with thy mailèd hand, / And I am strong again.” Longfellow also uses a litany to describe the “star of the unconquered will,” which allows further insight into the narrator’s psyche as he grapples to describe what he is feeling, which is “Serene, and resolute, and still, / And calm, and self-possessed.” The final stanza breaks the fourth wall, as the narrator speaks to his audience: “O fear not in a world like this / And thou shalt know erelong, / Know how sublime a thing it is / To suffer and be strong.”

“The Light of the Stars” is a poem about the isolation and pain of humanity, considered by Longfellow to be the “Second Psalm of Life.” The consistent rhyme scheme, alliterative lines, and litany within the poem contribute to the narrative tone of Longfellow’s psalm. Similarly, the use of questions and exclamation marks influence the tone of the poem, as do the images of darkness and light.

Bibliography and Further Reading Edward Hirsh, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: University of Minnesota Pamphlets of American Writers no. 35. (1964). “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.” The Poetry Foundation; Lawrence Thompson. Young Longfellow (1807–1843), (1938).

Credits Composed by Mariah Palmer, Fall 2018. Reading by Mariah Palmer.

 

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American Poetry and Poetics by Mark C. Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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