Choose Something Like A Star Robert Frost Analysis Essay
by guest blogger BroKen
This article comes out in my local paper this evening. Since it mentions some of you, I thought I should post it here, too.
Some friends and I have been engaged in an online debate with an atheist. It’s not a debate really. We try to reason. He mostly rants. One of the points we’ve tried to make him see is that human beings need some external standard for things like morality, ethics, justice, love, even beauty.
So, I thought of a poem by Robert Frost that I memorized in High School. It expresses this human need. The poem made no sense to me when I learned it, but over the years I’ve found keys for interpretation. Here it is along with some keys.
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.
It is difficult to understand things that are high above us. Other things (like clouds) come between and interfere. Darkness is not a fit metaphor of this difficulty since Light shines in darkness.
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.”
Why does mystery turn into pride? It made no sense until I was reminded that “becomes” can also mean “makes attractive” as in, That color becomes you. So, the lack of understanding makes marvelous things more majestic.
The poet gets frustrated by the complete silence of the star. The silence is broken by two words which echo what Moses heard at the burning bush. Is that enough? The poet doesn’t think so.
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.
My atheist friend is all about the scientific understanding of things. He thinks science demonstrates that we don’t need God. Robert Frost knows better. Even though science is helpful (“does tell something“), it cannot supply what we need (“strangely little aid“).
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
“Keats’ Eremite” refers to a sonnet by the Romantic poet who wished he could remain in a moment of bliss with his lover. He wanted to remain constant and unchanging as a star he called “nature’s patient, sleepless eremite.” (An eremite is one who has left human society to focus on spiritual growth; a hermit.)
The poet has run out of questions, so now the star does the asking.
It asks of us a certain height,
so when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
Ever been there? Criticized unjustly, or justly but without grace. Or lauded until it goes to your head. Humans almost always go too far!
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
The narrator speaks to a star in the sky and urges it to give him something to believe in. Although he acknowledges that stars are naturally quiet, the narrator still begs the star to say something to him. The star simply replies, “I burn.” The narrator is not satisfied with the star’s response and urges it to be even more specific. He explains that a few words from the star would be enough to help humanity strive for greater heights and, at the very least, be comforted.
In terms of form, this poem is relatively traditional, with a regular rhyme scheme and iambic meter. Frost uses rhymes for “-ight,” “-oud,” “-earn,” “-eat,” “-end,” “-aid,” “-ere,” and “-ar” to create the following pattern: AABAABCBCDCDEFFEFAGGAHIIH.
The poem focuses on humanity’s need for reassurance from a higher power. Some individuals use religion as a way to reassure themselves, while others emphasize science as a comfort. Frost plays with these genres of thought by blending different aspects of each into the narrator’s urgent plea to the star. In the very first line, Frost echoes a traditional prayer to God with the reverential tone and the term “O” (which would normally precede “God” or “Lord”). Later, when the star declares, “I burn,” Frost introduces the scientific genre of thought and describes the narrator’s need for specific, scientific information about the star. Knowledge of the star’s existence is not enough; the narrator wants scientific evidence of the star’s temperature and elemental makeup.
In addition to creating this combination of religion and science, Frost expands the irony of the narrator’s plea through the use of the term “something.” The narrator needs the star to say “something” to him so badly that it does not even matter what the “something” is. When the star speaks, its words have nothing to do with the narrator’s experience on earth. Instead, the pithy “I burn” relates only to the star itself and, even more importantly, does not provide clear evidence that the star possesses any intelligent thought. The star has no comprehension of anything outside of its own existence and can only quantify its presence with “I burn.”
However, Frost asserts (ironically) that what the star says does not actually matter. The simple existence of the words is enough to reassure mankind, because it proves that humans are not isolated in the universe. Moreover, even the object of such reverence is not crucial to narrator’s comfort: as the title reveals, an individual must only choose “something” like a star, not necessarily the star itself.
In the last line of the poem, Frost uses the wordplay of the terms “to stay” and “to be staid” to reiterate the narrator’s explanation in the poem. By selecting a distant object to idolize, no matter what it is, an individual has the capacity to become “stayed” (comforted; rooted), even as such devotion threatens to make humanity “staid” (old-fashioned; static).