Meredith’s remarkable poem arose at a time when arguments were reaching a fever pitch between advocates of the church and advocates of rationalism, many of whom were influenced by the English Deism movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Deists had advocated a worldview that embraced the concept of a Creator but that rejected the idea of an interceding deity. Once the mechanical universe of the Deists was set in motion, the Creator’s role was done. The work of such pioneering rationalists as Sir Isaac Newton and James Hutton supported this mechanistic view of the universe. In Meredith’s time, the greatest proponent of rationalism was Charles Darwin, whose evolutionary theory renewed and deepened the debate, often acrimonious, between representatives of the church and the halls of science.
Throughout these centuries, despite the debates and acrimony, many within the rationalist camp never divorced themselves entirely from the church or religious thought. The language, terms, and ideas of Christianity remained important at all levels of discourse. Meredith’s “Lucifer in Starlight” embodies this in dramatic form. By demonstrating its continued interest to contemporary readers, Meredith asserted the power of the biblical story and biblical perspective in the most direct manner. That the poem continued to attract readers through the succeeding century indicates that not only the issues but also Meredith’s rhetorical approach are of enduring interest.
The overwhelming impact of the poem arrives from its critique of the traditional Christian outlook, however. The language, themes, and story of the poem are derived from that outlook, yet the narrative of “Lucifer in Starlight,” line by line, moves inexorably toward its rationalist conclusion, in which Lucifer, a uniquely Christian being, is defeated. Even though supernatural in nature, he is not defeated by the swords of Heaven, nor by the thunderbolts of a higher supernatural deity. He is defeated by a simple sight. He sees the stars, which represent the eternal laws of the physical universe. In a real sense, he sees reason.
With the lines, “Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars/ With memory of the old revolt from Awe,” Lucifer is revealed as a kind of Sisyphus. He is engaging in a struggle he has lost before, but which he feels compelled to engage in again. His proper place, as a supernatural being, is a “dark dominion.” Yet he grows tired of that place and rises to fight once more against “the army of unalterable law.” Just as Sisyphus is doomed to forever push a boulder to the top of an unscalable hill, Meredith’s Lucifer is doomed to repeat his futile effort.
The strength of its message makes “Lucifer in Starlight” compelling as an artistic expression of one of the great intellectual debates of Western society. Meredith’s skill with words, sure command of his poetic form, and dramatic flair give the work lasting value as a literary work.