Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538
George Meredith’s “Lucifer in Starlight” explores a motif introduced in the Christian Old Testament and examines the stymied ambitions of an angel fallen from Heaven who was the embodiment of pride and temptation. Meredith’s poem achieves distinction in approaching the theme from a rationalist, possibly Deist-influenced, point of view.
In the poem, the fallen angel Prince Lucifer rises out of his “dark dominion,” the region beneath the earth to which he had been consigned after his rebellion against Heaven. His flight above the world is marked by his rising higher than the birds or any other natural beings, until, as the sun might be, he is “in cloud part screened.” He catches glimpses of the “rolling ball” of Earth below, including views of “Afric’s sands” and “Arctic snows.” He rises into a region closer to Heaven, which brings renewed pain to scars left from his embattled rebellion, apparently still not completely healed. He has reached a “middle height,” where he regards the stars. These stars, however, represent not Heaven but natural law. They are the “brain of Heaven.” The fallen angel, who still nursed hopes for ascension to the highest places, is chastened by the sight and falls again.
The poem plays upon a famous passage from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, 14:12-21, in which the “bright morning star” is depicted as having once nursed the highest ambitions, for he had hoped to set a throne above the stars of heaven: “I will rise high above the cloud-banks/ and make myself like the Most High.” The subsequent passages in Isaiah make clear that these were the thoughts supposed to have been held by a fallen “oppressor” and “ruler” who once “shook the earth, who made kingdoms quake, who turned the world into a desert,” and who now lay dead: “maggots are the pallet beneath you,/ and worms your coverlet.” The subject of the passage is “a corpse trampled underfoot,” an image that may be taken, and has been taken, either literally or figuratively.
In Meredith’s imaginative transformation of the story, Lucifer is not a fallen, earthly ruler, but instead an angel who defied and rebelled against Heaven, and who was scarred and sent to the Christian underworld, Hell. The ambitions that are projected on the fallen ruler in Isaiah are the exact ambitions upon which Meredith’s Lucifer acts.
In “Lucifer in Starlight,” the events unfold as literal and actual. Lucifer rises from a world that, at the time Meredith was writing, was geographically well delineated and scientifically well understood. Lucifer then reaches a “middle height,” which is the traditional Middle Kingdom, or the land that resides halfway between the human and divine worlds. Yet the divine is no longer divine: The stars are not Heaven, but the “army of unalterable law.” They are the signs of a clockwork universe. Below him, on the “rolling ball,” Lucifer has seen “sinners . . ./ Poor prey to his hot fit of pride.” In regarding the sinners, and in then regarding the stars, Lucifer confronts the fact that mortals have free will, while he, as a supernatural being, does not. The sinners are not doomed to fail against temptation, as he is doomed to fail against natural law.
Forms and Devices
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500
Although sonnets are more typically meditative or lyric, “Lucifer in Starlight” is predominantly narrative in nature. It introduces a character, gives the character inward thoughts and outward actions, and details a series of events that reach a striking climax. Meredith relates his narrative without digression, making no obvious authorial observations or reflections. The details of the narrative itself carry the message of the poem, with those details enhanced by Meredith’s choice of terms.
The traditional sonnet is comprised of an octave, or eight-line stanza, followed by a sextet, or six-line stanza. The usual rhyme scheme for the octave in the sonnet is abba abba, the scheme Meredith used in this poem. For his two rhymes, he chooses two extremely distinctive sounds, represented by “uprose” and “fiend.” While several different terminal rhyme schemes are common for the subsequent sextet, Meredith chose an unusual one: cdc eed. These rhymes are closer in nature, which may help reinforce the finality of this stanza. The c and d rhymes are especially similar, represented by “scars” and “Awe.” The rhyming of the latter with the final line, “The army of unalterable law,” serves a more than musical purpose. “Awe,” which is a biblical-style metonymic name for “God,” becomes linked with the concept of natural or physical law, suggesting similarity or identity.
Meredith’s choice of terms determines the reader’s understanding of the poem. Writing for a contemporary audience likely familiar with the passages from Isaiah, and undoubtedly familiar with Christian biblical tales of the revolt among the angels, the poet could suggest character and setting with great economy. His readers recognized the “fiend” who was “tired of his dark dominion.” Lucifer’s flight above the “rolling ball” announces his supernatural character, since Meredith was writing his poem at a time when few scientists were contemplating the possibility of flight by using physical law to human advantage.
Even while tapping his biblical source, Meredith carefully established a nineteenth century worldview. Lucifer’s world was not the geographically limited one of Isaiah, but rather a “rolling ball,” and the “far recesses of the north” mentioned in Isaiah were now “Arctic snows.” The Christian God is not named as such, but described in terms having nothing to do with supernatural power and everything to do with human response to sublime experience: “Awe.”
Stars are the most prevalent image in the poem, occurring explicity in the title, first line, and eleventh line, and implicitly elsewhere, especially in the final two lines. The Christian Heaven is depicted only in terms of these stars. They are “the brain of heaven.” In the last lines, they represent a Heaven firmly transformed into universe, which could be encompassed by human understanding without resort to supernatural explanation: “Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,/ The army of unalterable law.” Meredith underlines his attitude by calling the Milky Way the “ancient track,” which resonates with the notion that he is retelling a tale that is itself ancient, but in human terms only.