The Poem

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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.

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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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1038 words.)

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