Featured Poem: Stars by Katherine Mansfield

Over the last month’s lot of Featured Poems we have examined water, the sea and the things within it through thrilling and sometimes challenging poetic descriptions of the element. From Dunbar to Tennyson we’ve rode the waves, plundered the depths and have now returned safely to dry land. Now to turn one hundred and eighty degrees: to go to the completely opposite end of the environmental scale (why do things merely by halves?) and instead look up to the skies. More specifically we shall look to the night sky, and venture to soar amongst the stars.

Vincent Van Gogh was quoted as saying “For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream”; and he should be taken as something of an authority, being responsible for what is without doubt the most famous painting of a Starry Night – indeed, one of the most famous paintings ever. And for my own part, I would have to agree with that great man, although I must admit that it does not take all that much to send me into a state of reverie. Maybe it is because they comprise the backdrop to our dreams that the stars give rise to such curiosity and conjecture but certainly stargazing, even for an amateur and even for the shortest portion of time, sends our minds flying sky high, filling our heads with thoughts of love and romance, fate and fantasy; if you wish to think even bigger and strain your brain somewhat about how everything, including those minute twinkling clusters of matter, came to be – the possibilities are endless. Perhaps it is not always considered a good thing to be starry-eyed – much like it is to always have your head in the clouds – but we can’t be entirely at fault, not when we’re taught to regard the stars with such prominence from the earliest of ages; take nursery rhymes, navigation exercises put forward by Scouts, Cubs and Girl Guides, and surely the most famous star-related command of all, put at the forefront of many a fairy-tale and relied upon sometimes long after childhood; the phenomenon of ‘wishing upon a star’. Surely the stars must have granted more than a few wishes that really have come true over the years, decades and centuries (I think my luck may have something to do with the fact I frequently mistook passing helicopters for shooting stars in my naïve youth…).

It is this childhood fascination with the starry skies, in-built as it appears to be, that is detailed by Katherine Mansfield. Childhood and certain fragments of childhood life and memory is a central concern of a number of Mansfield’s poems, specifically the small but very significant moments of joy, play and wonder in the slightest of things. Through her poetic repertoire as a whole is weaved a series of apparently simplistic encounters and situations – stars are also mentioned at the beginning of Camomile Tea, where a soft, soothing child-like vision is super-imposed onto an adult relationship – which are cut through with an altogether more complex undercurrent; in the aforementioned poem, it is to do with the fact that something ‘horrible’ has preceded the idyllic vision. Just a single line seems to make the difference and the turn in Stars comes at its ending, whereby mere amazement and the utterance of a variety of adjectives expressing astonishment transforms into deeper questioning into what makes the marvelled at objects ‘blaze away’: ‘Was it spite? Was it duty?’ One could gaze skyward pondering that for quite some time…but on a less laborious note, the image of an overly-inquisitive and mischievous child ‘who wants sitting on’ being entranced by the stars above is quite delightful in itself – and perhaps a tip for tired parents needing to amuse their own ‘impudent’ children in the coming summer months…

Stars

Most merciful God
Look kindly upon
An impudent child
Who wants sitting on.
This evening late
I went to the door
And then to the gate
There were more stars–more
Than I could have expected,
Even I!
I was amazed,
Almighty, August!
I was utterly dazed,
Omnipotent! Just
In a word I was floored,
Good God of Hosts–Lord!
That at this time of day
They should still blaze away,
That thou hadst not rejected
Or at least circumspected
Their white silver beauty–
Was it spite? Was it duty?

Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923)

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