Thursday, September 17, 2009


Dear Apollo,

A thematic analysis of

Choose Something Like a Star

by Robert Frost - 1947

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.
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."
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.
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

I ran into this poem a few years ago, when singing bass in the Local Suburban Amateur Choir. One of my fellow bassi rather complained that it was "the most asinine" song he'd ever been asked to sing, this ode unto a creature so literally lofty asking only to become "staid" --- the idea that we'd not implore some emotive taste of its exalted state seemed to offend him.

When Meredith complained of what appears a most un-staid (and yet un-lofty) film interpretation of Keats' life borrowing its name from his poem alluded to in Frost's Choose Something Like a Star it reminded me of both this ode and my singing neighbor's complaint, and how silly I thought he was being.

The first thing that struck me in Frosts' poem is the up-to-date scientific knowledge behind his words --- poets should be scholars, and Frost does OK by me here, even if the specific science doesn't really drive this piece forward. Consider
  • `dark is what brings out your light'
  • ` ... it says "I burn."
    But say with what degree of heat.'
  • `Tell us what elements you blend.'
The first is known from antiquity, although Rayleigh scattering finally gave a solid understanding of why this is so: the stars themselves still add to the light in the sky and can be discerned with strong telescopes. The second notion is also very old, but remained quite metaphorical untill nuclear chemistry was first demonstrated as a phenomenon by Rutherford and colleagues (from the wrong end of the Periodic table), and the theory of nuclear fusion developed by Gamow, Weiszaecker, Bethe and others between 1928 and 1939, with later progress given by Fred Hoyle from 1946 to 1954 --- the upshot is that, as suggested in the third point, stars litterally blend old elements together and produce "new" ones. The question "what degree of heat", i.e. "how hot" was in a way behind Plank's development of the quantum theory, via a theoretical formula relating the spectral distribution of energy emited by an object in thermal equilibrium to its temperature. Other information we can deduce from the spectrum --- in the form of suspiciously dark narrow portions --- is in fact specifically which chemical elements are present and in what quantities. In short, the things Frost asks the star to tell are just the things that we'd recently got rather good at discerning by looking at stars.

The poem in its progression captures something also of the searching quality of scientific learning; we have discovered the most about the material universe we inhabit by constant imploring of it to tell its secrets: and there has not been a new discovery ever that completely satisfied us, but that revealed deeper mystery yet to unravel. (The romantics among us hope never to be finished.)

The second striking facet of this poem is its timing: very shortly after the formation of the Atomic Energy Commission, which also closed the activities of the Manhattan Engineer District, whose most notorious contribution to active warfare was, effectively, the means to the rapid destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"It asks of us a certain height,/So when at times the mob is swayed/To carry praise or blame too far,/We may choose something like a star/To stay our minds on and be staid." Frost addresses his words to a star, by whose hintings we have in part learned enough to be frightfully destructive --- I think hoping to inspire an inwardly-peaceful denouement from wartime folly, but he really is speaking to all of us, and particularly such people as have power by their blame and their praise to put the world in jeopardy. He asks, by imploring his star to ask, that we strive for something of our great human dignity, by becoming staid --- stayed or steadied, to stand firmly and sober. But it's no small thing to become so steady, whatever that bass buddy of mine may have thought. Personally, I've always felt rather dizzy when I tried any serious star-gazing; but it is always humbling.

And the best star, perhaps, we read of in Matthew
2:1 When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of king Herod, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. 2 Saying, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him.

a sometime physics student


Amy said...

Aw what a sweet poem, and what an interesting commentary! What a perfect way to end the post, too :)

some guy on the street said...

To be fair, the film in question has been getting some decent reviews, so it should be clear that M. and I were just being disparaging about the *trailer*... ok, that'll get an "update"... later...

Yes, I think I like the content of the poem, at least --- I'd try for a more poetic analysis as well, but there's just something rather difficult about it, for me. Partly I can't get the musical setting out of my head :P partly, there's something about my reading (or reading-into) it that obscures the poetry itself, maybe.

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