“I have a terrible need,” Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother, “of – shall I say the word – religion. Then I go out and paint the stars.”
Van Gogh’s “stars” pictures – “Starry Night over the Rhône” (1888) in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and “Starry Night” (1889) in the Museum of Modern Art in New York – are profoundly spiritual paintings, even though their subject matter is not religious. The closest thing to a traditional symbol is the church in “Starry Night.”
Yet both paintings give visual form to Robert Frost’s call to worship: “Take something like a star / To stay our minds on and be staid.”
One reason, perhaps, that we moderns have such un-staid minds is that we have lost sight of the stars.
Persse McGarrigle, in David Lodge’s novel Small World, finds himself in a big city in the Midlands of England attending a literary conference. He feels un-staid because a “yellowish glow from a million streetlamps lit up the sky and dimmed the light of the stars.”
Later, back home in Ireland, hitchhiking because his wallet is empty, then walking because it’s too late for cars to be on the road, Persse decides to sleep in a haystack. “He throws down his grip, kicks off his shoes and stretches out in the fragrant hay, staring up at the immense sky arching above his head, studded with a million stars. They pulse with a brilliance that city-dwellers could never imagine.”
Fascination with the stars seems to have been a human trait since the days before men and women began to use certain sounds to signify “days.”
Because we are composed of stardust?
Because we are characterized by always-more? More money, sex, power, success, knowledge . . . . always something more to try to get a grip on.
But what if there is something beyond everything we can get a grip on?
What if there is a star beyond the farthest star?
If there is, the star is God.
For R. S. Thomas, God is the star beyond the farthest star – the star that Thomas staid his mind on and was staid.
It was a November-dark night, when my wife and I drove to the cottage where R.S. and Betty lived at Llanfairynghornwy. We saw someone on the left side of the road beckoning with a flashlight – R.S. directing us up a driveway and into a parking spot. Then, shining his light on the stepping stones, he guided us to the door.
Like Persse McGarrigle, Thomas abhorred the “yellowish glow from a million streetlamps [that] lit up the sky and dimmed the light of the stars.” Like Vincent Van Gogh and Robert Frost, Thomas needed to live where he could see the stars, to be reminded to take something like a star to stay his mind on and be staid.
One of my favorite Thomas poems is “The Other,” which was, I think, first collected in Destinations, one of the most beautifully printed, illustrated, and bound of Thomas’s books.
Thomas, sleepless in the middle of the night, hears . . .
. . . the swell born somewhere in the Atlantic
rising and falling, rising and falling
wave on wave on the long shore
by the village, that is without light
and companionless. And the thought comes
of that other being who is awake, too,
letting our prayers break on him,
not like this for a few hours,
but for days, years, for eternity.
Beyond the stars that can be seen because the village is without light, is The Other Star – the One who keeps Israel, who neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121:4).
References for the quotes in this blog:
Edward Connery Lathem, editor, The Poetry of Robert Frost, “Take Something Like a Star,” 403.
David Lodge, The Campus Trilogy, Book One, Small World, 268 and 349.
R. S. Thomas, Destinations, 15.