"Lucifer in Starlight" and natural law

Lately I have been working on a paper concerned with the differences that arise between nominalism and realism in the context of morality and man’s will.

The considerations that ensued as I wrote my paper brought to mind “Lucifer in Starlight”, a poem by George Meredith.

I’ve never quite understood this poem, although a class I took three years ago on Paradise Lost made me recognize that in some way, Meredith was writing in response to Milton. This link is still a mystery to me so I won’t try to analyze it.

That said, I will attempt a brief analysis of the poem itself in light of the theory of natural law.

The poem first:

Lucifer in Starlight
George Meredith

On a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose.
Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend
Above the rolling ball in cloud part screened,
Where sinners hugged their spectre of repose.
Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.
And now upon his western wing he leaned,
Now his huge bulk o’er Afric’s sands careened,
Now the black planet shadowed Arctic snows.
Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars

With memory of the old revolt from Awe,
He reached a middle height, and at the stars,
Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.
Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.

I’m going to take this thing line by line.

  1. “On a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose.”
    The speaker sets the stage: once upon a starry night, the prince of hell decided to “uprise.” This word has two very different connotations: while to uprise can simply mean rise up or awaken, it also carries the notion of fighting. Since we’re talking about Lucifer, we can probably safely say both are true. Lucifer is up to no good.
  2. “Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend”
    The speaker shares that Lucifer, the fiend, uprose simply because he was tired of hell. Perhaps he is going to uprise against God in the hopes of getting back to heaven?
  3. “Above the rolling ball in cloud part screened,”
    Lucifer now uprises above the “rolling ball”–which is presumably the earth. The notion of a rolling ball is no stranger to Aristotle and his cohorts. Aristotle seemed to lack an understanding of inertia, and so explained it in terms of the unmoved “first mover.” The first mover, Aquinas later suggests after building off of Aristotle, is God. God sets the ball in motion and keeps it moving until it stops. The main point seems to be: Lucifer recognizes a natural order to the world, but he proceeds to tell us that it is partly screened–covered–by the cloud. Enter confusion.
  4. “Where sinners hugged their spectre of repose.”
    On this “rolling ball” of the earth, there are sinners clinging to their “natural thoughts” (that’s from the OED under “spectre”) of repose–that is to say, the earth is full of sinners hell-bent on peace and rest. A lazy lot!
  5. “Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.”
    The speaker says that these lax folks on earth, clinging to thoughts of rest, are the “poor prey” of Lucifer’s reign as prince of darkness. Important lesson: when we are lazy, Lucifer can work all the more easily with us.
  6. “And now upon his western wing he leaned,”
    We know the promise that Christ will come again from the East…the subtle implication here is perhaps that Lucifer will come from the other side when he wills.
  7. “Now his huge bulk o’er Afric’s sands careened,”
    A bulk is a ship, and so we see that now Lucifer is floating on the seas of the “rolling ball” of the earth. In the last line, he was flying in the skies. He has now descended upon the earth. His ship is now careened–turned over–on the sands of Africa. He’s loose.
  8. “Now the black planet shadowed Arctic snows.”
    The “black planet” is Lucifer, and now the shadow of his planet–that of hell and darkness–has darkened the snowy (and thus white) Arctic region. Black covers white. Lucifer is trying to take over.
  9. “Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars”
    With his shadow already hovering over the Arctic, Lucifer proceeds to “wider zones”. He’s back in the air now. Yet as he goes, his “scars” are “pricked.” Importantly, Lucifer bears scars on his being: he is a former angel who has damaged himself through pride and this is physically noticeable. Something or someone in the “wider zones” is now pricking these scars. Maybe God is doing the prickling?
  10. “With memory of the old revolt from Awe,”
    Memories of his first revolt against God–against Awe–flood Lucifer’s mind as he is being pricked. He remembers his first fall in the midst of this, his current uprising.
  11. “He reached a middle height, and at the stars,”
    Lucifer doesn’t rise up as far as he had hoped; presumably he wanted to make it all the way up to God. He makes it just as far as the stars.
  12. “Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.”
    The stars are the brain of heaven; they reflect the natural order God established for the universe. Notice that Lucifer sinks only when he looks; the looking precedes the sinking. The “brain of heaven”–or, the wisdom of God–aligns the stars just so. In seeing the order God ordained, he sees that he can’t fit in it anymore. And thus he sinks…
  13. “Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,”
    I guess Meredith is still talking about the stars here; perhaps he hasn’t had time to sink all that far yet. The stars float around in space in their tracks, but they aren’t simply floating: they’re marching, rank on rank. Sounds militaristic. Remember Lucifer at the start of this poem was uprising. He has lost the battle.
  14. “The army of unalterable law.”
    This line sounds even more militaristic. The law of the universe is ordered by God and it is not up for debate; it is not able to be altered. The stars reveal this visibly. The army of heaven, who are of course in accord with God’s laws, seem to have defeated Lucifer, who clearly exists outside of God’s laws.

Aquinas writes at length about how God has made the universe in a rational way. So rational, in fact, that God’s perfect and rational wisdom is reflected even in the constellations of the stars.

God also made man to have a natural inclination towards good by way of his own reason. Not only that, he has a natural desire to pursue that which is good. This is all part of natural law.

Man rejects his own reason and God’s natural law when he ignores what he knows he should do in favor of something he simply wishes to do but knows he shouldn’t.

Natural law dictates that there is no place for Lucifer, or any kind of evil, north of earth.

Comments welcome.

4 thoughts on “"Lucifer in Starlight" and natural law

  1. I am thankful that you broke this down so well. I have a hard time with some poetry and it really bothers me, because I know that there is something so worthwhile in much of it.

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