When I was in high school, I was a member of the Wauwatosa (Wisconsin) East High School Concert Choir. Every weekday at 11:05, we took our music, got into our assigned seats, and readied ourselves to practice for the next hour. Mr. Bilderback, the director, was a task master but he took great pride in the choir. As a second alto, I rarely got to sing any exciting parts.
Sometimes we competed in the Wisconsin high school choir competition, but that depended on whether Mr. Bilderback liked the competition pieces. One year, a setting of a Robert Frost poem, “Choose Something Like a Star,” was an option. It turned out to be a selection that suited the choir, as we took first in state.
Initially, I found the words confusing and the alto line less than satisfactory and very boring. Over time, however, I grew to like the music more and more. But it was the poem itself that made the biggest and most long-lasting impression.
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 the 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.
The poem as written by Frost is not divided into three parts and is a single 25-line work. However, as I have thought about this poem for many years, it seems to fall into three sections, each expressing a different emotion and thought of the poet. And in these past few months, this poem has been in my mind and on my lips more and more.
Since the beginning of this year, we have been caught in a huge swirl of anxiety. There are seemingly far more questions than answers. We are concerned about COVID-19 and its impact. Is my job secure? What about sending the kids back to school? Will I get sick? Will my parents get sick? When can I see my friends again – and not virtually?
We are becoming much more aware of the systemic racism that has been for so long an unspoken part of our society and all too often a part of the church. Although we read and study and discuss, what will be the outcome? Will our siblings of color be heard? Will those of us who are white take the time to listen? And what about our country? We are facing an election in which the sides could not be more polarized. What will these United States look like on November 4?
Into this swirl of thoughts and emotions and words come the words of the poet. Many who have analyzed this poem believe that Frost is describing a yearning for God, for that which is beyond us and transcendent, and a call to be more than we are today – and I agree with that interpretation.
The first short section (at least in my reading of the poem) sets the stage. The star is in its heavens; it is beyond us, yet strangely approachable. But then, the poet shifts into rage. Just who do you think you are, oh, star? Don’t ignore us! Talk to us in a way we can understand! Give us the answers! NOW! At the end of the section, however, the one who is raging against the heavens slowly calms down.
Finally, when the fury is spent, comes clarity. All of the raging does little good – instead, we are encouraged to be our better selves and fix our attention on the One who has called us into being. By so doing, we can ignore all the distractions and focus on what we are called to be and do. We can work to bring justice and mercy. We can bring healing. We can be calmed. We are assured of God’s everlasting love as we focus all our attention on that which is Holy. And we are staid.
Who could have imagined that a song from a 1965 high school choir competition could continue to inspire and comfort this second alto? For whatever reason, it does – and I pray that you will find both healing and encouragement in Frost’s words, as well.
Let us pray...
In your Holy Name we pray, Amen.