One evening years ago, at the port of Tagbilaran, while we were waiting to board a boat for Cebu, I pointed out to our daughter, then in grade school, a bright light in the western sky, and told her that it was the Evening Star. We both looked at it quietly. I don’t know what she was thinking of, but deep within me I resolved to write a poem about it.
It seemed so easy then, and I was sure I would come up with something the next day. In fact, it would take me upwards of ten years. I was daunted when I read up on the subject. I discovered that a number of great poets have written on the Evening Star, notably, Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and a Romanian named Mihai Eminescu, whose work is regarded as the longest love poem ever. But for me the best of the lot was by Sappho, and it has only four lines:
Evening Star, you bring back again
What the dawn light scatters,
Bringing the sheep: bringing the kid:
Bringing the little child back to its mother.
For me, this poem, or fragment of a poem, suggests Christmas. It speaks of a little child and its mother, and of sheep, hinting at a shepherd or shepherds. And, of course, the star, evoking that whose rising the magi from the east saw and took as the sign of the birth of the king of the Jews. When they arrived in Jerusalem, they inquired from Herod where the place of birth would be, and Herod told them that this would be Bethlehem, having heard from the high priests and scribes that the prophet Micah (who lived 700 years before Christ) had foretold that from Bethlehem would come “one who is to be ruler in Israel; [w]hose origin is from of old, from ancient times.”
Matthew writes that, when the magi set out for Bethlehem, they were overjoyed when again they found the star, which now “preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was… and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
This is a scene immortalized by many artists, among them Leonardo da Vinci, who made sure to include himself in the semi-circle of those around the Virgin Mary and Child and the adoring magi. (Incidentally, when the wife and I made a brief stopover in Salamanca, Spain, she was drawn to and purchased a reproduction of one of Dello Delli’s tablets depicting the life of Mary, which adorn the altarpiece of the Old Salamanca Cathedral, choosing the one featuring the Adoration of the Magi.)
What of the Star? Definitely it was not the Evening Star, which is really the planet Venus. Of which I finally got to write a poem, using the Welsh verse form, cynghanedd (a favourite of Gerard Manley Hopkins). Whatever may be its merits, I include it here as my tribute to the Star that rose for the magi during the first Christmas, which I believe still reappears of an evening to one in search of the ineffable.
TO THE EVENING STAR
Vain in August air, Evening Star,
We hear you rue where you are
Ordure, age, law ride our glow
To use no tease, it’s not so
Easy roofer is your fire
Gold the ochre, glad the choir,
O, out is eye to see you
Of elm to owe, flame to woo
Oaf, wag an air of Wagner
A fire ever forever
So to dare me is to dream
If you rob me of your beam.