So run the first four lines of the final poem in Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Book 1. These eight words, so skillfully arranged, convey with precision a primary theme of the Consolatio‘s opening book. In an earlier poem, Boethius had already powerfully connected the stars, in their regular orbit, with the idea of a cosmic order that ought to apply to human affairs. Here, Boethius draws another astral analogy. The stars, he claims, are sources of light in the night sky, if only the clouds do not obtrude. This is a critical Boethian theme, the idea that the capacity to see what is real (as represented by the light-giving, order-confirming stars) requires a commitment to genuine philosophical inquiry. In other words, the mind and soul must be trained to see past the distractions of Fortune in order to make out Truth.
The meter of this short stanza is great (it’s an adonic, a dactyl followed by a trochee, “TUM ti ti TUM ti”), but even more significant is the arrangement of the words. Latin allows a long separation between noun and adjective, and Boethius has cleverly segregated the adjectives in line 2 from their corresponding nouns in line 4. The effect is to sift out in the verses the negative from the positive as an analogy for refining one’s vision. It is a poetic representation of the philosophical quest to look beyond the ephemeral darkness to the eternal light.
When hid by clouds, the stars at night
Cannot pour forth their brilliant light.
Due to a lack of talent, I can’t replicate Boethius’ sturdy meter, but I hope my rendition at least can get across some idea of the word order, with the second half of each line undercutting the negative first half. Perhaps nobody will mind if, as a way of suggesting what I think Boethius’ eight words are saying here, I allude to Van Gogh’s famous stars swirling in the violent Mistral winds, an image painted through the barred windows of his asylum in Saint Remy, only few hundred miles west of the prison where, centuries before, the poet-philosopher had also looked for answers into the night sky.