Poems about the Heavenly Bodies
PostedDecember 24, 2004
Sure, Romeo and Juliet were "star-crossed," but Shakespeare wasn't so easily fooled by the movements of heavenly bodies. While moons, suns, planets and starry configurations may seem to preside over our lives, Shakespeare challenged the practice of reading his fate from the stars in his fourteenth sonnet:
Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck,
And yet methinks I have astronomy;
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons' quality
Rather than divining his wisdom from the stars, the narrator of the sonnet derives knowledge "from thine eyes," calling them "constant stars" that suggest to him truth and beauty.
As expressive elements of the natural world and symbols of constancy and immortality--the eternally unchanging, the mysteriously absent--the stars and moon and other heavenly bodies have long captured the imaginations of poets. The was especially immortalized in many Romantic poems, including Percy Bysshe Shelley’s fragment "To the Moon," where he imagines the moon’s steadiness has become lonely, "like a joyless eye / That finds no object worth its constancy." In John Keats’s poem "Bright Star," he wishes for the star’s immortality instead of his own frail body:
Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art--
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night.
W. H. Auden compares his undying love with the constancy of the universe, imagining in "As I Walked Out One Night" that as long as the stars do not fall from the sky, he will love his lover. William Butler Yeats, on the other hand, in his poem "Adam's Curse," calls into question the constancy of the moon, an early gesture towards Modernism. Yeats imagines the loss of love, writing:
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time's waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
With a flick of the pen, Yeats transformed the solid body of the moon to nothing more than a shell worn away by time. It is not just his own love that he is questioning, but the nature of romantic love in the modern world. He finishes the poem, writing:
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we'd grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.
Nothing is as it seems, Yeats is saying, and romantic love is no longer possible. Even the rhymes miss each other slightly, sounding as hollow as he imagines the moon to be. Amiri Baraka creates a similar gesture with stars in his poem "Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note," where he imagines that even the stars have deserted him in his time of crisis:
And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.
Nobody sings anymore.
For those romantic astronomers who still see the moon and stars as symbols of fidelity, eternity, and unchanging love, they will find themselves in the good company of many historical and contemporary poets. Here is a small selection:
"Starlight" by William Meredith
"As I walked Out One Evening" by W.H. Auden
"Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note" by Amiri Baraka
"She Walks in Beauty" by George Gordon, Lord Byron
"Star Quilt" by Roberta J. Hill
"The Truth About Northern Lights" by Christine Hume
"Bright Star" by John Keats
"Let Evening Come" by Jane Kenyon
"Hymn to the Night" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
"Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines" by Pablo Neruda
"A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island" by Frank O'Hara
"Sky" by Anzhelina Polonskaya
"Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck (Sonnet 14) " by William Shakespeare
"To the Moon" by Percy Bysshe Shelley
"Yellow Stars and Ice" by Susan Stewart
"A Clear Midnight" by Walt Whitman
"Moon Gathering" by Eleanor Wilner
"Adam’s Curse" by W.B. Yeats