Anyone can enjoy the night sky. While this column is intended specifically for those who enjoy going outside and relishing the wonders of the night, it is also meant for musicians who, like Saint-Saens, appreciate the sky vicariously through the music they compose. It is also meant for those who appreciate the sky through the poetry they write. This month we will explore the astronomical interests of two American poets, both of whom lived in the American West, and both of whom loved the stars. Robinson Jeffers and Kenneth Rexroth both lived in the early years of the 20th century and both wrote about the sky.
I begin with Robinson Jeffers. As a human being, he particularly enjoyed living in California, and he built a stone cottage and tower that allowed him to watch the Pacific Ocean near Big Sur. As an amateur astronomer, he especially enjoyed the night sky from the castle’s turret. As a poet, Jeffers’ writings are infused with the magic of the night sky from long before he even dreamed of building his tower, but the stone structure with its small lamp focused his attention:
“this August night in a rift of cloud Antares reddens,
The great one, the ancient torch, a lord among lost children,…
Of a lost fire dying in the desert… Wandered from at dawn…”
A few lines later, the poet delights his readers with his casual familiarity of the night sky:
“Oh passionately at peace when will that tide draw shoreward?
Truly this pouting fountains of light, Antares, Arcturus,
Tire of their flow, they sing one song but they think silence.
The striding winter giant Orion shines, and dreams darkness.”
Jeffers invokes images from all over the sky in this poem. Antares is a monarch of the summer sky, shining brightly at the head of the scorpion. Arcturus reigns from spring to fall in the northern constellation of the herdsman, but Orion rules though sky of winter, dominating the night with his magnificent belt of three bright stars surrounded by four even brighter stars, so that the whole complex resembles a magnificent structure not unlike the tower from which Jeffers is observing.
It is easy to fathom Jeffers’interest in astronomy, in part because his brother, Hamilton Jeffers, was a famous astronomer who worked at the Lick Observatory. Known for his precise work, he photographed comet Schorr of 1918, helping to refine its orbit. Asteroid 1934 Jeffers forever honors his contributions to astronomy, and if I may be so bold as to add, his inspiration for his brother Robinson to write poetry.
If Jeffers’ lines help us to appreciate the beauty of the night sky, the writings of Kenneth Rexroth demonstrate its detail in “Another Spring”:
“High in the sky the Northern Crown
Is cut in half by the dim summit of a snow peak.”
This poet obviously knew how to use a telescope. In “The heart of Herakles”, he writes how, as “Constellations climbed the sky,”
“As the cluster of Hercules
falls down the west
I put the telescope by
and watch Deneb
move towards the zenith.
My body is asleep. Only
my eyes and brain are awake.”
I have viewed Messier 13, the wonderful globular star cluster in Hercules which showcases over a hundred thousand stars, hundreds of times through dozens of telescopes. The cluster has never failed to amaze me, its magnificent structure lighting up the night sky, and my imagination. It is easy to find these nights as it sets in the west, beckoning us to appreciate both it and the poet who admired it so much. When we read these poems, we are transformed to a new world where only our eyes and brains need be awake. Their poetry only makes the priceless gem of the night sky even richer.