Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Magic of Stars in Literature


Not stars, but fuochi artificiali: Ferragosto 2009, Isca
 Stars have always intrigued humankind.  The ancients looked at them with wonder and used them for many purposes, especially religious and cultural ones.  To them they were objects of wonder and even magical power. Historically, stars have been important to all civilizations throughout the world. They have been part of religious practices and were used widely for celestial navigation and orientation. Many ancient astronomers believed that stars were permanently affixed to a heavenly sphere, and that they were literally unchangeable with respect to their positions. By convention, astronomers grouped stars into constellations and used them to track the motions of the planets and the inferred position of the Sun. The apparent motion of the Sun against the background stars (and the horizon) was used to create calendars, which could then be further used to regulate agricultural practices which were necessary for the survival of humankind quite recently gathered into early civilizations. It is interesting also to note that the Gregorian calendar, currently used nearly everywhere in the world, is a solar calendar based on the angle of the Earth's rotational axis relative to its local star, the Sun.

A Little Science:

 In his wonderfully clear scientific classic Stardust: The Cosmic Recycling of Stars, Planets and People (Allen Lane, The Penguin Press,  2000) John Gribbin writes poetically thus:

Life begins with the process of star formation. We are made of stardust. Every atom of every element in your body except for hydrogen has been manufactured inside stars, scattered across the Universe in great stellar explosions, and recycled to become part of you. The hydrogen is primordial material, produced in the Big Bang, along with helium (there is no helium in your body). Hydrogen and helium together formed the raw material for the first generation of stars, some 12 billion years ago, but everything else has been built up by nuclear fusion in stellar furnaces.  (Op. cit., p. 1)

I love reading anything by John Gribbin and his wife Mary as they are superb scientists with a gift of explanation.  They are popularizers of science and they have this present science neophyte hooked to say the least.  They also write beautifully and ever so clearly.  I always dip into their books if I wish to be inspired by good clear basic science.

A Little History

The Newgrange Tumulus or Passage Grave

We who have been made of stardust started early in this ancient land of Ireland to look at the stars.  For instance, our most visited national monument - our oldest indeed - is Newgrange (Irish: Sí an Bhrú) which is a prehistoric monument located in County Meath, on the eastern side of Ireland, about one kilometre north of the River Boyne.  This ancient monument even predates the Egyptian pyramids.  Newgrange is an example of a megalithic passage tomb mound and scholars believe it was built between circa 3100 and 2900 BC, during the Neolithic period, in order to house the remains of the dead. It has also been speculated that it had some form of religious significance, particularly in regards to an afterlife, because it is aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice, which floods the tomb with light. Now the wonder is how these ancient pre-Celtic Neolithic people knew so much about the position of the sun and could construct the burial chamber with an appropriate slit over the entrance to let the light in precisely at sunrise on the day of the Winter Solstice so that it could flood the burial chamber.  They were obviously good architects and engineers also! It is in fact just one monument within the Neolithic Brú na Bóinne complex, alongside the similar passage tomb mounds of Knowth and Dowth, and as such is a part of the Brú na Bóinne UNESCO World Heritage Site. Newgrange also shares many similarities with other Neolithic constructions around Western Europe, such Maeshowe tomb in Orkney, Scotland and the Bryn Celli Ddu site in Wales.


The stars inspired many great writers and poets. Read again one of Shakespeare's famous love sonnets and wonder at the mystery, beauty and sheer power that the stars have had over humankind since time immemorial:
Sonnet 14
Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck
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;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find:
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert;
Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth's and beauty's doom and date.

Or yet again turn to Shakespeare's wonderful play Julius Caesar wherein the latter says to Brutus: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,//But in ourselves, that we are underlings. (1.2.135)

Other Writers and Poets:

Then, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of my favourite poets, the great philosopher of the Romantic Movement in England tells us that as a child he used love to ramble forth with his father at night when he was a young boy.  The father used point out the various contellations and stars to the young boy, and Samuel Taylor in typical flowery language said that it was thus that his mind "had become habituated too the vast." 
Our own poet Patrick Kavanagh in a beautiful short lyric recounted that though his bedroom was very small indeed "its little window let in the stars."  Then our great national playwright Seán O'Casey wrote a brilliant play, still performed to large audiences, called Juno and the Paycock wherein we hear one of the characters called Joxer say:
Joxer: Ah, that's the question, that's the question -- what is the stars?

Boyle: An' then, I'd have another look, an' I'd ass meself -- what is the moon?
Joxer: Ah, that's the question -- what is the moon, what is the moon?
Nietzsche and Stars:
And, then, of course where would we be without a suitable quotation or two from the great Friedrich Nietzsche? :

1. As long as you still experience the stars as something above you, you still lack a viewpoint of knowledge.

2.  "The wreckage of stars – I built a world from this wreckage." (See this link here: Nietzsche and the Stars )
Rainer Maria Rilke:
I have quoted many others on the wonder of the stars from Blaise Pascal to Robert Frost, but here at last for your perusal, if not more importantly for your contemplation, is a further short poem by Rainer Maria Rilke on the subject of falling stars.  I shall say nothing about this short poem except to say that one can feel the existential tension between the opposites of integration and disintegration, between life and death, love and hate, and this all handed up to us on a plate of things transfigured, transformed and even embodied or incarnated right inside us - right inside the very hearts of the two lovers.  To live is to die and to love is to...  I'll let the reader finish that sentence himself or herself.
Falling Stars

Rainer Maria Rilke

Do you remember still the falling stars
that like swift horses through the heavens raced
and suddenly leaped across the hurdles
of our wishes--do you recall? And we
did make so many! For there were countless numbers
of stars: each time we looked above we were
astounded by the swiftness of their daring play,
while in our hearts we felt safe and secure
watching these brilliant bodies disintegrate,
knowing somehow we had survived their fall.

Translated by Albert Ernest Flemming

1 comment:

Shotgun said...

Ave! My friend, Kim, also in Alaska, was playing with her new lens that allows her to capture the night sky. (Something we have lots of this time of year.) We were marking Shrovetide with Jupiter and Venus and Orian's belt rather than the fake beads of Mardi Gras. I googled stars and literature and there you were! Hello from Anchorage. Love your choices of favorites but you will just have to add John Donne :)

Kat Cavanaugh LaMantia