Greatness in Little

The BBC Website yesterday mentioned that according to the British Astronomer Royal, Lord Martin Rees, celestial bodies are less complicated than the bodies of insects – let alone those of human beings – and cosmology is an easier science than the study of a balanced diet.

As I was tucking into my carefully balanced meal of fish and chips last night, the first part of the quotation suddenly reminded me of the following poem Greatness in Little by Richard Leigh (1649-1728), a relatively obscure poet of the seventeenth century who managed to excel himself in this particular poem of 1675 in which he compares the intricate workings of insects with the grandest achievements of human explorers.

In spotted globes, that have resembled all
Which we or beasts possess to one great ball
Dim little specks for thronging cities stand,
Lines wind for rivers, blots bound sea and land.
Small are those spots which in the moon we view,
Yet glasses these like shades of mountains shew;
As what an even brightness does retain,
A glorious level seems, and shining plain.
Those crowds of stars in the populous sky,
Which art beholds as twinkling worlds on high,
Appear to naked, unassisted sight
No more than sparks or slender points of light.
The sun, a flaming universe alone,
Bigger than that about which his fires run;
Enlightening ours, his globe but part does gild,
Part by his lustre or Earth’s shades concealed;
His glory dwindled so, as what we spy
Scarce fills the narrow circle of the eye.
What new Americas of light have been
Yet undiscovered there, or yet unseen,
Art’s near approaches awfully forbid,
As in the majesty of nature hid.
Nature, who with like state, and equal pride,
Her great works does in height and distance hide,
And shuts up her minuter bodies all
In curious frames, imperceptibly small.
Thus still incognito, she seeks recess
In greatness half-seen, or dim littleness.
Ah, happy littleness! that art thus blest,
That greatest glories aspire to seem least.
Even those installed in a higher sphere,
The higher they are raised, the less appear,
And in their exaltation emulate
Thy humble grandeur and thy modest state.
Nor is this all thy praise, though not the least,
That greatness is thy counterfeit at best.
Those swelling honours, which in that we prize,
Thou dost contain in thy more thrifty size;
And hast that pomp, magnificence does boast,
Though in thy stature and dimensions lost.
Those rugged little bodies whose parts rise
And fall in various inequalities,
Hills in the risings of their surface show,
As valleys in their hollow pits below.
Pompous these lesser things, but yet less rude
Than uncompact and looser magnitude.
What Skill is in the frame of Insects shown?
How fine the Threds, in their small Textures spun?
How close those Instruments and Engines knit,
Which Motion, and their slender Sense transmit?
Like living Watches, each of these conceals
A thousand Springs of Life, and moving wheels.
Each ligature a Lab’rynth seems, each part
All wonder is, all Workmanship and Art.
Rather let me this little Greatness know,
Then all the Mighty Acts of Great Ones do.
These Engines understand, rather than prove
An Archimedes, and the Earth remove.
These Atom-Worlds found out, I would despise
Colombus, and his vast Discoveries.

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4 Responses to “Greatness in Little”

  1. […] Telescoper, Peter Coles, has a wonderful 17th Century poem about the achievements of humanity, Greatness in Little by Richard Leigh. […]

  2. I got here through the Carnival of Space and then looked around your blog enough to notice that you’ve quoted other astronomy-themed poetry before and since.

    One of my long-time favourites is John Masefield’s “I could not sleep for thinking of the sky“. I composed a tune for it, the recording of which is linked to from my own blog, here.

    I hope that this gives you some pleasure.

  3. […] could not sleep for thinking of the sky A comment from another blogger about an item of mine containing another bit of poetry led me to put up this astronomy-inspired […]

  4. […] underlying unity. There’s nothing specifically new about this line of reasoning, however; I posted a poem a while ago that dates from 1675 which has a similar […]

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