Archive for Walt Whitman

O Captain! My Captain!

Posted in Film, Poetry with tags , , on August 12, 2014 by telescoper

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

by Walt Whitman (1819-1892), posted in memoriam Robin Williams.


Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on September 20, 2013 by telescoper

Of the terrible doubt of appearances,
Of the uncertainty after all, that we may be deluded,
That may-be reliance and hope are but speculations after all,
That may-be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful fable only,
May-be the things I perceive, the animals, plants, men, hills,
shining and flowing waters,
The skies of day and night, colors, densities, forms, may-be these
are (as doubtless they are) only apparitions, and the real
something has yet to be known,
(How often they dart out of themselves as if to confound me and mock me!
How often I think neither I know, nor any man knows, aught of them,)
May-be seeming to me what they are (as doubtless they indeed but seem)
as from my present point of view, and might prove (as of course they
would) nought of what they appear, or nought anyhow, from entirely
changed points of view;
To me these and the like of these are curiously answer’d by my
lovers, my dear friends,
When he whom I love travels with me or sits a long while holding me
by the hand,
When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that words and reason
hold not, surround us and pervade us,
Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom, I am silent, I
require nothing further,
I cannot answer the question of appearances or that of identity
beyond the grave,
But I walk or sit indifferent, I am satisfied,
He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.

by Walt Whitman (1819-92)


Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on February 17, 2010 by telescoper

Off early this morning, as I have to travel to the frozen North to give a seminar in a foreign land. Time, therefore, to pad this blog thing out with another poem. I haven’t posted much by Walt Whitman so now seems like a good time to correct the omission. This is called Eidolons, and it’s taken from Whitman’s famous and, at the time of its publication, controversial, collection of poems Leaves of Grass.

The word itself is from the Greek ειδωλον, meaning an image, spectre or phantom and, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (which Whitman would of course not have been using), it can have the additional meanings in English of a “mental image” or an “insubstantial appearance”, a “false image or fallacy”. It  also has the meaning of “an image of an idealised person or thing”, and is thus the origin of the word Idol.

Eidolons is written in Whitman’s characteristic free verse style, with a broad sweep and strong cadences which really should be read out loud rather than silently on the page.

I’ve heard it said that this poem is anti-scientific. I suppose it is, in some respects, but only if you think that science is capable of telling us everything there is to know about the Universe. I don’t think of science like that, so I don’t see this poem as anti-scientific. It celebrates world beyond that which we perceive directly and that which our minds comprehend. Our representations of true reality are eidolons because they are incomplete and imperfect and not, I think, because they are mere fallacies. Whitman is not saying science is wrong, just that it only gives us part of the picture.

Anyway, that’s why I think. Read for yourself and see what you think. But whether or not it is anti-science it is definitely about science. The references to professors, stars, spectroscopes and the like are all clear. He even seems to be having a pre-emptive dig at the multiverse theory!

I met a seer,
Passing the hues and objects of the world,
The fields of art and learning, pleasure, sense,
To glean eidolons.

Put in thy chants said he,
No more the puzzling hour nor day, nor segments, parts, put in,
Put first before the rest as light for all and entrance-song of all,
That of eidolons.

Ever the dim beginning,
Ever the growth, the rounding of the circle,
Ever the summit and the merge at last, (to surely start again,)
Eidolons! eidolons!

Ever the mutable,
Ever materials, changing, crumbling, re-cohering,
Ever the ateliers, the factories divine,
Issuing eidolons.

Lo, I or you,
Or woman, man, or state, known or unknown,
We seeming solid wealth, strength, beauty build,
But really build eidolons.

The ostent evanescent,
The substance of an artist’s mood or savan’s studies long,
Or warrior’s, martyr’s, hero’s toils,
To fashion his eidolon.

Of every human life,
(The units gather’d, posted, not a thought, emotion, deed, left out,)
The whole or large or small summ’d, added up,
In its eidolon.

The old, old urge,
Based on the ancient pinnacles, lo, newer, higher pinnacles,
From science and the modern still impell’d,
The old, old urge, eidolons.

The present now and here,
America’s busy, teeming, intricate whirl,
Of aggregate and segregate for only thence releasing,
To-day’s eidolons.

These with the past,
Of vanish’d lands, of all the reigns of kings across the sea,
Old conquerors, old campaigns, old sailors’ voyages,
Joining eidolons.

Densities, growth, facades,
Strata of mountains, soils, rocks, giant trees,
Far-born, far-dying, living long, to leave,
Eidolons everlasting.

Exalte, rapt, ecstatic,
The visible but their womb of birth,
Of orbic tendencies to shape and shape and shape,
The mighty earth-eidolon.

All space, all time,
(The stars, the terrible perturbations of the suns,
Swelling, collapsing, ending, serving their longer, shorter use,)
Fill’d with eidolons only.

The noiseless myriads,
The infinite oceans where the rivers empty,
The separate countless free identities, like eyesight,
The true realities, eidolons.

Not this the world,
Nor these the universes, they the universes,
Purport and end, ever the permanent life of life,
Eidolons, eidolons.

Beyond thy lectures learn’d professor,
Beyond thy telescope or spectroscope observer keen, beyond all mathematics,
Beyond the doctor’s surgery, anatomy, beyond the chemist with his chemistry,
The entities of entities, eidolons.

Unfix’d yet fix’d,
Ever shall be, ever have been and are,
Sweeping the present to the infinite future,
Eidolons, eidolons, eidolons.

The prophet and the bard,
Shall yet maintain themselves, in higher stages yet,
Shall mediate to the Modern, to Democracy, interpret yet to them,
God and eidolons.

And thee my soul,
Joys, ceaseless exercises, exaltations,
Thy yearning amply fed at last, prepared to meet,
Thy mates, eidolons.

Thy body permanent,
The body lurking there within thy body,
The only purport of the form thou art, the real I myself,
An image, an eidolon.

Thy very songs not in thy songs,
No special strains to sing, none for itself,
But from the whole resulting, rising at last and floating,
A round full-orb’d eidolon.

Poems of Space

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on February 1, 2009 by telescoper

A couple of weeks ago I bought a copy of Dark Matter: Poems of Space, an anthology of poems old and new with astronomical connections edited by Maurice Riordan and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

I quite like having anthologies because if you open one randomly you’re not absolutely sure what’s going to crop up, which can lead to pleasant surprises. But they’re also unsatisfactory to read through from cover to cover because there are huge differences in style and substance that are difficult to adjust to on a poem-by-poem basis. Random access is definitely better than sequential for this type of thing, so rather than attempt to study it all, over the last fortnight or so I’ve been taking regular dips into this particular collection, and very interesting it has been too.

The book contains over 200 poems mostly by different authors, although there is more than one contribution from a few (including Shelley and Auden). It’s a mixture of the familiar and the brand new, including some commissioned especially for this book. I couldn’t possibly write about the whole, but a few things struck me as I sampled various tidbits.

The first is that while many of these poems celebrate the beauty and majesty of the heavens, and some even embrace the wonder of scientific discovery, quite a few are quite anti-scientific. Two examples spring to mind (both of them paradoxically by favourite poets of mine!). This excerpt from The Song of the Happy Shepherd, a very early poem by WB Yeats is a good example

………………………………Seek, then,
No learning from the starry men,
Who follow with the optic glass
The whirling ways of stars that pass –
Seek, then, for this is also sooth,
No word of theirs – the cold star-bane
Has cloven and rent their hearts in twain,
And dead is all their human truth.

Hardly a ringing endorsement of observational astronomy, although strictly speaking it only refers to optical techniques so I suppose those working in radio-, X-ray and other types of astronomy are off the hook.

Incidentally, if I’d been given the task of picking a poem by Yeats for this collection it would have been this:

HAD I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with gold and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

It’s not really much to do with astronomy or space but it’s one of his most beautiful lyrical verses, with a wonderful use of repetition (e.g. light, dreams, spread, tread) and assonance (light/night, spread/tread).

Anyway, another example of this kind of attitude displayed by Yeats Happy Shepherd is provided by Walt Whitman:

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

I think I’ve been to enough boring seminars to understand how he feels, but the theme of both these poems is that  studying the stars or applying science to them somehow robs them of their wonder. I think many non-scientists probably go along with this view: it’s beautiful to gaze at the sky but reducing it to measurements and graphs somehow ruins it.

Andromeda_gendler_smOf course I don’t agree.  Without professional astronomers we would never have discovered that, say, the Andromeda Nebula (shown above) was a galaxy just like our own Milky Way containing thousands of millions of stars like our Sun  and that it is rotating about its axis with a timescale of hundreds of millions of years. Knowing things like this surely increases the sense of wonder rather than decreasing it?

On the other hand it is true that the nature of science makes it rather prosaic. When scientists try to write for a popular readership they often spice up their accounts with quotations from poems, even if the quotes aren’t really all that appropriate. Perhaps some will turn to this collection for a source of such snippets. I know I will!

Another thing that struck me was that I always tended to think that engagement between science and poetry was a relatively recent thing, typified by WH Auden’s humorously perplexed After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics:

Our eyes prefer to suppose
That a habitable place
Has a geocentric view,
That architects enclose
A quiet Euclidian space:
Exploded myths – but who
Could feel at home astraddle
An ever expanding saddle?

But in fact the metaphysical poets of the 17th century also grappled with such issues. Consider this fragment from John Donne’s An Anatomy of the World:

We think the Heavens enjoy their spherical,
Their round proportion embracing all.
But yet their various and perplexed course,
Observed in divers ages, doth enforce
Men to find out so many eccentric parts,
Such divers down-right lines, such overthwarts,
As disproportion that pure form….

That could almost have been written about the possibility of a lop-sided universe that I’ve blogged about here and there, and which is a major topic of current cosmological research.

Other reactions I had were more personal. There is a poem in the collection by Fleur Adcock, who visited the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle when I was there. She judged a poetry reading competition (which I didn’t win) for which the test piece was Stevie Smith’s Not Waving but Drowning. I remember that she was quite a glamorous-looking lady, but she got everybody’s name wrong in her presentation address. She must be getting on a bit by now.

I have also met one of the other poets represented here too, Gwyneth Lewis, who was elected the first national poet for Wales and also spent some time as poet-in-residence in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University where I now work. She wrote a number of poems about science but is probably most famous for writing the words “In These Stones Horizons Sing” which are incorporated in the design of the facade of the Wales Millennium Centre.

Anyway, I thoroughly recommend this book which is a rich treasury of verse ancient and modern. Some of the lovely things in it are quite new to me and I am definitely going to read more by some of the poets represented in it. That’s the way to use an anthology: go and read more systematically whoever catches your eye.

Being an old-fashioned romantic I think I’ll finish off with an excerpt from William Wordsworth‘s epic The Prelude. Regular readers (both of you) will know that I greatly admire Wordsworth and, for me, The Prelude is one of the highest pinnacles in all of English literature.

The universal spectacle throughout
Was shaped for admiration and delight,
Grand in itself alone, but in that breach
Through which the homeless voice of waters rose,
That dark deep thoroughfare, had Nature lodged
The Soul, the Imagination of the whole.