Galactic Poetry Sunday

by John Holbo on March 4, 2018

Having taken some notes on ‘alien‘, let me make some on ‘galaxy’, which has had a longer shelf-life than you might think in English poetry.

Se yonder loo the Galoxie
Whiche men clepeth the melky weye
For hit ys white.

That’s Chaucer. It sounds incongruously scientific, doesn’t it? That’s us projecting our scientific sense back into a Greek name for that whitish light-y bit up there.

Our concept of galaxy needs telescopes. Galileo is first to see the Milky Way is made up of stars (1610) – although Democritus guessed it long ago. In 1750 Thomas Wright first theorizes the gravitational structure of the galaxy (and Kant thinks he was right.) The astronomer Herschel is first to star-map the shape of the Milky Way (1785).

You might think poetry and SF don’t go together especially. As Coleridge says: “There can be no galaxy in poetry.” (But he just meant you shouldn’t cram too many bright things close together – too many figures and metaphors and such. Don’t get fancy, eh!)

But galactic poetry, even in our post-Galilean sense, comes early.

A star thought by the erring passenger,
Which falling from its native orb dropped here,
And makes the earth (its centre) now its sphere.

Should many of these sparks together be,
He that the unknown light far off should see
Would think it a terrestrial galaxy.

That’s “The Glow-Worm”, by Thomas Stanley. I presume it appears in his 1649 Poems. Late Metaphysical Poetry, then, but pretty quick off the mark, poetizing cutting edge observational science.

OK, I’ll give you the full poem under the fold. It’s kind of a cheat quoting these stanzas in isolation because ‘star thought’ shouts out pretty cosmic, starting us out like that. (I thought I was clever to note this, but the editor of this standard anthology did, too. So I’m not such a special snowflake, after all.) In context, what is happening is that a glow-worm looks like a fallen star to an erring passenger (on the earth?)

Here it is:

Stay, fairest Chariessa, stay and mark
This animated gem, whose fainter spark
Of fading light its birth had from the dark;

A star thought by the erring passenger,
Which falling from its native orb dropped here,
And makes the earth (its centre) now its sphere.

Should many of these sparks together be,
He that the unknown light far off should see
Would think it a terrestrial galaxy.

Take’t up, fair saint; see how it mocks thy fright,
The paler flame doth not yield heat, though light,
Which thus deceives thy reason, through thy sight.

But see how quickly it (ta’en up) doth fade;
To shine in darkness only being made,
By th’ brightness of thy light turned to a shade;

And burnt to ashes by thy flaming eyes
On the chaste altar of thy hand it dies,
As to thy greater light a sacrifice.

I can’t claim to know who Chariessa is. Wikipedia says: beetle? (But not a glow-worm?) Who’s the saint? St. Chariessa? Who’s that? Am I being dumb?

The first poetic reference to a star-map of the galaxy is actually earlier than Herschel. It’s in Dryden, writing about Cromwell (1659):

He fought secure of fortune as of fame
Till by new maps the Island might be shown,
Of Conquests which he strew’d where ‘e’re he came
Thick as the Galaxy with starr’s is sown.

It’s quite common to meet with stars and moons and suns and orbs and so forth in poetry. Still, Galaxy feels too modern – too SF – for Dryden, to me, but there it is.

If you like your galactic poetry galumphing, there’s always “The Lady of Shallot”:

The gemmy bridle glittered free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.

If you think it’s best to keep on using Galaxy as a proper name for the Milky Way, Keats might be your man. Here he describes a swan:

He slants his neck beneath the waters bright
So silently, it seems a beam of light
Come from the galaxy:

And here:

The good-night blush of eve was waning slow,
And Vesper, risen star, began to throe
In the dusk heavens silverly, when they
Thus sprang direct towards the Galaxy.



Dr. Hilarius 03.04.18 at 4:51 am

“Oh freddled gruntbuggly,
Thy micturations are to me
As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.
Groop, I implore thee, my foonting turlingdromes,
And hooptiously drangle me with crinkly bindlewurdles,
Or I will rend thee in the gobberwarts
With my blurglecruncheon, see if I don’t!” – Jeltz of Vogon


John Holbo 03.04.18 at 4:59 am

Oh yeah, I’d forgotten that one!


Raven Onthill 03.04.18 at 8:07 am

“The galaxy swings around
like a wheel of lighted smoke,
and the smoke is made of stars.
It is sunsmoke.
For lack of other words we call it sunsmoke,
do you see?
I don’t feel languages are equal
to what that vision comprehends.
The richest of the languages we know,
Xinombric, has three million words,
but then the galaxy you’re gazing into right now
has more than ninety billion suns.
Has there ever been a brain that mastered all the words
in the Xinombric language?
Not a one.
Now you see.
And do not see.” — Harry Martinson , Aniara: A review of man in time and space,, poem 85, Klass and Sjöberg translation, original Swedish publication 1956

Martinson won a Nobel, in part for that book of science fiction poetry.


John Holbo 03.04.18 at 8:47 am

I should clarify that i’m aware contemporary (relative to, say, Dryden!) sf poetry exists but I didn’t know about Martinson. Thanks for that.


Z 03.04.18 at 10:04 am

I can’t claim to know who Chariessa is

ὦ κάλα, ὦ χαρίεσσα κόρα from Sappho? Chariessa is just a beautiful young girl… Belle would have told you that. (Alternatively, around where I live, a Charissa is a rather unappealing nocturnal moth.)


JBW 03.04.18 at 7:11 pm


Upon this Primrose hill,
Where, if heaven would distil
A shower of rain, each several drop might go
To his own primrose, and grow manna so ;
And where their form, and their infinity
Make a terrestrial galaxy,
As the small stars do in the sky ;
I walk to find a true love ; and I see
That ’tis not a mere woman, that is she,
But must or more or less than woman be.

Stanley would have known this poem, of course.


John Holbo 03.04.18 at 10:54 pm

Thanks, JBW!


David Duffy 03.05.18 at 10:25 am

No simile shall be begun,
With rising or with setting sun;
And let the secret head of Nile
Be ever banish’d from your isle.

No son of mine shall dare to say,
Aurora usher’d in the day,
Or ever name the milky-way.
You all agree, I make no doubt,
Elijah’s mantle is worn out.


floopmeister 03.09.18 at 3:08 am

What, no Donne?

The Sun Rising by John Donne

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

She’s all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus.
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

Not really SF granted, but certainly cosmic :)


floopmeister 03.09.18 at 3:09 am

Oh crap – just read post 6 in more detail…

My bad.


John Holbo 03.09.18 at 5:06 am

No worries, Floopmeister. What’s Donne is Donne. No use crying over spilled Milky Way.


floopmeister 03.09.18 at 5:31 am

What’s Donne is Donne. No use crying over spilled Milky Way.

Ouch. Humour like that almost makes me wish I was an island, entire of myself…


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