Culture Literature

Poem of the Week: Sarah Williams’ ​’The Old Astronomer to His Pupil’

Exactly one-thousand, eight hundred and sixty-seven days ago, a friend of mine passed away. He was not my ​best friend, my oldest friend, nor the very first person I would run to with a secret. His absence, however, marked my first direct encounter with our arbitrary impermanence, and the overlooked importance of otherwise insignificant moments.

When writing my eulogy, I was reading a nineteenth-century anthology of women poets. Herman, Dickinson, Browning. Then, of course, Williams. I felt doltish not having read her work before. It was one of those chaos-theory confirmation moments, which made me at least entertain the idea that the universe is indeed an entity with life, pushing and pulling the tectonic plates of our existence to sometimes present us with precisely what we need. ​Either way, Sarah Williams’ ​The Old Astronomer to His Pupil ​breathed into me a newfound sense to write about life in the way that seemed the most correct.

Perhaps it is the delicate balance of scientific-process analogies (I adore the two shout-outs given to Tycho Brahe) and truths gained by experience that attracted me to this work in High School. The poem’s ten stanzas follow the titular astronomer and pupil as the former prepares to live his final moments in the latter’s company. The dying academic, in parallel to a testament, specifies pending tasks to the mourning student: the personification of his work, legacy, and humanity. Although he begins by speaking of data to be added to build their theory-in-progress, and comments on the tardiness of the ‘German College’s […] honour​,’ the substance of the poem slowly slips into the empirically emotive.

The poem’s most renowned couplet is this: ‘Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light; / I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night​.’ The stand-alone fame of these two lines ​is well-deserved, even if reading them in their entire context intensifies their impact. The astronomer has dedicated his complete living moments to the celestial (a subject-matter physically and theoretically beyond our complete grasp) and has cast away, for better or worse, pleasures of the flesh (ie. ‘p​ursuit of fame’​) for this purpose. His imminent introduction to the heavens makes the abstract tangible, and is an accidental magnum opus. In a similar vein, and as embarrassing as it is, I believe this is why the song ‘Laika’ by Sticky Fingers makes me shed a tear. A resurfacing of teen angst that occurs when evaluating the cliché concept of disappearing into the universe is my guess.

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The stanza which most called my attention is that which follows the well-known couplet, as the astronomer finally addresses the pupil’s fears. As the pupil weeps, the astronomer reassures them by saying ‘[they] should save [their] eyes for sight​,’ and reveals that they are the only person the astronomer has ever fully confided in. There is something profoundly reassuring about the astronomer’s nonchalant assertions. Their relationship, previously appearing as strictly an apprenticeship, is contextualised: the relations of their day-to-day; the ‘laughter and ‘joy’ of discoveries; the managing of data; the silent observance of the objects in space. These simple actions suddenly become dearly intimate, paternal, and loving. The torch is passed in this break from scientific to sentimental. In the final stanza, the last words of the astronomer draw symbolism to Venus and Mars, planets with contradictory significance – love and war – submitting himself to expiration.

On a more personal note, this poem always makes me cry at least a little. My eulogy, in the end, was greatly inspired by Williams’ treatment of the scientific. A scientist himself, I know my friend Anthony Faseler would have liked this poem, too.

Reach me down my Tycho Brahe,—I would know him when we meet,
When I share my later science, sitting humbly at his feet;
He may know the law of all things, yet be ignorant of how
We are working to completion, working on from then till now.

Pray, remember, that I leave you all my theory complete,
Lacking only certain data, for your adding as is meet;
And remember, men will scorn it, ’tis original and true,
And the obloquy of newness may fall bitterly on you.

But, my pupil, as my pupil you have learnt the worth of scorn;
You have laughed with me at pity, we have joyed to be forlorn;
What, for us, are all distractions of men’s fellowship and smiles?
What, for us, the goddess Pleasure, with her meretricious wiles?

You may tell that German college that their honour comes too late.
But they must not waste repentance on the grizzly savant’s fate;
Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too truly to be fearful of the night.

What, my boy, you are not weeping? You should save your eyes for sight;
You will need them, mine observer, yet for many another night.
I leave none but you, my pupil, unto whom my plans are known.
You “have none but me,” you murmur, and I “leave you quite alone”?

Well then, kiss me,—since my mother left her blessing on my brow,
There has been a something wanting in my nature until now;
I can dimly comprehend it,—that I might have been more kind,
Might have cherished you more wisely, as the one I leave behind.

I “have never failed in kindness”? No, we lived too high for strife,—
Calmest coldness was the error which has crept into our life;
But your spirit is untainted, I can dedicate you still
To the service of our science: you will further it? you will!

There are certain calculations I should like to make with you,
To be sure that your deductions will be logical and true;
And remember, “Patience, Patience,” is the watchword of a sage,
Not to-day nor yet to-morrow can complete a perfect age.

I have sworn, like Tycho Brahe, that a greater man may reap;
But if none should do my reaping, ’twill disturb me in my sleep.
So be careful and be faithful, though, like me, you leave no name;
See, my boy, that nothing turn you to the mere pursuit of fame.

I must say Good-bye, my pupil, for I cannot longer speak;
Draw the curtain back for Venus, ere my vision grows too weak:
It is strange the pearly planet should look red as fiery Mars,—
God will mercifully guide me on my way amongst the stars.

Sarah Williams, ‘The Old Astronomer to his Pupil’, 1868

Image: poplinre via Flickr