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All My Theory Complete

July 20, 2010

(The Old Astronomer to His Pupil by Sarah Williams, Annotated)

Not many people I have known have asked my what my favourite poem is. But whenever I have been lucky enough to be asked this, I have always gone on and on about The Old Astronomer to His Pupil by Sarah Williams [1]. I first read it on the awesome Generation Terrorists who only had the first four stanzas up. These are the most famous stanzas, and are commonly thought to be the complete poem, which I think is partly due to the fact that a best-selling anthology of poems called “Best Loved Poems of the American People“, published in 1936, printed these four stanzas without reference to the remaining poem, but also because the lines that end the fourth paragraphs are the poem’s chief claim to fame. Let me reproduce them here:

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.

This has to be amongst the most poetically balanced couplets in English literature. Perfect in all respects, the lines work very well on their own, but read in context of the poem, they turn magical. Over the years, I have found different lines from the poem to be more appealing to me at different times, depending on my mindet at that particular juncture, and this remains one of the few poems that I know by heart. These lines are also part of the popular culture in the astronomers’ community in the US, thanks to a paraphrased version of these lines being the epitaph of a nineteenth century astronomer couple, who did a lot to popularise astronomy there.

However, I have failed to find a single page on the internet that shares my enthusiasm for the poem, and have been meaning to write a post about it, annotating the different portions that have impressed me the most, with observations that may just be lost on a first time reader. I hope I can do at least some justice to this onerous task. I am sure to miss a lot of important details, and would appreciate any feedback that is shared on making this post more informative. I have decided to use numbers in brackets to denote places where I have added relevant notes, since I don’t know how to use hyperlinks or even superscript for the purpose of annotation here in WordPress. All the notes are together at the bottom of the page. The poem in its entirety is as below:

Reach me down my Tycho Brahe [2], 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 to now[3].

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 obliquy of newness [4] may fall bitterly on you.

But, my pupil, as my pupil you have learned 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 wiles;
What for us the Goddess Pleasure with her meretricious smiles.

You may tell that German College [5] that their honor comes too late,
But they must not waste repentance on the grizzly savant’s fate.
Though my soul may set in darkness [6], it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.[7]

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. [8]
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; [9]
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 [10].

I have sown, like Tycho Brahe, that a greater man may reap [11];
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 [12].

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 [14],
God will mercifully guide me on my way amongst the stars.

Notes:
1. I have noticed I always love poems by people called “Sarah”. Two other classics by two other Sara(h)s are here and here.

2. Tycho Brahe has to be among the most colourful and yet one of the most hard working of ancient astronomers. The wiki page is extremely interesting and amply rewards complete reading. Tycho had a very very eventful life, which ended due to a bladder infection because he refused to go to the rest-room after drinking session, as it would have been “a breach of etiquette”. This fact was recorded by none other than Johannes Kepler, who was sort of an assistant to Tycho in the last years before Tycho’s death and who is said to have “usurped” Tycho’s work after his death. Tycho and Kepler have both been covered at length by Carl Sagan in his super-duper best seller, Cosmos (which remains the best science book I have read in my life).

3. I love how the poem assumes a heaven where there would be opportunity to catch up with the greats of the past, who have somehow been unable to keep track of their professions post death. I often amuse myself trying to imagine someone like Bobby Fischer waiting for a Garry Kasparov to kick the bucket, so that he can learn of the latest developments in chess, and maybe play a game or two!

4. What a lovely phrase is “obloquy of newness”! It was a top contender for the name of this blog, being a phrase which somewhat mirrors the sentiment of a favourite quote of mine.

5. Tycho himself was educated in German colleges, so our mythical old astronomer can also be assumed to have had a similar background. I am not too sure of the influence of German colleges and universities on Renaissance era European scientists. If it was considerable, the old astronomer may not have had much to do with such a college before they decided, much too late, to confer some sort of an award upon him.

6. “Set in Darkness” is the name of a novel by Ian Rankin (just realised how much he looks like Rick Castle!), featuring the excellent Inspector Rebus, who has to be one of my favourite police detectives in contemorary crime fiction.

7. “Set” in darkness. “Rise” in perfect light. “Loved the stars too fondly, to be fearful of the night.” Sigh! Perfection.

8. The poor pupil starts to weep, thinking of the old astronomer’s death. The old man is characteristically brusque and practical. Maybe he wants the pupil to focus on the furthering of their science, so he can learn of the advancements once the pupil passes on. These six stanzas after the famous couplet are extremely touching and it’s a shame not many people know they exist.

9. If these lines were better known, some dumbass critic would have read “homosexual motifs” into it. It is a pet peeve of mine how these idiotic critics often miss the forest in pointing fingers at individual trees.

10. Another favourite couplet. The past two paragraphs capture well the kind of relationship shared by the astronomer and his pupil, which I guess develops between people who work together for long periods of time.

11. Reference to Johannes Kepler. Kepler far outshone Tycho in achievement (a greater man may reap), thanks partly to the meticulousness and vastness of data collected by Tycho (sown like Tycho Brahe), but also due to his use of the telescope. Tycho was the last of the great astronomers to carry out his observations without the aid of a telescope.

12. Noble lines – a Gitaesque directive to focus on the task, rather than the reward (fame, in this case).

13. Lovely symbolism – Venus, the planet of love and beauty, looks like the “fiery” Mars, the planet of war and death. Also makes sense from the physical point of view that the old astronomer, in his last moments, probably in pain and with failing vision should only be able to see his beloved sky dimly and unclearly. Again, an extremely poetic paragraph, made more so by the underlying pathos.

The poem as a whole is a great comfort to me over the years, especially since in the five years of having known of it, I have only started to like it more and more. This, as everyone knows, is a feeling to be treasured, as often favourite books and poems of yesteryear  lose their lustre as the reader experiences and learns new things. This fact is very well brought in this Yahoo! column by Sanjay Sipahimalani.

—-

Disclaimer: I really am no expert, either on poetry or on astronomy, so do let me know in case there is anything to be added / corrected in the post above.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. altair permalink
    July 20, 2011 4:26 am

    Dear B.W.,

    thank you for posting your thoughts on this wonderful poem. I stumbled upon it while searching for something work related (I am an astrophysicist, so the search terms must have matched) and fell in love. So I searched the web for interpretations, or some more information, but found only your post. I also searched for a German translation, but it seems that there is non, only the two famous lines (7) have been translated, because they are an opening quote in another book, and the translation is just horrible. In the end I decided to do a translation just for myself, which is quite challenging, as I have not done something like that since school, but it really helps understanding the poem, and I like doing it. Even if the translation result is not really good, the process was still worth it.
    Let me thank you again for putting your thoughts only.
    Best wishes, altair

    • B.W. permalink*
      November 27, 2011 1:58 pm

      Dear Altair,
      I am glad you found my post interesting. I really love the poem, and was surprised to see nothing related to it on the web. Hence decided to post my amateurish thoughts on it! :)
      Wish you luck with the German translation, I totally understand what you mean about the process of translation being worth it.. You are sure to get some great insights into the poem through it.
      Thanks for stopping by, and do post a link to your translation once you are done. I can’t read German, but would still like to see it!
      Warm regards,
      BW

  2. shaun permalink
    March 10, 2012 4:51 pm

    I fell in love with it the first moment I read it! a woman on my friends list on facebook posted it…….I messaged her right away asking about it! I share your love for the poem it is the perfect poem! it is short yet says so much, to me it speaks of the other side…. to sleep then wake on that side without fear I have a tat on both forarms stars and the poem will soon join on one of my arms.

  3. shaun permalink
    March 10, 2012 4:55 pm

    Forgot to mention I am only using the ending of Sarah Williams poem, I’am sure you have guessed the part…

    • Lisy permalink
      November 19, 2012 5:18 am

      I have read and reread this poem a million times in the last 5 years when I first came upon it. The words envelop my mind and the meaning is just so beautiful. I was confused about a few of the lines so when I found your post, I was ecstatic! And I believe it’s very true what you said, the lines beginning with “Though my soul may set…” were my favorite before I truly grasped the meaning of the poem in its entirety. It’s meaning intensified and I’m just so grateful for you and this post. As I’m sure it’s the same for you, this poem means a lot more to me than just a touching story of a dying man. This poem is so much more than words put together to make a tale. So in all honesty, saying thank you through this comment doesn’t even begin to explain how thankful I truly am. Although it’s beyond just simple words, I’ll say it anyway. Thank you

      • B.W. permalink*
        November 25, 2012 6:51 pm

        Dear Lisy, I am so happy to come across another person who feels as strongly about this beautiful poem as I do. My experience has been exactly the same. Thank you for stopping by and your very very kind words. You have made my day! :)

    • B.W. permalink*
      November 25, 2012 6:48 pm

      I am glad to hear of your interest, Shaun! Have you got the tattoo yet? (my apologies for the really late reply!)

  4. Lilias permalink
    April 12, 2013 10:05 am

    I love this poem! Greatly enjoyed reading your interpretation of it as well. Like some of the previous commenters, I too searched the web for an interpretation of it and found your post. :) And agree entirely on the perfection of “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.” Beautiful.

  5. October 6, 2013 1:30 am

    Dear B.W., I very much enjoyed reading your post about Sarah Williams and you shedding a light on her poem that I also very much enjoy. I recently started a blog and wrote an article about Sarah as well. Here is a link, maybe you find it interesting to read: http://www.porcelainista.net/?p=242. Best regards, Annabel

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