hewutHQOUEWHY 9Q8UHURIOHY ! I missed three whole entire days! I’m so sorry! 😦 But I do have something for you today! 🙂
Sarah Williams’s “The Old Astronomer”
There is an idea expressed throughout Greek mythology called kleos. The word kleos roughly translates to “glory” and “fame”. However, the connotation of the word means more than just that. Kleos means being remembered throughout time as a hero, as someone who made an impact. It is a word for the desire most humans have burning within them—the desire to leave a mark on society, to have the minstrels sing your name as they tell of greatness. Few people achieve this ultimate remembrance, but those who do may influence generations to come. The writer Sarah Williams (1841-1868) is one of these people. Through her poem “The Old Astronomer”, she has left a mark on us, one hundred and forty-five years later. Her most famous couplet, “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,” (Williams 1) is still a well-known quote in the literary world. This quote, and the poem which includes it, are very profound and meaningful, to the scientist and writer alike. The main idea of Sarah Williams’ poem “The Old Astronomer” is that humans should always pursue science for the betterment of society, but also for the satisfaction of one’s own intellectual curiosity; this poem was influenced by many ideals and people, including the ancient philosophers.
Williams wrote, “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” (Williams 2). In these lines, the narrator is telling the pupil not to research because of pressure from society or to get his name in a book. One of the only other reasons the pupil would research so faithfully is the fulfillment of internal intellectual curiosity. Curiosity is a value treasured in humans because it makes us genuinely want to learn. Curiosity is the only reason we know most things we do today. After all, science is not quite defined by the shout of “Eureka!”, as we often think; it is defined by the quiet muttering of, “I wonder why that happened.”
Philosophers and scientists of ancient Greece have a large influence over what we study today. These intellectuals especially influenced the Victorian era. The Victorian people were slowly moving from the mysticism of religion and starting to accept human logic as universal truth: “the rationalism and science of the 19th century industrial revolution was notably unromantic and this sets up a tension that runs thought the Victorian period” (Baraniecki 1). The intellectually inclined of this time had a hard time accepting simple religious explanations, although widespread Christianity was still common. The Greeks did not have the trouble of choosing the pursuit of religion or the pursuit of science, and “it is interesting to think what Homer would have made of all of this. He actually believed in mortals, immortals, and demi-gods and unlike [the Victorian people] he didn’t have to rationalize his belief with Christianity or an industrial revolution” (Baraniecki 1). The famous Greek scientists did not have to work within a limiting religion—most modern religions have certain explanations not to be questioned even by science—as they believed it was their sacred duty to learn and explore their natural curiosity. The Victorian people, however, did have this issue. Scientists of this era were attempting to explain said “unexplainable” truths about life and the universe. However, the view of science did eventually shift: “Now perhaps the industrialist and scientists are the new Heroes without having been identified as such by the Victorian classicists” (Baraniecki 1). Science and religion may always be at war, but in Victorian times, the people became more accepting of both these and of ancient Greek values.
Women have traditionally been the mothers and homemakers of society. Victorian women were no exception: “The life of women in the Victorian era was generally centered on family commitments” (Nickson 1). Williams takes her role to a new level and does not only just help her family, she writes for the public. Sarah Williams is an independent woman, and “much like her poetess foremothers, Williams wrote for the public consumption. She wanted to be read” (Ehnes 1). Williams was a true writer at heart, and she rose above the usual superficial roles of women; people have remarked that song and rhyme simply flowed out of her. She is described “as one who spontaneously produced song, [which] fits the traditional definition of the poetess and serves to minimize Williams’ astute awareness of her position as a female poet and the importance of her now forgotten contributions to the era’s periodical culture” (Ehnes 1). There is a theme of feminine empowerment throughout “The Old Astronomer”. Williams cites the importance of women in early life and retaining these qualities one’s mother teaches one in the lines
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 (Williams 1).
A mother is one’s hero throughout life. She is always there for her children—especially a Victorian woman. Another example of feminine power in “The Old Astronomer” is the lines “What for us are all distractions of men’s fellowship and wiles;/What for us the Goddess Pleasure with her meretricious smiles” (Williams 1). Williams is saying that the narrator and his pupil are not concerned with petty criticism and fame—although they will accept helpful criticism. “The Goddess Pleasure” (Williams 1), is a reference to the Greek goddess Athena, who is the patroness of wisdom and battle. Athena would be a logical mentor for a criticized scientist to look up to, and her “meretricious smiles” (Williams 1) are her sidelong glances from Olympus encouraging the scientist to work on, as if she and he know something the rest of the world does not, and she wants him to discover more. The feminine influence was growing in this period, and women were starting to symbolize more than mothers or maids.
Science and religion are conflicting forces. Science seeks to explain the mystical and unexplainable questions which religion does not need answers to. In the Victorian era, the pursuit of science was relatively new and subject to intense criticism. Some of this was useful to the scientists; some was just unnecessary. The narrator recognizes the difference between the two when he states “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” (Williams 1). The narrator and his apprentice know what criticism to take into account with their work and what is said simply because modern science is not yet widely accepted. Williams makes this clear by writing “And remember men will scorn it, ‘tis original and true/And the obloquy of newness may fall bitterly on you” (Williams 1). This is typical of many ideals in most societies; at first they are shunned because of the unfamiliar newness of it all, but eventually the ideals are accepted. After all, “the Victorian era was a period of wide extremes—characterized by industrial reforms, cultural transformations, scientific progress, gracious living, and grinding poverty and wars” (Nickson 1).
Although the narrator’s primary concern was to practice science for the satisfaction of internal curiosity, he also wanted the world to be improved by his findings. He expresses his concern for the continuation of his work, “I have sown, like Tycho Brahé, that a greater man may reap;/But if none should do my reaping, ‘twill disturb me in my sleep” (Williams 2). Upon the narrator’s impending death, he is stating that it will bring him unrest in the afterlife if no one will pursue his science. Earlier in the poem, the narrator has said “But your spirit is untainted, I can dedicate you still/To the service of our science: you will further it? you will!” (Williams 1). He then leaves his pupil with some last instructions,
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 or yet to-morrow can complete a perfect age (Williams 1).
The narrator is making some last requests to make sure that his student has taken in all the information he can, and will be true to the science. The mentor subtly gives his student a reminder of what is expected of him: “Pray remember that I leave you all my theory complete,/lacking only certain data for your adding, as is meet” (Williams 1). Despite all this, the poem is not solely in favor of all science. There is still the Victorian conflict of science and religion clashing. This work, therefore, turns out to be “a poem that neither defied nor vilified scientists…but sought to present a genuinely sympathetic and human view of its subject” (Martin 1).
Old myths show themselves in the lines “Draw the curtain back for Venus, ere my vision grows too weak:/It is strange the pearly planet should look red as fiery Mars,—” (Williams 2). In old Roman tradition, Venus is the goddess of love, and Mars is the god of war (Aphrodite and Ares, in the Greek legends). These two are the complete opposites of each other, and yet they are lovers. This is symbolized in the way that Williams says Venus looks “red as fiery Mars” (Williams 2), as if the two are not so different at all. This is meant as a symbolism that if even the most unlike beings can get along, humans with different beliefs can, too. However, the real clincher is the last line: “God will mercifully guide me on my way amongst the stars” (Williams 2). This shows that even though it appears that Williams is a proponent of science, and even though Greek philosophers and ideals may have a great influence, it is always the one true God who gets the final word. It is written about Williams that “Some of her hymns—more especially ‘God’s Way,’…—are inspired by the truest religious experience.”(Japp 2) One can conclude that although she was fond of the sciences, her religion was very dear to her.
When one trains with a teacher for a long period of time, one would always recognize them and remember their time together. The narrator of “The Old Astronomer” grows very close to his old mentor and opens the poem with “Reach me down my Tycho Brahé,—I would know him when we meet,/When I share my later science, sitting humbly at his feet;” (Williams 2). The narrator reminisces of a time when he was the student, learning from the great Tycho Brahé, who “has a strong claim to the title ‘Father of modern Astronomy’ for his insistence on systematic observation” (Martin 1). The idea of an everlasting friendship between two males—and under-romanticizing of male-female relationships—is a very Greek trait. The Greeks believed that a true and loyal friend was one of the most important things to have. Because of this, many relationships between the mentor and student—who spend a lot of time together—become deep and meaningful. Williams shows this in the lines
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’? (Williams 1)
The narrator is dying, and thus the pupil is sad since they have formed such a bond. Williams had a very strong bond with her father, who acted as a mentor. He “had been very successful in life. She was deeply attached to him, and she never fully recovered from the shock of his sudden death” (Japp 1). Four months after this, and after writing this poem, she died of cancer. This poem was sort of a last tribute to her father who had taught her so much. It also was a tribute to the teacher Dr. Plumptre, “to whom she always attributed much impulse to authorship. He was one of the first ones to whom she showed her earliest book…he aided and advised her in many ways” (Japp 1). Williams’s experience with her two mentors gave her a fascination with the relationship between mentors and apprentices, and when she noticed that most of these relationships come from researching in the scientific field, this poem resulted.
Arguably Sarah Williams’s most famous couplet, and the favorite quote of many, is
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 (Williams 1).
This quote has been an inspiration to countless individuals. It has a deeper meaning than is first apparent. “Though my soul may set in darkness” (Williams 1). This first part of the quote is the narrator telling his pupil that he is a man of science more than religion, and religious people would judge that he has not fulfilled his sacred duties. “It will rise in perfect light” (Williams 1). Though the narrator may not reach Paradise by divine salvation, he can save himself through the power of his mind’s knowledge and satisfied curiosity. He has fulfilled his personal purpose, and therefore will be saved. “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night” (Williams 1). This line has two meanings. The first meaning is that the stars are the astronomer’s favorite thing, and they protect him from fear of the dark unknown of night. The second meaning is that he has loved the bright points of life and learned so much, that he no longer fears the unknowns of the afterlife.
Sarah Williams was a very religious woman, but she also enjoyed learning. Her interest in mentorship and companionship led to devastation when she lost her father. “The Old Astronomer” is a poem about how she feels these relationships are, and through imagery and feeling, we understand the mutual love of the old astronomer and his pupil—his apprentice. There is clear Greek influence, as well as influence of the period this poem was written. Sarah Williams achieves the ultimate kleos in her beloved couplet. She died young and pure in her late twenties; her faithful readers still hope that she, like the narrator, had “loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night” (Williams 1).