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The Old Astronomer -- Sarah Williams

       
(Poem #1769) The Old Astronomer
 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
      (Published 1868)

Note: Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) has a strong claim to the title "Father of
Modern Astronomy" for his insistence on systematic observation.

The best word I can find to describe today's poem is "moving". Williams's
first-person narrator is sensitively and convincingly portrayed; the
astronomer's life, and his relationship with his pupil, shine through with
warmth and gentleness.

While the poem is uneven in places, it is never jarring, and the good bits
are very good indeed - in particular, the couplet

 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.

has helped ensure its immortality. I was also strongly reminded of Kipling's
"The Explorer", a similar, regretless look back at a life that eschewed
"fellowship and smiles" and the pursuit of fame in favour of a lonely
impulse of delight.

And, when all is said and done, it was a real pleasure to read a poem that
neither deified nor vilified scientists (and I've seen too many of both),
but sought to present a genuinely sympathetic and human view of its subject.

martin

[Notes]

Anthologised in "Best Loved Poems of the American People", Hazel Felleman, ed.
Garden City Publishing Co., Garden City NY: 1936, pp. 613-614

John and Proebe Brashear, a couple of astronomers buried at Alleghany
Observatory, famously have a quote from the poem as their epitaph:
  "We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night."

[Links]

Biography of Williams:
  Sarah Williams (1837-1868)

Variations abound; I am indebted to the stumpers-l archive for the accurate
text of the poem:
[broken link] http://listserv.dom.edu/cgi-bin/wa.exe?A2=ind0412&L=stumpers-l&D=0&H=1&O=D&P=26925

From the fifteen-minutes-of-fame department, I was prompted to run this poem
after it was quoted in Irregular Webcomic:
  http://www.irregularwebcomic.net/969.html

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