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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

09 August 2019

Malcolm Guite stargazes with the poets

PERHAPS it was our recent sojourn in Keswick (26 July) that put me again in mind of Coleridge; for I remembered a phrase of his just as the stars were coming out on a still evening and I was straining, against the loom of our own light pollution, to see them. I was remembering how in “Frost At Midnight” Coleridge remembered that, at his school in London, the stars were the one thing unsmudged by the dirt of the city, the one living link with the memories of his childhood and the beauties of nature:

For I was reared
In the great city, pent ’mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.

Now, of course, the “cloisters” of the city are not dim, but dazzling, and you must go deep into the countryside if you want to see the stars in their proper splendour. Indeed, Coleridge himself, in a letter to a friend, remembered the brilliance of the stars in the deep Devon countryside:

I remember that at eight years old, I walked with [my father] one winter evening from a farmer’s house a mile from Ottery, and he told me the names of the stars, and how Jupiter was 1000 times larger than our world, and that the other twinkling stars were suns, that had worlds rolling round them, and when I came home, he showed me how they rolled round.

Astronomy lessons in the vicarage with his father increased Coleridge’s wonder at the “heavens which declared the glory of the Lord”, but we have even more than that: wonderful programs on astronomy, the stars, and the planets (more since the recent Moon anniversary); and, best of all, the astonishing images brought back to us from the curved and polished mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope, orbiting “Above the smoke and stir of this dim spot Which men call earth”, as Milton would have put it.

Although Coleridge had not the advantage of a polished telescope lens, the lens of his mind was polished by poetry itself: from the Psalmist to Dante and Shakespeare, for all of whom the stars were a numinous revelation, and the “floor of heaven” was “thick inlaid with patines of bright gold” singing a music we cannot hear.

And so I strained the other evening to see the stars myself, and make out, however faintly, through the loom of the village lights, the pale trace of the Milky Way, that gracious path through the heavens.

For it was another poet who called me to see and contemplate the Milky Way: George Herbert, who called prayer itself “The Milky Way”. He must have seen it clearly on the nights he walked back, in that pre-industrial darkness, from Salisbury to Bemerton. From my own small village of Linton, I, too, gazed up; for I was trying to make a sonnet to tease out what Herbert might have meant. It came out like this:

The Milky Way

It’s always there, but when our lights are low,
Or altogether out, we see it shine;
Only when things are darkest here below
Do we discern its soft pearlescent sheen,
Gracefully traced across the midnight sky,
In whose light Herbert saw the path of prayer.
Though pale and milky to the naked eye,
The view from Hubble, far above the air,
Shows us a star-field rich with many colours
“Patines of bright gold” and blue and red,
Abundance of a hundred billion stars
Whose centre lies in Sagittarius,
Darting their glory, like the myriad
Of saints and angels who all pray for us.

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