Look Up!

Big Dipper.jpgToday a poem that is new to me, by William Habington, a poet I’ve never read.

I chose it from the OBEV (Gardner) because I am trying to find poems in the anthology which are new to me and which offer me something I’ve ignored or passed over quickly in the past. I’m not finding many of them, perhaps not surprisingly, as I have been using the book for, gosh,  nearly forty years. Most of the poems that have something  for me have called out to me by now.

This one – possibly the Latin title has put me off,  possibly the fact that I’ve never heard of Sir William. Not proud of that, but think it is a factor.

But today those pushaways were outweighed by the fact that last night was a surprisingly clear night, and when I came home it was extremely dark and I could see many stars. I was moved by the sight of them, and exhilarated. I don’t know if it was because I haven’t noticed the stars for a while but I suddenly found myself thinking, (excuse my inner voice) ‘dear stars! I’ve always loved you, the heavens, the universe…’ That thought – a kind of prayer of thanks? – took a fraction of a second then I put the key in the door and got on with getting home.

Yet it was a strong experience despite its short time-frame and, now I see, still in me when I opened the book this morning. I got past the title, and read  the opening line,  was  attracted, and read on.

(Getting past the title: I had to look it up.  ‘Nox nocti indicat Scientiam’ (‘Night after night they display knowledge’) The title is taken from Psalm 19 – the Vulgate, Catholic version which the King James version translates as ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.’ If you know Haydn’s Creation, it’s that.)

When I survey the bright
Celestial sphere;
So rich with jewels hung, that Night
Doth like an Ethiop bride appear:

My soul her wings doth spread
And heavenward flies,
Th’ Almighty’s mysteries to read
In the large volumes of the skies.

For the bright firmament
Shoots forth no flame
So silent, but is eloquent
In speaking the Creator’s name.

No unregarded star
Contracts its light
Into so small a character,
Removed far from our human sight,

But if we steadfast look
We shall discern
In it, as in some holy book,
How man may heavenly knowledge learn.

It tells the conqueror
That far-stretch’d power,
Which his proud dangers traffic for,
Is but the triumph of an hour:

That from the farthest North,
Some nation may,
Yet undiscover’d, issue forth,
And o’er his new-got conquest sway:

Some nation yet shut in
With hills of ice
May be let out to scourge his sin,
Till they shall equal him in vice.

And then they likewise shall
Their ruin have;
For as yourselves your empires fall,
And every kingdom hath a grave.

Thus those celestial fires,
Though seeming mute,
The fallacy of our desires
And all the pride of life confute:–

For they have watch’d since first
The World had birth:
And found sin in itself accurst,
And nothing permanent on Earth

Looking at it again as I write, I see it wasn’t the first line but the second stanza that drew me in;

My soul her wings doth spread
And heavenward flies,
Th’ Almighty’s mysteries to read
In the large volumes of the skies.

That’s exactly what happened to me on the path last night when I looked up. Somewhere in the back of my mind is something George Saunders said when I saw him reading and talking at Liverpool University the night before last. He spoke about being brought up as a working class Catholic on the south side of Chicago, and how Catholicism – though he had turned away from it in later life – had created a space inside him – a place for mystery. Childhood religion didn’t do that for me much – the Catholicism I experienced was more to do with unkind discipline than mystery and wonder. But later in my life, in my twenties and thirties and onwards from there, religious poetry  did create such a space in me.

When I read ‘the Almighty ‘ and ‘Creator’ the words go into that space for mystery.

I accept that for Habington they mean something about purposiveness and control or consciousness (God as the deliberate maker). It doesn’t matter  that I don’t feel this, don’t believe it. I don’t seem at odds with the words or the concept. Actually, I nearly feel it to be true. Just not quite. So when I read ‘the Almighty’ I translate it as ‘mystery’ and when I read ‘Creator’ I translate it into ‘force or energy or power’. the differences feel superficial. I know what he is talking about, I saw it with my own eyes when I looked up last night.

No unregarded star
Contracts its light
Into so small a character,
Removed far from our human sight,

But if we steadfast look
We shall discern
In it, as in some holy book,
How man may heavenly knowledge learn.

I do not really have language for what I learn at such a moment, but I do have the actual experience. At the point of staring at the stars  I am ‘heavenly knowledge’ learning.

Language helps, does it? I think of myself doing some other thing which is instinctive and experiential – cooking let’s say. I can do it without language. But with language I can share the experience with another person. That makes me think that the fact that I don’t have religious language myself doesn’t matter, so long as I can, for the purpose of communication, learn Habington’s, or Milton’s, or Dante’s or T.S.Eliot’s. Or George Saunders.

What was mildly surprising in the poem was its deliberate turning away from worldliness, from power and politics. Habington lived through the English civil war, was a Catholic at a time of Catholic persecution, family members were executed.  Politics and power were real and terrible forces. Yet he looks up at the stars and sees it all as not much, as the stuff of a ‘moment’;

It tells the conqueror
That far-stretch’d power,
Which his proud dangers traffic for,
Is but the triumph of an hour:

Habington’s stars tell him, in a way that feels helpful to him; ‘And nothing permanent on Earth’

At a time of turmoil and uncertainty, the glance up, the feelings of the size and mystery of it all, our smallness here below. I recognise my experience in his poem, and thank him for  it.

One thought on “Look Up!

  1. Jamie March 16, 2017 / 9:08 am

    Breath-taking 🙂

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