Sir John Herschel Remembers

A poem by Alfred Noyes

True type of all, from his own father's hand
He caught the fire; and, though he carried it far
Into new regions; and, from southern fields
Of yellow lupin, added host on host
To those bright armies which his father knew,
Surely the crowning hour of all his life
Was when, his task accomplished, he returned
A lonely pilgrim to the twilit shrine
Of first beginnings and his father's youth.
There, in the Octagon Chapel, with bared head
Grey, honoured for his father and himself,
He touched the glimmering keyboard, touched the books
Those dear lost hands had touched so long ago.

"Strange that these poor inanimate things outlast
The life that used them.
Yes. I should like to try
This good old friend of his. You'll leave me here
An hour or so?"
His hands explored the stops;
And, while the music breathed what else were mute,
His mind through many thoughts and memories ranged.
Picture on picture passed before him there
In living colours, painted on the gloom:
Not what the world acclaimed, the great work crowned,
But all that went before, the years of toil;
The years of infinite patience, hope, despair.
He saw the little house where all began,
His father's first resolve to explore the sky,
His first defeat, when telescopes were found
Too costly for a music-master's purse;
And then that dogged and all-conquering will
Declaring, "Be it so. I'll make my own,
A better than even the best that Newton made."
He saw his first rude telescope--a tube
Of pasteboard, with a lens at either end;
And then,--that arduous growth to size and power
With each new instrument, as his knowledge grew;
And, to reward each growth, a deeper heaven.
He saw the good Aunt Caroline's dismay
When her trim drawing-room, as by wizardry, turned
Into a workshop, where her brother's hands
Cut, ground and burnished, hour on aching hour,
Month after month, new mirrors of the sky.

Yet, while from dawn to dark her brother moved
Around some new-cut mirror, burnishing it,
Knowing that if he once removed his hands
The surface would be dimmed and must forego
Its heaven for ever, her quiet hands would raise
Food to his lips; or, with that musical voice
Which once--for she, too, offered her sacrifice--
Had promised her fame, she whiled away the hours
Reading how, long ago, Aladdin raised
The djinns, by burnishing that old battered lamp;
Or, from Cervantes, how one crazy soul
Tilting at windmills, challenged a purblind world.

He saw her seized at last by that same fire,
Burning to help, a sleepless Vestal, dowered
With lightning-quickness, rushing from desk to clock,
Or measuring distances at dead of night
Between the lamp-micrometer and his eyes.

He saw her in mid-winter, hurrying out,
A slim shawled figure through the drifted snow,
To help him; saw her fall with a stifled cry,
Gashing herself upon that buried hook,
And struggling up, out of the blood-stained drift,
To greet him with a smile.
"For any soldier,
This wound," the surgeon muttered, "would have meant
Six weeks in hospital."
Not six days for her!
"I am glad these nights were cloudy, and we lost
So little," was all she said.
Sir John pulled out
Another stop. A little ironical march
Of flutes began to goose-step through the gloom.
He saw that first "success"! Ay, call it so!
The royal command,--the court desires to see
The planet Saturn and his marvellous rings
On Friday night. The skies, on Friday night,
Were black with clouds. "Canute me no Canutes,"
Muttered their new magician, and unpacked
His telescope. "You shall see what you can see."
He levelled it through a window; and they saw
"Wonderful! Marvellous! Glorious! Eh, what, what!"
A planet of paper, with a paper ring,
Lit by a lamp, in a hollow of Windsor Park,
Among the ferns, where Herne the Hunter walks,
And Falstaff found that fairies live on cheese.
Thus all were satisfied; while, above the clouds--
The thunder of the pedals reaffirmed--
The Titan planet, every minute, rolled
Three hundred leagues upon his awful way.
Then, through that night, the vox humanaspoke
With deeper longing than Lucretius knew
When, in his great third book, the somber chant
Kindled and soared on those exultant wings,
Praising the master's hand from which he, too,
--Father, discoverer, hero--caught the fire.
It spoke of those vast labours, incomplete,
But, through their incompletion, infinite
In beauty, and in hope; the task bequeathed
From dying hand to hand.
Close to his grave
Like a memento mori stood the hulk
Of that great weapon rusted and outworn,
Which once broke down the barriers of the sky.
"Perrupit claustra"; yes, and bridged their gulfs;
For, far beyond our solar scheme, it showed
The law that bound our planets binding still
Those coupled suns which year by year he watched
Around each other circling.
Had our own
Some distant comrade, lost among the stars?
Should we not, one day, just as Kepler drew
His planetary music and its laws
From all those faithful records Tycho made,
Discern at last what vaster music rules
The vaster drift of stars from deep to deep;
Around what awful Poles, those wisps of light
Those fifteen hundred universes move?
One signal, even now, across the dark,
Declared their worlds confederate with our own;
For, carrying many secrets, which we now
Slowly decipher, one swift messenger comes
Across the abyss...
The light that, flashing through the immeasurable,
From universe to universe proclaims
The single reign of law that binds them all.
We shall break up those rays and, in their lines
And colours, read the history of their stars.
Year after year, the slow sure records grow.
Awaiting their interpreter. They shall see it,
Our sons, in that far day, the swift, the strong,
The triumphing young-eyed runners with the torch.

No deep-set boundary-mark in Space or Time
Shall halt or daunt them. Who that once has seen
How truth leads on to truth, shall ever dare
To set a bound to knowledge?
"Would that he knew"
--So thought the visitant at that shadowy shrine--
"Even as the maker of a song can hear
With the soul's ear, far off, the unstricken chords
To which, by its own inner law, it climbs,
Would that my father knew how younger hands
Completed his own planetary tune;
How from the planet that his own eyes found
The mind of man would plunge into the dark,
And, blindfold, find without the help of eyes
A mightier planet, in the depths beyond."

Then, while the reeds, with quiet melodious pace
Followed the dream, as in a picture passed,
Adams, the boy at Cambridge, making his vow
By that still lamp, alone in that deep night,
Beneath the crumbling battlements of St. John's,
To know why Uranus, uttermost planet known,
Moved in a rhythm delicately astray
From all the golden harmonies ordained
By those known measures of its sister-worlds.
Was there an unknown planet, far beyond,
Sailing through unimaginable deeps
And drawing it from its path?
Then challenging chords
Echoed the prophecy that Sir John had made,
Guided by his own faith in Newton's law:
We have not found it, but we feel it trembling
Along the lines of our analysis now
As once Columbus, from the shores of Spain,
Felt the new continent.
Then, in swift fugues, began
A race between two nations for the prize
Of that new world.
Le Verrier in France,
Adams in England, each of them unaware
Of his own rival, at the selfsame hour
Resolved to find it.
Not by the telescope now!
Skies might be swept for aeons ere one spark
Among those myriads were both found and seen
To move, at that vast distance round our sun.
They worked by faith in law alone. They knew
The wanderings of great Uranus, and they knew
The law of Newton.
By the midnight lamp,
Pencil in hand, shut in a four-walled room,
Each by pure thought must work his problem out,--
Given that law, to find the mass and place
Of that which drew their planet from his course.

There were no throngs to applaud them. Each alone,
Without the heat of conflict laboured on,
Consuming brain and nerve; for throngs applaud
Only the flash and tinsel of their day,
Never the quiet runners with the torch.
Night after night they laboured. Line on line
Of intricate figures, moving all in law,
They marshalled. Their long columns formed and marched
From battle to battle, and no sound was heard
Of victory or defeat. They marched through snows
Bleak as the drifts that broke Napoleon's pride
And through a vaster desert. They drilled their hosts
With that divine precision of the mind
To which one second's error in a year
Were anarchy, that precision which is felt
Throbbing through music.
Month on month they toiled,
With worlds for ciphers. One rich autumn night
Brooding over his figures there alone
In Cambridge, Adams found them moving all
To one solution. To the unseeing eye
His long neat pages had no more to tell
Than any merchant's ledger, yet they shone
With epic splendour, and like trumpets pealed;
Three hundred million leagues beyond the path
Of our remotest planet, drowned in night
Another and a mightier planet rolls;
In volume, fifty times more vast than earth,
And of so huge an orbit that its year
Wellnigh outlasts our nations. Though it moves
A thousand leagues an hour, it has not ranged
Thrice through its seasons since Columbus sailed,
Or more than once since Galileo died.

He took his proofs to Greenwich. "Sweep the skies
Within this limited region now," he said.
"You'll find your moving planet. I'm not more
Than one degree in error."
He left his proofs;
But Airy, king of Greenwich, looked askance
At unofficial genius in the young,
And pigeon-holed that music of the spheres.
Nine months he waited till Le Verrier, too,
Pointed to that same region of the sky.
Then Airy, opening his big sleepy lids,
Bade Challis use his telescope,--too late,
To make that honour all his country's own;
For all Le Verrier's proofs were now with Galle
Who, being German, had his star-charts ready
And, in that region, found one needlepoint
Had moved. A monster planet!
Honour to France!
Honour to England, too, the cry began,
Who found it also, though she drowsed at Greenwich.
So--as the French said, with some sting in it--
"We gave the name of Neptune to our prize
Because our neighbour England rules the sea."
"Honour to all," say we; for, in these wars,
Whoever wins a battle wins for all.
But, most of all, honour to him who found
The law that was a lantern to their feet,--
Newton, the first whose thought could soar beyond
The bounds of human vision and declare,
"Thus saith the law of Nature and of God
Concerning things invisible."
This new world
What was it but one harmony the more
In that great music which himself had heard,--
The chant of those reintegrated spheres
Moving around their sun, while all things moved
Around one deeper Light, revealed by law,
Beyond all vision, past all understanding.
Yet darkly shadowed forth for dreaming men
On earth in music...
Music, all comes back
To music in the end.
Then, in the gloom
Of the Octagon Chapel, the dreamer lifted up
His face, as if to all those great forebears.
The quivering organ rolled upon the dusk
His dream of that new symphony,--the sun
Chanting to all his planets on their way
While, stop to stop replying, height o'er height,
His planets answered, voices of a dream:


Light, on the far faint planets that attend me!
Light! But for me-the fury and the fire.
My white-hot maelstroms, the red storms that rend me
Can yield them still the harvest they desire,

I kiss with light their sunward-lifted faces.
With dew-drenched flowers I crown their dusky brows.
They praise me, lightly, from their pleasant places.
Their birds belaud me, lightly, from their boughs.

And men, on lute and lyre, have breathed their pleasure.
They have watched Apollo's golden chariot roll;
Hymned his bright wheels, but never mine that measure
A million leagues of flame from Pole to Pole.

Like harbour-lights the stars grow wide before me,
I draw my worlds ten thousand leagues a day.
Their far blue seas like April eyes adore me.
They follow, dreaming, on my soundless way.

How should they know, who wheel around my burning,
What torments bore them, or what power am I,
I, that with all those worlds around me turning,
Sail, every hour, from sky to unplumbed sky?

My planets, these live embers of my passion,
These children of my hurricanes of flame,
Flung thro' the night, for midnight to refashion,
Praise, and forget, the splendour whence they came.


Was it a dream that, in those bright dominions,
Are other worlds that sing, with lives like mine,
Lives that with beating hearts and broken pinions
Aspire and fall, half-mortal, half-divine?

A grain of dust among those glittering legions--
Am I, I only, touched with joy and tears?
0, silver sisters, from your azure regions,
Breathe, once again, your music of the spheres:--


A nearer sun, a rose of light arises,
To clothe my glens with richer clouds of flowers,
To paint my clouds with ever new surprises
And wreathe with mist my rosier domes and towers;

Where now, to praise their gods, a throng assembles
Whose hopes and dreams no sphere but mine has known.
On other worlds the same warm sunlight trembles;
But life, love, worship, these are mine alone.


And now, as dewdrops in the dawn-light glisten,
Remote and cold--see--Earth and Venus roll.
We signalled them--in music! Did they listen?
Could they not hear those whispers of the soul?

May not their flesh have sealed that fount of glory,
That pure ninth sense which told us of mankind?
Can some deep sleep bereave them of our story
As darkness hides all colours from the blind?


I that am sailing deeper skies and dimmer,
Twelve million leagues beyond the path of Mars,
Salute the sun, that cloudy pearl, whose glimmer
Renews my spring and steers me through the stars.

Think not that I by distances am darkened.
My months are years; yet light is in mine eyes.
Mine eyes are not as yours. Mine ears have hearkened
To sounds from earth. Five moons enchant my skies.


And deeper yet, like molten opal shining
My belt of rainbow glory softly streams.
And seven white moons around me intertwining
Hide my vast beauty in a mist of dreams.

Huge is my orbit; and your flickering planet
A mote that flecks your sun, that faint white star;
Yet, in my magic pools, I still can scan it;
For I have ways to look on worlds afar.


And deeper yet--twelve million leagues of twilight
Divide mine empire even from Saturn's ken.
Is there a world whose light is not as my light,
A midget world of light-imprisoned men?

Shut from this inner vision that hath found me,
They hunt bright shadows, painted to betray;
And know not that, because their night hath drowned me,
My giants walk with gods in boundless day.


Plunge through immensity anew and find me.
Though scarce I see your sun,--that dying spark--
Across a myriad leagues it still can bind me
To my sure path, and steer me through the dark.

I sail through vastness, and its rhythms hold me,
Though threescore earths could in my volume sleep!
Whose are the might and music that enfold me?
Whose is the law that guides me thro' the Deep?


I hear their song. They wheel around my burning!
I know their orbits; but what path have I?
I that with all those worlds around me turning
Sail, every hour, ten thousand leagues of sky?

My planets, these live embers of my passion,
And I, too, filled with music and with flame.
Flung thro' the night, for midnight to refashion,
Praise and forget the Splendour whence we came.


Once more upon the mountain's lonely height
I woke, and round me heard the sea-like sound
Of pine-woods, as the solemn night-wind washed
Through the long canyons and precipitous gorges
Where coyotes moaned and eagles made their nest.
Once more, far, far below, I saw the lights
Of distant cities, at the mountain's feet,
Clustered like constellations.. .
Over me, like the dome of some strange shrine,
Housing our great new weapon of the sky,
And moving on its axis like a moon
Glimmered the new Uraniborg.
Shadows passed
Like monks, between it and the low grey walls
That lodged them, like a fortress in the rocks,
Their monastery of thought.
A shadow neared me.
I heard, once more, an eager living voice:

"Year after year, the slow sure records grow.
I wish that old Copernicus could see
How, through his truth, that once dispelled a dream,
Broke the false axle-trees of heaven, destroyed
All central certainty in the universe,
And seemed to dwarf mankind, the spirit of man
Laid hold on law, that Jacob's-ladder of light,
And mounting, slowly, surely, step by step,
Entered into its kingdom and its power.
For just as Tycho's tables of the stars
Within the bound of our own galaxy
Led Kepler to the music of his laws,
So, father and son, the Herschels, with their charts
Of all those fire-mists, those faint nebulae,
Those hosts of drifting universes, led
Our new discoverers to yet mightier laws
Enthroned above all worlds.
We have not found them,
And yet--only the intellectual fool
Dreams in his heart that even his brain can tick
In isolated measure, a centre of law,
Amidst the whirl of universal chaos.
For law descends from law. Though all the spheres
Through all the abysmal depths of Space were blown
Like dust before a colder darker wind
Than even Lucretius dreamed, yet if one thought,
One gleam of law within the mind of man,
Lighten our darkness, there's a law beyond;
And even that tempest of destruction moves
To a lighter music, shatters its myriad worlds
Only to gather them up, as a shattered wave
Is gathered again into a rhythmic sea,
Whose ebb and flow are but the pulse of Life,
In its creative passion.
The records grow
Unceasingly, and each new grain of truth
Is packed, like radium, with whole worlds of light.
The eclipses timed in Babylon help us now
To clock that gradual quickening of the moon,
Ten seconds in a century.
Who that wrote
On those clay tablets could foresee his gift
To future ages; dreamed that the groping mind,
Dowered with so brief a life, could ever range
With that divine precision through the abyss?
Who, when that good Dutch spectacle-maker set
Two lenses in a tube, to read the time
Upon the distant clock-tower of his church,
Could dream of this, our hundred-inch, that shows
The snow upon the polar caps of Mars
Whitening and darkening as the seasons change?
Or who could dream when Galileo watched
His moons of Jupiter, that from their eclipses
And from that change in their appointed times,
Now late, now early, as the watching earth
Farther or nearer on its orbit rolled,
The immeasurable speed of light at last
Should be reduced to measure?
Could Newton dream
When, through his prism, he broke the pure white shaft
Into that rainbow band, how men should gather
And disentangle ray by delicate ray
The colours of the stars,--not only those
That burn in heaven, but those that long since perished,
Those vanished suns that eyes can still behold,
The strange lost stars whose light still reaches earth
Although they died ten thousand years ago.
Here, night by night, the innumerable heavens
Speak to an eye more sensitive than man's,
Write on the camera's delicate retina
A thousand messages, lines of dark and bright
That speak of elements unknown on earth.
How shall men doubt, who thus can read the Book
Of Judgment, and transcend both Space and Time,
Analyse worlds that long since passed away,
And scan the future, how shall they doubt His power
From whom their power and all creation came?"

I think that, when the second Herschel tried
Those great hexameters in our English tongue,
A nobler shield than ever Achilles knew
Shone through the song and made his
echoes live:

"There he depicted the earth, and the canopied sky, and the
There the unwearied sun, and the full-orbed moon in their courses,
All the configured stars that gem the circuit of heaven,
Pleiads and Hyads were there and the giant force of Orion,
There the revolving Bear, which the Wain they call, was ensculptured,
Circling on high, and in all his courses regarding Orion,
Sole of the starry train that descends not to bathe in the ocean!"

A nobler shield for us, a deeper sky;
But even to us who know how far away
Those constellations burn, the wonder bides
That each vast sun can speed through the abyss
Age after age more swiftly than an eagle,
Each on its different road, alone like ours
With its own satellites; yet, since Homer sang,
Their aspect has not altered! All their flight
Has not yet changed the old pattern of the Wain.
The sword-belt of Orion is not sundered.
Nor has one fugitive splendour broken yet
From Cassiopeia's throne.
A thousand years
Are but as yesterday, even unto these.
How shall men doubt His empery over time
Whose dwelling is a deep so absolute
That we can only find Him in our souls.
For there, despite Copernicus, each may find
The centre of all things. There He lives and reigns.
There infinite distance into nearness grows,
And infinite majesty stoops to dust again;
All things in little, infinite love in man . . .
Oh, beating wings, descend to earth once more,
And hear, reborn, the desert singer's cry:
When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers,
The sun and the moon and the stars which Thou hast ordained,
Though man be as dust I know Thou art mindful of him;
And, through Thy law, Thy light still visiteth him.

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