William Herschel Conducts

A poem by Alfred Noyes

Was it a dream?--that crowded concert-room
In Bath; that sea of ruffles and laced coats;
And William Herschel, in his powdered wig,
Waiting upon the platform, to conduct
His choir and Linley's orchestra? He stood
Tapping his music-rest, lost in his own thoughts
And (did I hear or dream them?) all were mine:

My periwig's askew, my ruffle stained
With grease from my new telescope!
Ach, to-morrow
How Caroline will be vexed, although she grows
Almost as bad as I, who cannot leave
My work-shop for one evening.
I must give
One last recital at St. Margaret's,
And then--farewell to music.
Who can lead
Two lives at once?
Yet--it has taught me much,
Thrown curious lights upon our world, to pass
From one life to another. Much that I took
For substance turns to shadow. I shall see
No throngs like this again; wring no more praise
Out of their hearts; forego that instant joy
--Let those who have not known it count it vain--
When human souls at once respond to yours.
Here, on the brink of fortune and of fame,
As men account these things, the moment comes
When I must choose between them and the stars;
And I have chosen.
Handel, good old friend,
We part to-night. Hereafter, I must watch
That other wand, to which the worlds keep time.

What has decided me? That marvelous night
When--ah, how difficult it will be to guide,
With all these wonders whirling through my brain!--
After a Pump-room concert I came home
Hot-foot, out of the fluttering sea of fans,
Coquelicot-ribboned belles and periwigged beaux,
To my Newtonian telescope.
The design
Was his; but more than half the joy my own,
Because it was the work of my own hand,
A new one, with an eye six inches wide,
Better than even the best that Newton made.
Then, as I turned it on the Gemini,
And the deep stillness of those constant lights,
Castor and Pollux, lucid pilot-stars,
Began to calm the fever of my blood,
I saw, O, first of all mankind I saw
The disk of my new planet gliding there
Beyond our tumults, in that realm of peace.

What will they christen it? Ach--not Herschel, no!
Nor Georgium Sidus, as I once proposed;
Although he scarce could lose it, as he lost
That world in 'seventy-six.
Indeed, so far
From trying to tax it, he has granted me
How much?--two hundred golden pounds a year,
In the great name of science,--half the cost
Of one state-coach, with all those worlds to win!
Well--well--we must be grateful. This mad king
Has done far more than all the worldly-wise,
Who'll charge even this to madness.
I believe
One day he'll have me pardoned for that...crime,
When I escaped--deserted, some would say--
From those drill-sergeants in my native land;
Deserted drill for music, as I now
Desert my music for the orchestral spheres.
No. This new planet is only new to man.
His majesty has done much. Yet, as my friend
Declared last night, "Never did monarch buy
Honour so cheaply"; and--he has not bought it.
I think that it should bear some ancient name,
And wear it like a crown; some deep, dark name,
Like Uranus, known to remoter gods.

How strange it seems--this buzzing concert-room!
There's Doctor Burney bowing and, behind him,
His fox-eyed daughter Fanny.
Is it a dream,
These crowding midgets, dense as clustering bees
In some great bee-skep?
Now, as I lift my wand,
A silence grips them, and the strings begin,
Throbbing. The faint lights flicker in gusts of sound.
Before me, glimmering like a crescent moon,
The dim half circle of the choir awaits
Its own appointed time.
Beside me now,
Watching my wand, plump and immaculate
From buckled shoes to that white bunch of lace
Under his chin, the midget tenor rises,
Music in hand, a linnet and a king.
The bullfinch bass, that other emperor,
Leans back indifferently, and clears his throat
As if to say, "This prelude leads to Me!"
While, on their own proud thrones, on either hand,
The sumptuously bosomed midget queens,
Contralto and soprano, jealously eye
Each other's plumage.
Round me the music throbs
With an immortal passion. I grow aware
Of an appalling mystery.... We, this throng
Of midgets, playing, listening, tense and still,
Are sailing on a midget ball of dust
We call our planet; will have sailed through space
Ten thousand leagues before this music ends.
What does it mean? Oh, God, what can it mean?--
This weird hushed ant-hill with a thousand eyes;
These midget periwigs; all those little blurs,
Tier over tier, of faces, masks of flesh,
Corruptible, hiding each its hopes and dreams,
Its tragi-comic dreams.
And all this throng
Will be forgotten, mixed with dust, crushed out,
Before this book of music is outworn
Or that tall organ crumbles. Violins
Outlast their players. Other hands may touch
That harpsichord; but ere this planet makes
Another threescore journeys round its sun,
These breathing listeners will have vanished. Whither?
I watch my moving hands, and they grow strange!
What is it moves this body? What am I?
How came I here, a ghost, to hear that voice
Of infinite compassion, far away,
Above the throbbing strings, hark! Comfort ye...

If music lead us to a cry like this,
I think I shall not lose it in the skies.
I do but follow its own secret law
As long ago I sought to understand
Its golden mathematics; taught myself
The way to lay one stone upon another,
Before I dared to dream that I might build
My Holy City of Song. I gave myself
To all its branches. How they stared at me,
Those men of "sensibility," when I said
That algebra, conic sections, fluxions, all
Pertained to music. Let them stare again.
Old Kepler knew, by instinct, what I now
Desire to learn. I have resolved to leave
No tract of heaven unvisited.
--The music carries me back to it again!--
I see beyond this island universe,
Beyond our sun, and all those other suns
That throng the Milky Way, far, far beyond,
A thousand little wisps, faint nebulae,
Luminous fans and milky streaks of fire;
Some like soft brushes of electric mist
Streaming from one bright point; others that spread
And branch, like growing systems; others discrete,
Keen, ripe, with stars in clusters; others drawn back
By central forces into one dense death,
Thence to be kindled into fire, reborn,
And scattered abroad once more in a delicate spray
Faint as the mist by one bright dewdrop breathed
At dawn, and yet a universe like our own;
Each wisp a universe, a vast galaxy
Wide as our night of stars.
The Milky Way
In which our sun is drowned, to these would seem
Less than to us their faintest drift of haze;
Yet we, who are borne on one dark grain of dust
Around one indistinguishable spark
Of star-mist, lost in one lost feather of light,
Can by the strength of our own thought, ascend
Through universe after universe; trace their growth
Through boundless time, their glory, their decay;
And, on the invisible road of law, more firm
Than granite, range through all their length and breadth,
Their height and depth, past, present and to come.
So, those who follow the great Work-master's law
From small things up to great, may one day learn
The structure of the heavens, discern the whole
Within the part, as men through Love see God.
Oh, holy night, deep night of stars, whose peace
Descends upon the troubled mind like dew,
Healing it with the sense of that pure reign
Of constant law, enduring through all change;
Shall I not, one day, after faithful years,
Find that thy heavens are built on music, too,
And hear, once more, above thy throbbing worlds
This voice of all compassion, Comfort ye,--
Yes--comfort ye, my people, saith your God?

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