Sir William Herschel’s Long Year


Haec cohibet finis vivacis fata animantum;
cetera secreti novit deus arbiter aevi,
tempora quae Stilbon volvat quaesaecula Phaenon,
quos Pyrois habeat, quos luppiter igne benigno
circuitus, quale properet Venus alma recursu,
qui Phoeben, quanti maneant Titana labores,
donec consumpto, magnus qui dicitur anno,
rursus in anticum venient vaga sidera cursum,
qualia dispositi steterunt ab origine mundi.
Ausonius, Eclogue, V, 9–17


The lines of old Ausonius which I quote
Record six planets at the time he wrote;
And six of these erratic stars, no more,
Were all men knew of later, as before,
Till William Herschel accidentally
Observed a seventh. That discovery,
From its unstable orbit led the way
To the full nine we recognize today.

Well, you may answer, it was bound to be,
Given the progress of astronomy
That marked the age; someone was bound to spot
Uranus, whether Herschel did or not.
But there’s one curious event, I find,
Cannot be credited to the March of Mind:
The years that mark Earth’s circuit round the Sun
Make eighty-four against that planet’s one;
For in the order of the Universe
Each planet has its year as Earth has hers,
And, following Bode’s law their numbers run
In sequence of their distance from the Sun.
My ‘curious event’ is that the man
Who found this planet just lived out the span
Of eighty-four, the great Uranian year.
Well, that’s a pure coincidence, I hear
My sceptic friend exclaim, I’ll eat my hat
If you can make a story out of that!
Well, that’s exactly what I mean to do;
I work in myth; I don’t pretend it’s true.
My story is a sort of parable,
For myths embody their own truths as well;
And if it shocks the modern mind, who cares?
The Enlightenment and all its cocksure heirs
With their new sciences to conjure with
Must bow in time to learn the truth of myth;
And men must learn before it is too late,
Their ‘modern mind’s’ already out of date.
Its views are temporary, on the way
To others that may well ante-date today.

This curious, fantastic tale I tell
Would not have troubled the poet of the Moselle,
For though a nominal Christian, he was sure
That in new truths, the old beliefs endure
And, though the planets, as all conceived them then,
Were not thought of as gods by Christian men
But just erratic stars that swerve and shine,
He knew them by their names to be divine.

Ausonius, paraphrasing Hesiod,
Affirmed their periods only known to God,
And thirteen centuries had come and gone
Before the law that rules their course was known.
Till then, said Pope, the cause was hid in night;
Then Isaac Newton came and all was light.
The Age of Reason took him at his word,
But Pope was wrong: in saying ‘all’ he erred.
Newton at least enabled men to prove
The basic laws by which the planets move;
But in what systems, where they might be found,
Was still unknown and yet in darkness bound,
Where dark divinities beyond our ken
Move darkly to direct the lives of men.
Beyond the light they thought to conjure with
The world lay cloaked in night and fringed with myth.
There even Newton’s lucid, god-like mind
Exploring Bible prophecy, wandered blind;
A wandering star himself, his evidence
Lacking a fulcrum, flouted common sense.

Beyond those planets known to Newton lay
Others still undiscovered in his day.
The next to leave the mist where myths prevail,
Uranus, is the subject of my tale.

As in the world of science, so in the heart.
Light ringed by darkness has its counterpart,
And all things lost, forgotten by mankind
Live on in the dim caverns of the mind.
And there, in spite of intellect and will,
The old gods reach us and direct us still.
The rational animal, governed by his head,
Is man alone, so Aristotle said.
The Age of Reason, missing what he meant,
Gave monstrous birth to the Enlightenment,
When man, deluded by excess of light
Bartered his Vision to enlarge his Sight,
Forgetting what the sun by day debars:
That dim night-vision by which we reach the stars.
The legends of the ancients told this too
With more prophetic insight than they knew,
How, when the sky-god Zeus began to reign,
Uranus vanished from the starry plain.
Most primitive of gods, he married Earth,
Gaia, his mother who had given him birth,
And she, conceiving from his fruitful seed,
Bore all the flowers, the grass, the trees, the breed
Of beasts and birds and men, and bore again
In his old age, from the same fertile rain,
The Cyclops and the Titans, till at last
Saturn his son gelded his sire and cast
His genitals and his sperm into the seas
Whence Aphrodite sprang, Philommedes,
She who loves all the tools of sex, whom still
Men serve, adore and gladly do her will.
In that new dispensation they forgot
Uranus and their minds unloosed the knot
That wedded him to Earth. He turned aside
Into the night of things that brood and bide,
Black Night from whom all other gods descend,
And whom they all return to in the end.

There the long ages of his long eclipse
He dozed to hear the Fates unseal his lips,
While Saturn, swallowing the swaddled stone,
To Zeus, then Zeus to Christ resigned the throne.

But as times changed, the gods were altered too:
The Ptolemaic universe withdrew,
And the Copernican assumed its place.
Uranus, brooding over his disgrace,
Saw Gaia, in her turn, his ancient love,
Centre around whom all the planets move,
In this new universe, driven from her throne
To be a planet circling round the sun,
And his heart yearned their union to restore
And take his lost wife in his arms once more.
But how to make his banished presence known
To her? She knew the first six planets alone.

Apollo, now the only source of light,
Niggardly kept his grandsire out of sight
And Saturn next, his false usurping son,
Fended him off as he had always done.
Pondering on this he saw at last that he
Must lay aside his lapsed divinity;
What as a god he now no longer can
As a mere planet is in his power to plan.
The ladder of astrology might be
Through Gaia’s subtle sons the surest key,
And planetary influence provide
The readiest of means to reach his bride.


It was the spring of the Uranean year
And spring-time in our northern hemisphere
When the first message came from the old god
And Earth first felt a stirring in her blood
And William Herschel’s mother felt it come.
Concurrent with the quickening of her womb,
A strange dream was implanted in her mind,
Where it took root and burgeoned in the blind
But fruitful soil of unguessed circumstance.
She saw six planets in their weaving dance
Of radiant harmony about the sun
And, singing in their circuits, one by one,
Approach and greet her, circle and retreat,
Till through their changing chorus piercing sweet,
Another voice, beyond them all, broke through
And the child in her womb, as though it knew
The message of that music, answered back.
Then the bright planets vanished and from the black
Orb of encircling night beyond there came
A giant voice that shook the starry frame.
“Gaia,” it cried, “Gaia my ancient love!
The fruitful act I was not capable of,
Since that bad son gelded me and cast
My members in your sea, restored at last,
This night I have begotten on you a son
Who shall restore his father to the throne”.
As the voice died away, appeared on high
A sickle of stars that filled the midnight sky
And, in her dream, lit by its golden glow,
It rained dire blood upon the earth below.
The vision ceased; its details she forgot
But its deep sense of portent she did not
And, like another mother, her counterpart,
Pondered these signs and kept them in her heart.

In due course, as a poor musician’s son
The child was born and his long year begun.
In Hanover he followed his Father’s trade
So well that at the age of four he played
Solos on a miniature violin.
But other winds were blowing. To begin,
This innocent Joseph, whether he knew or not,
Tutoring the child he thought he had begot,
Of all things for a military oboist, he
Nightly instructed him in astronomy.
And the child grew and waxed in spirit and wise
In that full, quiet wisdom which the skies
Dispense like dew. Music was all he knew,
Music his arcane tongue, the sign, the clew
To guide and shape his destiny and prepare
His real father’s purpose, unaware
That in his daily tasks he followed still
In all he gained of theory or of skill,
Voices within that told him what to do
And was about his father’s business too.


Now came Uranean summer when both poles freeze
And arctic twilight holds the antipodes
While in the tropic the sun’s exiguous ray,
Though scarcely warming, makes perpetual day.
By that weak but continuous glow renewed,
The old god felt some quickening of his blood;
For in the northern Gaian hemisphere,
The corresponding season of her year,
The ripening of his purpose had begun.
His young musician, now just twenty-one,
Was bound for England, following a path
Laid down for him which led to fame—and Bath—
Conducting there his country-man’s Messiah.
His passion for knowledge led him to enquire
More and more deeply in astronomy.
His organist duties done, each evening he
Would take a glass of milk with him to bed
And, from terrestrial harmony instead
Plunge into the harmonics of the sky.
And after sleep had claimed him, he would lie
Under a heap of books he had been led,
Prompted by unseen monitors, to read.
There, Handel’s music ringing in his ears,
Merged perhaps in the music of the spheres,
A vision passed before his sleeping eyes:
It seemed that as he swept the wheeling skies,
The old Newtonian telescope he used
—Gregory’s small reflector—quite confused
The images and diffracted their true light,
Till a voice, speaking from the star-fast height
Rang from the measureless vault and called his name.
“Your task henceforth will be to chart this frame;
But with lame instruments and gear so curst
You must contrive new optic glasses first;
And with such telescopes, improved by day,
Begin at night in general to survey
Methodically recording year by year
The whole scope of your starry hemisphere.
The other hemisphere when this is done
Will be completed by your unborn son.”
The voice ceased; the portentous vision fled;
He woke unknowing where these promptings led;
But towards fulfilment of their main design
His ghostly mentors brought him into line.
The next decade in prospect to explore
The heavens, telescopes not seen before
Came from his workshop at increasing rate,
Enabling him each time to penetrate
Further into the star-strewn universe,
Till on his second effort to traverse
And map the cosmos, in uncharted space
He met his heavenly father face to face
Just where, within its western edge begins
The Zodiac’s constellation of the Twins.
He did not recognize him, it is true,
Thinking a comet had swung into view,
But wise Uranus knew his exile past
And Gaia her spouse returned to her at last.
And henceforth as a planet, in disguise
He took his new position in the skies.
And soon his name replaced the Georgian Star,
Since gods are manifest for what they are.


Autumn of the Uranian year came on
And loaded with its fruits and fame the son
By whom he had been snatched from the abyss,
Though none knew that the parentage was his.
Least of all, William Herschel could not know
The secret reason why he prospered so:
Private astronomer to George the Third,
A Hanoverian Knighthood next conferred,
Elected to the Royal Society, friend
Of Europe’s great astronomers, to the end
He polished and sold his telescopes, though now
Rich and rewarded, and toiled on at Slough
Patiently at his great design to show
The structure of the cosmos, and although
Wrong in some points, his broad scheme, one can say,
Is one on which we still rely today.


And now the winter of his days drew near,
The total of the great Uranean year
Almost complete, the night before he died
He saw at last the heavens open wide,
And the great vault above him seemed to be
Filled with immense celestial harmony,
And through it the giant voice spoke softly: “Come!
Your task complete, your Father calls you home!”


Fantastic, trivial nonsense you may call
My fable; but I answer: Not at all!
This is a parable and not a tract;
Its truth lies in analogy, not fact;
And those who can may now perceive its drift:
That man is not a creature, so said Swift,
Whose vanity entitles him to call
Himself a rational animal at all,
Just capax rationis at odd times,
Ruled by his passions, benighted by his crimes;
So that, when some original mind occurs
To change our knowledge of the universe,
We feel at once it has been taken in hand
By powers we only dimly understand,
And that our most delusive dream indeed,
Is that the march of science at last will lead
To total comprehension of the whole.
Plato’s philosopher kings, then, in control,
Reason and knowledge must direct mankind.
But infinite regress is what we find:
No matter what prodigious strides we make,
The mystery deepens with each step we take.

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