Day 78: Sarah Williams

sarah williams.jpg

Once, I was on a trip with some friends. We had gone to a hill station where one of us had a family tea estate and were staying in a little cottage there up on the hill. It was a bit outside the nearby city, which was little more than a smattering of golden light down in the valley. That’s all it seemed from so far away. When we reached the cottage, it was evening. We dropped our stuff there, took a walk to his family home where we had dinner, and when we returned, it was a good few hours past sunset. There were no artificial lights and we were high up, almost close to the clouds, or at least that was how it felt. The air was cool with a breeze, a far cry from the sweltering summer heat back at home. The darkness was a comfort and we sat out on the porch for some time before going in. I settled down on the sparse grass, lay down, and turned my eyes toward the skies.

I don’t think I’d ever seen so many stars in my life. There were millions of them, smattered across the blue-violet-black gap among the trees, careless sprays of dot-lights with hidden patterns in that consuming darkness. I thought of those stars burning light years away, great gas giants in their glory, nebulae birthing new stars, dead stars whose light was still traveling, ghost stars whispering last stories in pinpricks of light. There were so many of them. There were just so many.

I had to be called a few times and shaken out of my haze to get up and come inside. There was a lovely quiet in my head for a long time after that.

(The line has a different meaning in the context of the entire poem. It’s a little more ‘do not go gently into that good night’, but I’ve illustrated what it meant to me.)

*

Full Poem: The Old Astronomer (to his Pupil) by Sarah Williams (1837 – 1868)

Reach me down my Tycho Brahé, – I would know him when we meet,
When I share my later science, sitting humbly at his feet;
He may know the law of all things, yet be ignorant of how
We are working to completion, working on from then to now.

Pray remember that I leave you all my theory complete,
Lacking only certain data for your adding, as is meet,
And remember men will scorn it, ‘tis original and true,
And the obloquy of newness may fall bitterly on you.

But, my pupil, as my pupil you have learned the worth of scorn,
You have laughed with me at pity, we have joyed to be forlorn,
What for us are all distractions of men’s fellowship and wiles;
What for us the Goddess Pleasure with her meretricious smiles.

You may tell that German College that their honor comes too late,
But they must not waste repentance on the grizzly savant’s fate.
Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

What, my boy, you are not weeping? You should save your eyes for sight;
You will need them, mine observer, yet for many another night.
I leave none but you, my pupil, unto whom my plans are known.
You “have none but me,” you murmur, and I “leave you quite alone”?

Well then, kiss me, – since my mother left her blessing on my brow,
There has been a something wanting in my nature until now;
I can dimly comprehend it, – that I might have been more kind,
Might have cherished you more wisely, as the one I leave behind.

I “have never failed in kindness”? No, we lived too high for strife,–
Calmest coldness was the error which has crept into our life;
But your spirit is untainted, I can dedicate you still
To the service of our science: you will further it? you will!

There are certain calculations I should like to make with you,
To be sure that your deductions will be logical and true;
And remember, “Patience, Patience,” is the watchword of a sage,
Not to-day nor yet to-morrow can complete a perfect age.

I have sown, like Tycho Brahé, that a greater man may reap;
But if none should do my reaping, ’twill disturb me in my sleep
So be careful and be faithful, though, like me, you leave no name;
See, my boy, that nothing turn you to the mere pursuit of fame.

I must say Good-bye, my pupil, for I cannot longer speak;
Draw the curtain back for Venus, ere my vision grows too weak:
It is strange the pearly planet should look red as fiery Mars,–
God will mercifully guide me on my way amongst the stars.


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