Date: June 14, 2010

Title: Astropoetry and Literature


Podcaster: Carolyn Collins Petersen

Organization: Loch Ness Productions (
Music from A Gentle Rain of Starlight, by Geodesium (

Description: Carolyn Collins Petersen, TheSpacewriter, takes a trip through some memorable astro-poetry and literature.

Bio: Carolyn Collins Petersen is a science writer and show producer, as well as vice-president of Loch Ness Productions, ( a company that creates astronomy documentaries and other materials. She works with planetariums, science centers, and observatories on products that explain astronomy and space science to the public. Her most recent projects range from documentary scripts, exhibits for NASA/JPL, the Griffith Observatory and the California Academy of Sciences, to video podcasts for MIT’s Haystack Observatory and podcasts for the Astronomical society of the Pacific’s “Astronomy Behind the Headlines” project.

Today’s sponsor: “Between the Hayabusa homecoming from Itokawa and the Rosetta flyby of asteroid Lutetia, 13 June until 10 July 2010, this episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored anonymously and dedicated to the memory of Annie Cameron, designer of the Tryphena Sun Wheel, Great Barrier Island, New Zealand, a project that remains to be started.”

Additional sponsorship for this episode of 365 Days of Astronomy is provided by Chuck McCorvey.


Astro-Poetry and Literature

This is Carolyn Collins Petersen, the Spacewriter, and today I’d like to share with you a few snippets of poetry and literature inspired by astronomy.

Some years ago I was doing research for a book about Hubble Space Telescope called Hubble Vision, and I wanted some poetic quotes to put at the beginning of each chapter. That led me through a fascinating tour of literature, poems and famous quotes that reference astronomy. I think that they show us that art and science can mix quite nicely!

Sometimes poetry and the stars are part of a larger work, a chronicle of an experience the writer wants people to feel for themselves. This is the case of a work called “Locksley Hall” by Alfred Lord Tennyson. It’s written from the viewpoint of a soldier who is traveling with his unit and comes across the place where he grew up as a child. He stops there to rest and recall his childhood, which includes memories of stargazing. Two couplets of this long poem describe his astronomy experiences:

Many a night from yonder ivied casement, ere I went to rest,
Did I look on great Orion sloping slowly to the West.

Many a night I saw the Pleiades, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.

I liked those last two lines so much that I ended up using them in a planetarium show called “The Cowboy Astronomer”.

Of course, some poetry just celebrates the beauty of the sky and the writer’s relationship with it. Robert Frost shared his view of the sky and his place in the universe in his short piece called “Canis Major.”

The great Overdog,
That heavenly beast
With a star in one eye,
Gives a leap in the east.
He dances upright
All the way to the west,
And never once drops
On his forefeet to rest.
I’m a poor underdog,
But to-night I will bark
With the great Overdog
That romps through the dark.

And then there are the thoughts of amateur astronomers who jot down their ideas in poem form. The great Leslie Peltier spent a lot of time stargazing and writing. Imagine stargazing with Leslie and hearing him speak this verse after he’d been out under the skies:

I had watched a dozen comets,
Hitherto unknown,
Slowly creep across the sky.
As each one signed its sweeping flourish
In the guest book of the Sun.

In the American Far West, adventure abounded in the 1800s, and poets and writers helped tell the story of places like the Yukon, where men made fortunes under a starry sky swept by auroral displays.

Imagine hearing Robert Service, the so-called “Bard of the Yukon”, as he made up this verse about his view of the northern lights:

The skies of night were alive with light, with a throbbing, thrilling flame;
Amber and rose and violet, opal and gold it came.
It swept the sky like a giant scythe, it quivered back to a wedge;
Argently bright, it cleft the night with a wavy golden edge.

Far from the Yukon, and closer to New York City, the poet Hart Crane wrote about the future of mankind and society in a lengthy work called “The Bridge.” He must have known the stars were in our future, for one stanza stands out as a sort of cosmic tribute:

He wrote:

“Stars scribble on our eyes the frosty sagas,
The gleaming cantos of unvanquished space…”

The more down-to-Earth Oscar Wilde had a slightly ironic twist on the stars and humanity’s place among them when he wrote:

“We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.”

I’ve always been amused by the semi-cosmological discussion found in chapter 19 of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where Huck describes his days on the river with his friend Jim and the conversations they used to get into:

It was lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they were made, or only just happened. Jim, he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could a laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they’d got spoiled and was hove out of the nest.

There’s a sense of wonder and scientific interest mixed with back-country wisdom in that scene – sure they didn’t have a lot of scientific background, those two guys on the raft. But, they had open, curious minds, and they weren’t afraid to confront the universe with their questions.

The stars belong to all of us who can look up and appreciate their beauty. So, it’s no surprise that they find their way into art, literature, music, plays, movies – you name it. They inspire us in directions that aren’t always scientific.

If you’d like more links to astronomy poetry and quotes, visit my website at and click on the 365 Days of astronomy tab. Thanks for listening and happy reading!

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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