May 24, 2005
The Learn'd Astronomer
"When I heard the learn'd astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much
applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars."
There exists, in these words, an identifiable tension between the dominance of our conception of science and our desponding grasp on the wonderfully unknowable entity of that which moves beyond instrumental reason. I think this poem conveys a sense of deep regret over the impending, hollow nature that "progress" has attempted to ensure in our society. I employ the idea that it is a plea to the mystery of humanity. Would not the systematic destruction of our necessity for mystery—through which we quell our curiosity—somehow fundamentally damage what it is to be us? Wouldn't art be reduced to representations of some new engineering blueprint? Can you truly demonstrate the indefinable awe of a clear, moonless sky through equations representative of celestial motion? It is not to say that numerical or scientific description has thus far been applied to all aspects of observable life, but it does offer a sense of what the implications that such a description would entail.
Now, why, you ask, have I spent such time analyzing this poem? The crucial nature of the dichotomy that exists between that which extols itself as modern and that which slips by as fallacies of an unenlightened world represents a trend in my mind and, I think, a trend in our society as a whole. We are walking a fine balance that is slowly tipping more towards that constructed concept of modernity. If we press too far for scientific reason, we loose sight of ourselves, but if we focus on only the traditional, we become stagnant and become subject to the same loss of our curiosity and mystery that can result from the opposing viewpoint. But most importantly, complete and utter demystification removes the life breath of humanity. Is it not enough to simply have had "Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars"?