People often gaze up at the night sky and claim to feel miniscule and insignificant. I have always warmed to the view of Apollo 14 lunar module pilot Edgar Dean Mitchell. He describes an epiphany that came to him on the journey back to Earth after walking on the Moon’s surface:
“In my cockpit window, every two minutes: The Earth, the Moon, the Sun, and the whole 360-degree panorama of the heavens. And that was a powerful, overwhelming experience. And suddenly I realized that the molecules of my body, and the molecules of the spacecraft, the molecules in the body of my partners, were prototyped, manufactured in some ancient generation of stars. And that was an overwhelming sense of oneness, of connectedness; it wasn’t ‘Them and Us’, it was ‘That’s me!’ “
Holding to this idea makes it difficult to feel trivial when contemplating the universe; everything is interconnected and every one of us is the universe itself.
The quote brings to mind another favourite poem, which captures not only my passion for astronomy but also the deep spiritual significance of the ‘unending sky’. One of the poem’s most admirable features is the way it deals with a potentially overwhelming subject – one that may well have eaten a lesser writer alive – with purity, truth and simplicity, never more so than in the opening line.
The poem was written in 1917 (many decades before humankind first ventured into space) by John Masefield, who later became poet laureate. It tends to get lost in the shadow of his other great works, such as Sea Fever, but it’s worthy of a chance to shine. I would like to encourage you to read the poem aloud. It’s such a delightful blend of sounds and the imagery is rich and fruitful – a pleasure to enounce! Imagine that you’re chanting a sacred rite, an homage to God, the universe or whatever you choose to honour.
The Unending Sky (by John Masefield 1878 – 1967)
I could not sleep for thinking of the sky,
The unending sky, with all its million suns
Which turn their planets everlastingly
In nothing, where the fire-haired comet runs.
If I could sail that nothing, I should cross
Silence and emptiness with dark stars passing,
Then, in the darkness, see a point of gloss
Burn to a glow, and glare, and keep amassing,
And rage into a sun with wandering planets
And drop behind, and then, as I proceed,
See his last light upon his last moon’s granites
Die to dark that would be night indeed.
Night where my soul might sail a million years
In nothing, not even death, not even tears.