Saturday, January 9, 2010

Habituated to the Vast

On a chill winter's evening in 1781, the Reverend John Coleridge took his eight-year old son Samuel Taylor outside to examine the night sky. Coleridge, who became one of England's great poets, never forgot the outing:
I remember, that at eight years old I walked with him one evening from a farmer's house, a mile from Ottery [their home] -- & he told me the names of the stars -- and how Jupiter was a thousand times larger than our world -- and that the other twinkling stars were Suns that had worlds rolling around them -- & when I came home he showed me how they rolled around. I heard him with profound delight & admiration; but without the least mixture of Wonder or incredulity. For from my early reading of Faery Tales, & Genii etc etc -- my mind had been habituated to the Vast.
From pp. 111-112 of The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Richard Holmes)

Coleridge's reference to wonder and incredulity carried a different meaning in his day. The discovery of Uranus in early 1781 by amateur astronomer William Herschel sent shock waves throughout the western world. Saturn, discovered by the ancient Greeks, was believed to represent the boundary of the galaxy. Herschel's discovery doubled the size of the known galaxy and opened up the probability that the universe was immensely larger than anyone -- even the scientists of the Enlightenment -- had thought. Galileo revealed that man was not the center of the cosmos; now, man was forced to confront the likelihood that he was a miniscule part of it. Thus, "Wonder" came to represent a complex combination of pride in Herschel's accomplishment and anxiety over its implications.


Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

Niiiice piece.
I would love to see you write a book about Coleridge's Pharmacy.
No kidding.
Thanks in advance,

John Hayes said...

What a fascinating passage--I love your link to contemporary astronomy, but it's also very intriguing how Coleridge links fantastic literature with this vastness. Great post!

Roy said...

Great post, K! It's that awe of the vastness of the universe that makes me feel bad for the fundamentalists, creationists, etc.; their world is so completely devoid of that measure of awe because they've imprisoned themselves within this claustrophobic little universe of their own self-limited imaginations and fears.

K. said...

Thanks, all!

I'm currently reading The Age of Wonder, which was a Christmas gift from Premium T. In part, it's about how the discoveries of 18th C. English scientists influenced the Romantic poets. It may sound academic, but it's quite engrossing.

Foxessa said...

I still haven't had the time to read this -- I love Holmes's work.

Love, C.

mommapolitico said...

The book sounds fascinating, K.! (Is my geek showing???)Can you imagine the wonder of discovering that the known universe is twice as vast as one had conceptualized? Incredible.

Roy's comment about the creationists, fundamentalists, etc., is true...and very sad. Seems belittling to limit your God in such a way as to think He would not be capable of setting something so amazing in place. I don't know how they'd answer that charge.

Great psot, K. Enjoy the book!

Ima Wizer said...

I love this.....

K. said...

So far, the book is wonderful -- one of those that you actually want to read slowly so as to savor it.

MommaP, generally I have little good to say about the parochial school experience of the early 60s, and even less good to say about nuns. But their attitude toward creation was correct and even today strikes this nonbeliever as theologically sound. It amounted this: If for his own reasons God brought the world into being via evolution and natural selection, who are we mere mortals to doubt this and question his wisdom?

Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

Goddamn it, K! You had me till you started trying to weigh in on theology as a non-believer.
I can do the Creator thing, but not the Big Man in the Sky with a Big Book with My Name in it and Big Red Check Marks trailing off to Infinity of course.
To me it is obvious that we are Creatives and part of the problem with the destruction of this planet involves the cognitive dissonance surrounding that clear reality.
But what that has to do with a single white guy in the sky has always eluded me.

Ummm errrah... get ready, your Word Verification Thingy WVF for MY comment is: "uncin".
I swear to MFKn God.
UNCIN, the machine shrieks.
Oh Cheezus!

K. said...

I actually can't do any of it!