A Celebration of Women Writers

"Poetry of the Stars." by Miss Mary A. Proctor (1862-).
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 301-304.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 301] 



Let us go backward in imagination six thousand years, and stand beside our great ancestor as he gazed for the first time upon the going down of the sun. What strange sensations must have swept through his bewildered mind as he watched the last departing rays of the sinking sun and saw it slowly fading from sight. A mysterious darkness creeps over the face of nature and the beautiful scenes of earth are hidden beneath the shades of night.

Now came still evening on; and twilight gray
Had in her sober livery all things clad;
Silence was pleased; now glow'd the firmament
With livid sapphires; Hesperus, that led
The starry host, rode brightest; till the moon,
Rising in clouded majesty, at length,
Apparent queen, unveil'd her peerless light,
And over the dark her silver mantle threw.

As the solitary gazer watches the silver crescent of light hanging in the western sky the hours glide swiftly by and the moon is gone. One by one the stars are rising, slowly ascending the heights of heaven, and solemnly sweeping downward in the stillness of the night.

        How many bright
And splendid lamps shine in heaven's temple high,
  Day hath its golden sun, her moon the night,
Her fixed and wandering stars, the azure sky.

The galaxy, or "milky way," appears against the dark background of the sky like a shining zone of brilliant light.

A broad and ample road, whose dust is gold,
And pavement stars, as stars to thee appear.

The first grand revelation to mortal sight is nearly completed. A faint streak of silver light is seen in the east; it brightens; the stars fade; the planets are extinguished; the eye is fixed in mute astonishment upon the growing splendor of the heavens till the first rays of the returning sun pierce the gray mists of morning, and the sun rises glorious and triumphant from its imprisonment in the dark caves of night.

Are we surprised that this mysterious daily disappearance and reappearance of the orb of day should have inspired feelings of awe, and an eager desire to comprehend these wonders in the minds of those who first watched and those who have [Page 302]  watched during the long lapse of six thousand years? To trace the efforts of the human mind through the long and ardent struggle to solve these mighty problems; to reveal the weary years of patient watching; the struggles to overcome insurmountable obstacles; to develop the means by which the rock-built pyramid of science is slowly rearing its stately form from age to age, until its vertex pierces the very heavens–these are tasks of no ordinary difficulty. Music is here, but it is the deep and solemn harmony of the spheres. Poetry is here, but traced in letters of light on the sable garments of night; architecture is here, but it is the colossal structure of sun and system, of cluster and universe. Eloquence is here, but "there is neither speech nor language–its voice is not heard." Yet its resistless power sweeps over us as we ponder on the mighty periods of revolving worlds, the wonders of the infinity of space and the hidden mysteries of the vast expanse of heaven. Let us pause and listen to the deep and solemn music of the spheres, as heard by the first watchers of the sky; let us read the poetry written in the stars; let us contemplate the architecture of the celestial vault, though "its architraves, its archways, seem ghostly from infinitude." Let us listen to the surging eloquence of these glorious suns, now swiftly rushing through infinite space:

How distant some of these nocturnal suns!
So distant, says the sage, 'twere not absurd
To doubt, if beams set out at nature's birth
Are yet arrived at this, so foreign, world
Though nothing half so rapid as their flight!

Let us gaze in awe and wonder!
Who can satiate sight
In such a scene–in such an ocean wide
Of deep astonishment? Where depth, height, breadth,
Are lost in their extremes; and where to count
The thick-sown glories in this field of fire,
Perhaps a seraph's computation fails.

With resistless energy the tide of time has flowed on, breaking in noiseless waves on the far-distant shores of eternity. Science has partially lifted the dark veil which has enshrouded in mystery the celestial scenes which greeted the vision of generations during the past thousand years, and erected temples devoted to the study of the heavens. Look over their magnificent machinery; examine the far-reaching eye of the telescope as it reveals the hidden mysteries of space, and then go backward in imagination to the plains of Shinar and stand beside the shepherd astronomer as he vainly attempts to grasp the mysteries of the structure of the heavens. The sentinel upon the watch-tower is relieved from duty; but another takes his place and the vigil is unbroken. He commences his investigations on the hilltops of Eden; he studies the stars through the long centuries of antediluvian life. The Deluge sweeps from the earth its inhabitants, their cities and their monuments; but when the storm is hushed and the heavens shine forth in beauty from the summit of Mount Ararat the astronomer resumes his endless vigils. In Babylon he keeps his watch, and among the Egyptian priests he inspires a thirst for the sacred mysteries of the stars. The plains of Shinar, the temples of India, the pyramids of Egypt are equally his watching places. When science fled to Greece, his home was in the school of the philosophers, and when darkness covered the earth for a thousand years, he pursued his never-ending tasks amid the burning deserts of Arabia. When science dawned on Europe the astronomer was there toiling with Copernicus, watching with Tycho, suffering with Galileo, triumphing with Kepler.

Six thousand years have rolled away since the grand investigation commenced. We stand at the termination of the vast period, and looking back through the long vista of departed years, mark with honest pride the successive triumphs of our race. [Page 303]  Midway between the past and future we witness the first rude efforts to explain the celestial phenomena. May we not equally look forward thousands of years? And, although we cannot comprehend what shall be the condition of astronomical science at the end of a period so remote, yet of one thing we are certain, and that is, the past, the present and the future constitute but one unbroken chain of observations, condensing all time to the astronomer into one mighty now.

Thus far our attention has been directed to the examination of the achievements of the human mind in the earlier stages of astronomy. Since those days the astronomer has invented the telescope. With its far-seeing powers he has discovered the laws which regulate the celestial movements, and defined the nature of the universal force which sustains these distant worlds. Sweeping outward from the sun he has reached Neptune, which guards the frontier limits of the solar system; gazing backward from this planet, which is more than three billion miles distant from the sun, he has examined the worlds and systems embraced within the circumference of its mighty orbit. An occasional comet, overleaping this boundary, and flying swiftly past us, plunges into space, to return after its long journey of a thousand years and report to the inhabitants of earth the influences which have swayed its movements in the invisible regions whence it has winged its flight.

Yet the whole of this gigantic scheme is but a small portion of the universe of God, one unit among the unnumbered millions which fill the crowded regions of space. An infinite void peopled with suns like ours, with myriads of stars sprinkled like golden dust over the dark canopy of night. The smallest telescopic aid suffices to increase their number in an almost incredible degree, while with the full power of the grand instruments now in use, the scenes presented to our gaze are truly magnificent.

What wonder if the overwrought soul should reel
With its own weight of thought, and the wild eye
See fate within yon depths of deepest glory lie?

Worlds and systems, clusters and universe, rising in sublime perspective and fading away into the infinity of space beyond, until even thought itself fails in its efforts to plunge across the gulf, which separates us from this eternity of glory. Where are the limits of that boundless ocean? Whereunto doth it lead? In vain do we strive to peer into these hidden mysteries. Were we to float on through all eternity we could not approach any nearer to those distant shores. Camille Flammarion has conceived the fanciful idea of an imaginary journey through space. Distant shores of worlds like ours revealing themselves; heavens succeeding heavens; spheres after spheres poised like our own earth in space. Even when carried away with the rapidity of thought the soul would continue its flight beyond the most inaccessible limits the imagination can conceive. Even then the infinity of an unexplored expanse would remain ever open before us. The infinity of space would oppose itself to the infinity of time; endless rivalry to endure through endless ages. The spirit, overcome with fatigue, would be arrested in its flight at the very entrance of the portals of infinite space as though it had not advanced a single step.

Let us take an imaginary journey through space and, gazing through a telescope, travel from star to star till we reach the milky way, then pass on leaving behind us in grand perspective a series of five hundred suns, ranged one behind the other in line, each separated from the other by a distance equal to that which divides our own sun from the nearest fixed star, each star a sun like ours, a fiery orb aglow with energy, possibly the center of a system such as ours and pursuing its sidereal voyage through space. Such is the vast scale on which the universe is built. If, in examining the mighty orbits of the remoter planets, and in tracing the interminable career of some of the far-sweeping comets, we feared there might not be room for them, we are now reassured. There is no interference here; there are no perturbations of the planets of one system for the suns of another. Each is isolated and independent, filling the region of space assigned and moving within its own limits in perfect safety. [Page 304] 

We have now reached the boundaries of ten millions of stars. Look to the right, there is no limit; look to the left, there is no end. Above, below, sun rises upon sun, system upon system, in endless and immeasurable perspective. There is a new universe as magnificent and glorious as our own, a new milky way across whose vast diameter light takes a thousand years in crossing. Floating on the surface of this deep ocean, in this far distant region, the telescope has detected a large number of mysterious looking objects, resembling the faintest clouds of light.

So distant are these objects that their light is hundreds of thousands of years in reaching us; so extensive are they that the entire field of view of the telescope is filled by them many times. Sirius, the brightest and probably the largest of all the fixed stars, with a diameter of more than a million of miles, and a distance of only a single unit, compared with the tens of thousands which divide us from some of the nebulæ; yet this vast globe, at this comparatively short distance, is merely a point of light in the field of view of the telescope. What, then, must be the dimensions of these objects, which at so vast a distance fill the entire field of view even when many times repeated. We find ourselves lost in the contemplation of these multiplied infinities amid which our little lives are cast. In the presence of these sublime mysteries the senses and imagination are alike enthralled, and the wild dream of the German poet becomes an inspired reality.

God called up from dreams a man into the vestibule of Heaven, saying: "Come thou hither; see the glory of my house." And to the servants who stood around His throne, He said: "Take him and undress from him his robes of flesh, cleanse his vision, put a new breath into his nostrils, but touch not with any change his human heart that weeps and trembles." This was done, and, with a mighty servant for his guide, the man stood ready for his infinite voyage, and from the terraces of Heaven, without sound or farewell, at once they winged their flight into endless space. Sometimes with the solemn flight of angel wing they fled through reaches of darkness, through wildernesses of death that divided the worlds of life. Sometimes they swept over frontiers that were quickening under the prophetic motions of God. Then from a distance that is counted only in Heaven, light dawned for a time through a sleepy film. By unutterable pace the light swept to them, they by unutterable pace to the light. In a moment the blazing of suns was around them, in a moment the rushing of planets was upon them.

Then came eternities of twilight that revealed, yet were not revealed. On the right hand and on the left towered mighty constellations, that by self-repetitions and answers from afar, that by counter-positions, built up triumphal gates whose architraves and archways, horizontal, upright, rested, rose at altitudes by spans, that seemed ghostly from infinitude. Without measure were the architraves, past number the archways, beyond memory the gates. Within were stairs which scaled the eternities below. Below was above, above was below, to men stripped of gravitating body. Depth was swallowed up in height insurmountable; height was swallowed up in depth unfathomable; and suddenly, as thus they journeyed from infinite to infinite, a mighty cry arose that worlds more billowy, systems more mysterious, other heights and other depths were coming, were nearing, were at hand.

Then the man sighed and stopped, shuddered and wept; his overburdened heart uttered itself in tears, and he said:

"Angel, I will go no farther, for the spirit of man acheth with this infinity. Insufferable is the glory of God. Let me lie down and hide myself in the grave from the persecution of the infinite, for end I see there is none."

Then from all the listening stars that shone around issued a choral voice, saying: "The man speaks truly. End is there none that ever yet we heard of."

"End is there none?" the angel solemnly demanded. "Is there, indeed, no end, and is this the sorrow that kills you?"

But there was no answer, that he might answer himself. Then the angel threw up his glorious hands to the heaven of heavens, saying:

"End is there none to the universe of God; lo! also, there is no beginning."

[Page 301] 

Miss Mary A. Proctor was born in Dublin, Ireland; is the daughter of Richard A. Proctor, the astronomer. She was educated in a convent in Norwood, Surrey, England, and has traveled both in Europe and the United States. She is teacher of astronomy, lecturer and author. Following the lectures in Chicago she arranged for a lecture course for the season of 1893-4 in Eastern states, and she expresses thanks to the Woman's Congress for favorable introduction to the public. In religious faith she is an Episcopalian. Her present address is No. 293 Forty-sixth Street, New York City, N. Y.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom