Space is famously quite big. And as we are looking at space as a subject as it is the anniversary of the first moon landings let’s shrink it down, down, down to moons.
Before going right down to our own moon let’s consider the moons of the solar system. There are quite a few of them (at least 200)
Most moons that have names are called after mythological deities. The first to be identified were named, like the planets, for classical mythology – so Jupiter and Saturn’s major moons are called things like Ganymede, Europa, Titan. Uranus is the big exception having literary moons. Most of these are named after characters from Shakespeare: Puck, Titania and, er, Margaret. I do love the fact that the Solar System contains a moon called Margaret. A few of the moons of Uranus have names taken from Alexander Pope’s satire, The Rape of the Lock, so there is one called Belinda and an Ariel (who figures in both Pope and Shakespeare’s work).
Further out the moon names stay mythological but get more diverse. My favourite moon of all is Weywot, moon of the dwarf planet Quaoar, (50000 Quaoar to give it its full name) way out in the distant Kuiper Belt. Weywot and Quaoar are gods of the Tongva native American tribe that occupied the Los Angeles basin.
Sadly, as far as I know, no one has written poems songs or stories about little Weywot yet. Bigger moons have featured in literature – Kurt Vonnegut’s, The Sirens of Titan springs to mind. As watery moons bigger than Mercury increasingly seem to offer the best chance of discovering extra-terrestrial life we can expect lots more sci-fi based around the bigger moons of Saturn and Jupiter.
Poetry, though, very largely focuses on our own moon, and for the obvious reason that few poets are astronomers (A.E. Housman being a notable exception) and they tend to be more interested in what they can see than theoretical knowledge of distant celestial bodies. Other moons may well interest us but our moon affects us, influences our moods, causes tides and in the past and for people in deep countryside still, sometimes provides illumination.
Most of all it is the experience of looking at the moon and moonlight, and our responses to it, that tend to inspire poets.
Hymn to the Moon By Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
Written in July, in an arbour
Thou silver deity of secret night,
Direct my footsteps through the woodland shade;
Thou conscious witness of unknown delight,
The Lover’s guardian, and the Muse’s aid!
By thy pale beams I solitary rove,
To thee my tender grief confide;
Serenely sweet you gild the silent grove,
My friend, my goddess, and my guide.
E’en thee, fair queen, from thy amazing height,
The charms of young Endymion drew;
Veil’d with the mantle of concealing night;
With all thy greatness and thy coldness too.
Lady Mary Wortley Montague 1689-1762) was a very remarkable woman. Much of her writing was satirical and she prosecuted a celebrated literary feud with Pope. She is also famous for introducing smallpox inoculation to Britain, having observed it in Turkey while living there with her husband who was ambassador. More information about the poem, and how she popularised inoculation, can be found through the links below:
Star-Gazer by Louis Macneice
Forty-two years ago (to me if to no one else
The number is of some interest) it was a brilliant starry night
And the westward train was empty and had no corridors
So darting from side to side I could catch the unwonted sight
Of those almost intolerably bright
Holes, punched in the sky, which excited me partly because
Of their Latin names and partly because I had read in the textbooks
How very far off they were, it seemed their light
Had left them (some at least) long years before I was.
And this remembering now I mark that what
Light was leaving some of them at least then,
Forty-two years ago, will never arrive
In time for me to catch it, which light when
It does get here may find that there is not
Anyone left aliveTo run from side to side in a late night train
Admiring it and adding noughts in vain.
The thief left it behind— Ryokan
The thief left it behind:
at my window.
‘Ryokan had a reputation for gentleness that was sometimes carried to comical extremes. A famous story about him relates that one day when Ryokan returned to his hut he discovered a robber who had broken in and was in the process of stealing the impoverished monk’s few possessions. In the thief’s haste to leave, he left behind a cushion. Ryokan grabbed the cushion and ran after the thief to give it to him.
This event prompted Ryokan to compose this haiku. Ryokan is laughing at the absurdity of the theft. “The thief left it behind,” he foolishly couldn’t recognize the one great treasure the poor monk possessed — “the moon,” ’
From the chaikhana poetry blog