Monday, September 15, 2014

The Names Of Stars

I do not know the names of stars.  I have come across them in reading, of course.  But, looking at the crowded sky, I cannot place the names to the faces.  Though I find the faces beautiful and entrancing.

Mind you, I am not flaunting my ignorance.  I would love to find myself in the company of someone who could look up into that vastness and begin to name names.  In the same way, I admire those who can rattle off the Latin binomials for flora and fauna.  But my resources are limited.  As I have noted before, I am the sort of person who reads a poem or two a day, and then needs to turn them over and over, daydreaming all the while. Becoming a namer of stars is simply not in the cards, I'm afraid.

I do, however, have a favorite piece of star-lore.  What we, in English, call "the Milky Way," the Japanese call ama-no-gawa:  "river of the heavens" or "river of the sky" or "river of Heaven."  I believe that I can locate the river of Heaven, if pressed.

Graham Sutherland, "Lammas" (1926)

This apostrophe on my ignorance was prompted by coming across the following poem.

                         The South

To have watched from one of your patios
the ancient stars,
from the bench of shadow to have watched
those scattered lights
that my ignorance has learned no names for,
nor their places in constellations,
to have heard the note of water
in the cistern,
known the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle,
the silence of the sleeping bird,
the arch of the entrance, the damp
-- these things perhaps are the poem.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by W. S. Merwin), Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999).

"The silence of the sleeping bird" is particularly nice, I think.

Paul Drury, "September" (1928)

Still, the naming of stars is a lovely thing, reminiscent of the naming of flowers:  heart's ease, lad's love, forget-me-nots . . .  Thomas Hardy's phrase "constellated daisies" comes suddenly to mind, as well as Andrew Young's lines about a field of daisies at night:  "For where the folded daisies are/In every one I see a star."

                    Mirach, Antares . . .

Mirach, Antares, Vega, Caph, Alcor --
From inch-wide eyes I scan their aeon-old flames,
Enthralled:  then wonder which enchants me more --
They, or the incantation of their names.

Walter de la Mare, Inward Companion: Poems (1950).

Beset with insomnia, Ivor Gurney often went on night-long walks in the country and the city.  Not surprisingly, stars and their constellations often appear in his poetry as his companions on these walks.

                         Stars Sliding

The stars are sliding wanton through trees,
The sky is sliding steady over all.
Great Bear to Gemini will lose his place
And Cygnus over world's brink slip and fall.

Follow-my-Leader's not so bad a game.
But were it leap frog:  O to see the shoots
And tracks of glory; Scorpions and Swans tame
And Argo swarmed with Bulls and other brutes.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (J. M. Dent 1996).

Graham Sutherland, "Michaelmas" (1928)

Finally, on constellations, there is this.  We cannot say for certain that it was composed by Edward Thomas.  But we do know that it was found on a page in his daughter Bronwen's autograph album.  It is untitled.

This is the constellation of the Lyre:
Its music cannot ever tire,
For it is silent.  No man need fear it:
Unless he wants to, he will not hear it.
                                                         E. T.

Cardiff University Library Archive
The First World War Poetry Digital Archive (Oxford)


John Ashton said...

Like you Mr Pentz I have never known the names of the stars. I can identify two constellations, The Plough and Orion's Belt. I think in America The Plough is known as the Big Dipper.
During our recent stay in Suffolk,the cottage we stayed in had access to a beautiful garden and many warm September evenings were spent sitting in the country darkness looking up at the crowded sky, far less light pollution than here on the outskirts of the city.
The Borges poem is wonderful, and I can identify with De La Mare's being enchanted with the " incantation of their names". That is certainly the case for me with the utterance of the names of wild flowers. Another enchanting post and the Graham Sutherland etchings compliment it beautifully.

Fred said...


araumi ya
sado ni yokoto
ama no gawa

the rough sea--
flowing toward Sado Isle
the River of Heaven

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: As it happens, you and I are tied when it comes to being able to identify constellations: the Plough and Orion are the only ones I can spot as well. (Although the one time that I was in the southern hemisphere I was able to identify the Southern Cross without assistance.)

I agree with you about needing to be away from city light pollution in order to truly see the stars. Thus, for example, the night I saw the Southern Cross I was on a beach on an atoll in the Cook Islands in the middle of the Pacific, with no cities around for hundreds (thousands?) of miles: the most astounding sky I have ever seen. The depths of darkness combined with the brightness of the stars left me speechless.

I'm pleased you like the Borges poem -- it is new to me. And I agree with you about the Sutherland etchings: I confess that the short period when he was making etchings in the manner of Samuel Palmer is my favorite part of his career.

As always, thank you very much for your thoughts, and for your kind words.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: thank you very much for the Basho. This haiku is where I first encountered "ama-no-gawa." Makoto Ueda writes this about Sado in Basho and His Interpreters (page 260): "Sado, an island in the Sea of Japan, was known for its production of gold on the one hand and for many sad stories of prisoners exiled there on the other."

Thank you again for sharing this. It is always good to hear from you.

Acornmoon said...

I always love the art you choose. This time I was sure you had a Robin Tanner print. I think he was influenced by Samuel Palmer in much the same way as Paul Drury.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms Greeley: It's good to hear from you again. Thank you for the kind words.

With respect to Robin Tanner: you are right on the mark! As it happens, I debated between using Drury's "September" and Tanner's "The Plough" (which has appeared here before) in that space. I opted for the Drury because of the month. Tanner, Drury, and Sutherland were remarkable in the 1920s, weren't they? As you suggest: Samuel Palmer reincarnated. Wonderful.

Thank you visiting again, and for your thoughts.

Bovey Belle said...

How strange. I have been too busy to visit recently, but this morning I felt compelled, and there are a few lines (and the original text) from E.T. That has set me up for the day.

I loved the Ivor Gurney piece too (must find out more about him and his poems). "The stars are sliding wanton through the trees" - amazing line.

Thankyou for giving the creative side of my brain a good jolt.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: I'm very happy to hear from you again. It is a nice coincidence that you chose to visit on this occasion -- I'm pleased that E. T.'s poem was waiting for you.

And I do encourage you to look into Gurney's poetry further. As you probably know, Gurney was very aware of E. T. (whose name is mentioned in at least one of his poems). Helen Thomas, at the instance of his friends, went to meet with him in the asylum. Marvelous person that she was, she brought E. T.'s map of Gloucestershire with her, and Gurney came to life when he saw it, tracing out walks he had made. But I'm sure I'm telling you something you already know.

Thank you very much for visiting again. I hope that all is well.

Anonymous said...

Choose Something Like a Star
Robert Frost

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud --
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out
your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say Something! And it says, "I
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a
To stay our minds on and be staid.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: Thank you very much for that! You and I think alike: I debated with myself whether to bring one of Frost's star poems into this post, but I decided that they are entitled to a post (or two) by themselves some time later this autumn or winter. But I am delighted to have you bring this to us now. (On a side-note: "To stay our minds on and be staid" is advice that is seldom heeded these days, is it?)

As always, thank you very much for visiting.

Bovey Belle said...

Mr Pentz, you and I have been thinking along the same lines, I have just been across to Amazon and ordered a book of Gurney's poetry, and only just stopped myself from proceeding to biographies about him, but I don't doubt they will follow!

I don't think I recall reading about Helen visiting Ivor Gurney in the Asylum (or my brain is being foggier than usual due to a hectic time recently). How typical of her - and how thoughtful - to take a map of Gloucestershire to bring him pleasure and normality in what must have been a far from normal world in the asylum.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: thank you for the follow-up comment. I'm happy that you are pursuing Gurney's poems further.

I apologize: I should have previously referred you to a post in which I included Helen Thomas' descriptions of her meetings with Gurney: If the link isn't working: the title of the post is Mangels, and it is dated November 29, 2013.

The post includes Gurney's poem "The Mangel-bury," which begins: "It was after War, Edward Thomas had fallen at Arras . . ." And here is Helen's heart-rending description of her first meeting with Gurney in the asylum (which is also included in the post): "He gazed with an intense stare into my face and took me silently by the hand. Then I gave him the flowers, which he took with the same deeply moving intensity and silence. He then said, 'You are Helen, Edward's wife, and Edward is dead.' And I said, 'Yes, let us talk of him.'" Helen Thomas was a remarkable person, wasn't she?

This comes from her book Time and Again: Memoirs and Letters (edited by Mfanwy Thomas). My post also includes her description of Gurney's delight in the Gloucestershire maps.

Again, thank you for the follow-up thoughts. Happy reading!

Bruce Post said...

I am an occasional visitor who lives in Vermont. Simply learning the term ama no gawa -- the River of Heaven -- has made me immensely grateful for my serendipitous discovery of your site. Thank you.

I have many reactions and thoughts as a result of reading your post, but for now, let me leave you with a couple observations.

I once read something the great Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote about looking at the stars, but I no longer know the exact citation. Here is my paraphrase of Merton's comment: "When man sits gazing at the stars, he is the universe contemplating itself."

Also, I lament the dimming of the Milky Way in the night sky as a result of light pollution. Even here in Vermont, the River of Heaven has been degraded, becoming more like white speckles from a paint brush across a dark canvas. I live not far from Robert Frost's cabin and visit it often, but never at night. It is in the midst of the Green Mountain National Forest and near two national wilderness areas, far from city lights. As a result, I imagine the stars that may have inspired Frost at night have retained their brilliance.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Post: Thank you very much for visiting, for your thoughts, and for your kind words about the blog. And thank you as well for the quote from Thomas Merton: wonderful.

Yes, "ama no gawa" is lovely, isn't it? Since learning the word, I no longer think of "the Milky Way"!

I agree with you about the loss of the stars: very sad. It is amazing what you can see when you escape the light pollution. I'm sorry to hear that Vermont is not immune to it -- I would have thought otherwise.

How fortunate you are to be near to Frost's cabin! I suspect that the sky was quite bright during Frost's time there.

Again, thank you for your thoughts and for stopping by. I hope you will return soon.

betsy said...

Try to find "The Friendly Stars" by Martha Evans Martin and Donald Howard Menzel, first published in 1907 with a Dover edition published in 1966. It is a book that cannot grow old-

Your blog, by the way is delightful. I am happy to have stumbled upon it.

Stephen Pentz said...

Betsy: Thank you very much for the kind words about the blog. I'm happy that you found your way here, and I hope that you'll return often.

And thank you as well for the recommendation of "The Friendly Stars." Through the Wonders of the Internet I have found it on the Internet Archive site: it is delightful! Just skimming through it last night, I have increased my knowledge (what little I had) immensely. I love her drawings (I presume they are by her) of the constellations -- much better than photos. You're right: it is a timeless book. I am going to try to track down a "real" copy from a used book seller.

Thanks again.