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Early Space Poetry

What poets of the 17th through 19th centuries
had to say about other worlds in space

Collected and annotated by Sylvia Engdahl

Note: All this poetry and much more is included in an Appendix to the updated edition of The Planet-Girded Suns: The Long History of Belief in Exoplanets, available in both paperback and ebook editions.

Be sure to read the comments preceding Part I

Part II - 19th Century

From Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Queen Mab" (1813)

In the tradition of poetically describing supernatural "cosmic journeys" in which other suns are observed, Shelley is writing of an imaginary tour conducted by a spirit.

Earth's distant orb appeared
The smallest light that twinkles in the heaven;
Whilst round the chariot's way
Innumerable systems rolled,
And countless spheres diffused
An ever-varying glory.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Below lay stretched the universe!
There, far as the remotest line
That bounds imagination's flight,
Countless and unending orbs
In mazy motion intermingled,
Yet still fulfilled immutably
Eternal Nature's law.
Above, below, around,
The circling systems formed
A wilderness of harmony;
Each with undeviating aim,
In eloquent silence, through the depths of space
Pursued its wondrous way.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Throughout these infinite orbs of mingling light,
Of which yon earth is one, is wide diffused
A Spirit of activity and life,
That knows no term, cessation, or decay.

From George Gordon, Lord Byron, "Cain" (1821)

Again, this is a supernatural "cosmic journey" in which Byron portrays Lucifer conducting Cain on a tour of the universe.

Cain: Is yon our earth? . . Can it be?
Yon small blue circle, swinging in far ether,
With an inferior circlet near it still,
Which looks like that which lit our earthly night?
. . . As we move
Like sunbeams onward, it grows small and smaller,
And as it waxes little, and then less,
Gathers a halo round it, like the light
Which shone the roundest of the stars, when I
Beheld them from the skirts of Paradise.
Methinks they both, as we recede from them,
Appear to join the innumerable stars
Which are around us; and, as we move on,
Increase their myriads.

Lucifer: And if there should be
Worlds greater than thine own, inhabited
By greater things, and they themselves far more
In number than the dust of thy dull earth,
Though multiplied to animated atoms,
All living, and all doomed to death, and wretched,
What wouldst thou think?

Cain: I should be proud of thought
Which knew such things.

Lucifer: But if that high thought were
Link'd to a servile mass of matter, and,
Knowing such things, aspiring to such things,
And science still beyond them, were chained down
To the most gross and petty paltry wants...
. . . . . . . . . . . .
But now, behold!
Is it not glorious?

Cain: Oh, thou beautiful
And unimaginable ether! and
Ye multiplying masses of increased
And still increasing lights! What are ye? what
Is this blue wilderness of interminable
Air, where ye roll along, as I have seen
The leaves along the limpid streams of Eden?
Is your course measured for ye? Or do ye
Sweep on in your unbounded revelry
Through an aerial universe of endless
Expansion--at which my soul aches to think--
Intoxicated with eternity?
Oh God! Oh Oh Gods! or whatso'er ye are!
How beautiful ye are! how beautiful
You works, or accidents, or whatso'er
They may be! Let me die as atoms die
(If that they die), or know ye in your might
And knowledge! My thoughts are not in this hour
Unworthy what I see, though my dust is;--
Spirit! let me expire, or see them nearer.

Lucifer: Art thou no nearer? look back to thine earth!

Cain: Where is it? I see nothing save a mass
Of most innumerable lights.

Lucifer: Look there!

Cain: I cannot see it.

Lucifer: Yet it sparkles still.

Cain: That!--yonder!

Lucifer: Yea.

Cain: And wilt thou tell me so?
Why, I have seen the fire-flies and the fire-worms
Sprinkle the dusty groves and the green banks
In the dim twilight, brighter than yon world
Which bears them...
. . . . . . . . . . . .

But the lights fade from me fast,
And some till now grew larger as we approached
And wore the look of worlds.

Lucifer: And such they are.

Cain: And Edens in them?

Lucifer: It may be.

Cain: And men?

Lucifer: Yea, or things higher.

Cain: Ay, and serpents too?

Lucifer: Wouldst have men without them? must no reptiles
Breathe save the erect ones?
. . . . . . . . . . . .

From here on Cain compares what he was shown of the universe with Hades, which he is also shown.

Cain: 'Tis a fearful light . . . unlike the worlds
We were approaching which, begirt with light,
Seem'd full of life even when their atmosphere
Of light gave way, and showed them taking shapes
Unequal, of deep valleys and vast mountains;
And some emitting sparks, and some displaying
Enormous liquid plains, and some begirt
With luminous belts, and floating moons which took
Like them the features of fair earth...
. . . . . . . . . . . .
...The huge brilliant orbs which swung
So thickly in the upper air, that I
Had deemed them rather the bright populace
Of some all unimaginable heaven
Than things to be inhabited themselves,
But that on drawing near them I beheld
Their swelling into palpable immensity
Of matter, which seemed made for life to dwell on,
Rather than life itself.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Within those glorious orbs which we beheld
Distant, and dazzling, and innumerable,
Ere we came down into this phantom realm.
Ill cannot come: they are too beautiful.

Lucifer: Thou hast seen them from afar.

Cain: And what of that?
Distance can but diminish glory--they,
When nearer, must be more ineffable.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Thou hast shown me wonders . . . thou hast pointed out
Myriads of starry worlds, of which our own
Is the dim and remote companion, in
Infinity of life...
. . . . . . . . . . . .
[I have seen]
The overpowering mysteries of space--
The innumerable worlds that were and are--
A whirlwind of such overwhelming things,
Suns, moons, and earths, upon their loud-voiced spheres
Singing in thunder round me, as have made me
Unfit for mortal converse.

From Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Timbuctoo" (1829)

Tennyson wrote this poem when he was in college, and won a prize for it. (It's the poem from which I took the title of my book The Planet-Girded Suns.) In imagination, he saw:

The Moon's white cities, and the opal width
Of her small glowing lakes, her silver heights
Unvisited with dew of vagrant cloud,
And the unsounded, undescended depth
Of her black hollows. The clear galaxy
Shorn of its hoary lustre, wonderful,
Distinct and vivid with sharp points of light,
Blaze within blaze, an unimagin'd depth
And harmony of planet-girded suns
And moon-encircled planets, wheel in wheel,
Arch'd the wan sapphire. Nay--the hum of men,
Or other things talking in unknown tongues
And notes of busy life in distant worlds
Beat like a far wave on my anxious ear.

From Hans Christian Oersted, "The Balloon," reprinted in The Soul in Nature (1852)

Dost thou perceive nought but machinery
In laws which guide the course along heaven's paths?
Look with a larger view around; behold
The unity of living thoughts, displayed
In countless varying forms. The mighty sun
Is but a twinkling star amidst the space
Infinite filled with worlds, whose suns, heaven's lamps,
Shine in our night . . . Look
Upon the spangled heav'ns, there to discover
Thousands of blazing suns, encircled by
Companions numerous . . . A race of beings behold
Struggling for mental power, knowledge divine.

From Walt Whitman, "Walt Whitman" (1855)

I do not know what is untried and afterward;
But I know it will in its turn prove sufficient, and cannot fail.
Each who passes is consider'd--each who stops is consider'd--
not a single one can it fail
Nor anything in the myriads of spheres--nor one of the myriads
of myriads that inhabit them...
. . . . . . . . . . . .
I open my scuttle at night and see the far-sprinked systems,
And all I see, multiplied as high as I can cipher, edge but the rim
of the farther systems.
Wider and wider they spread, expanding, always expanding,
Outward and outward, and forever outward.
My sun has his sun, and round him obediently wheels,
He joins with his partners, a group of superior circuit,
And greater sets follow, making specks of the greatest inside them.
There is no stoppage, and never can be stoppage;
If I, you, and the worlds, and all beneath or upon their surfaces,
were at this moment reduced back to a pallid float, it would not
avail in the long run;
We should surely bring up again where we now stand,
And as surely go as much farther--and then farther and farther.
A few quadrillions of eras, a few octillions of cubic leagues, do not
hazard the span, or make it impatient;
They are but parts--anything is but a part.
See ever so far, there is limitless space outside of that;
Count ever so much, there is limitless time around that.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
This day before dawn I ascended a hill, and look'd at the crowded
And I said to my Spirit, When we become the enfolders of those
orbs, and the pleasure and knowledge of everything in them,
shall we be fill'd and satisfied then?

And my Spirit said, No, we but level that lift, to pass and continue

. . . . . . . . . . . .
And I say to any man or woman, Let your soul stand cool and
composed before a million universes.

From Walt Whitman, "On the Beach At Night Alone" (1856)

As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef
of the universes and of the future.
A vast similitude interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets,
All distances of place however wide,
All distances of time, all inanimate forms,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different, or in
different worlds,
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes, the fishes,
the brutes,
All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages,
All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or
any globe,
All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann'd,
And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them.

From Walt Whitman, "Night on the Prairies" (1860)

I was thinking this globe enough, till there sprang out so noiseless
around me myriads of other globes.
Now, while the great thoughts of space and eternity fill me, I will
measure myself by them;
And now, touch'd with the lives of other globes, arrived as far
along as those of the earth,
Or waiting to arrive, or pass'd on farther than those of the earth,
I henceforth no more ignore them, than I ignore my own life,
Or the lives of the earth arrived as far as mine, or waiting to arrive.

Henry Abbey, "Faith's Vista" (1879)

This poem may have been printed in a magazine before Abbey's collected poems were published in 1879--but if not, it appeared just a few years before serious speculation about actual space travel began. The era of envisioning death as the only way into space was soon to end.

When from the vaulted wonder of the sky
The curtain of the light is drawn aside,
And I behold the stars in all their wide
Significance and glorious mystery,
Assured that those more distant orbs are suns
Round which innumerable worlds revolve,
My faith grows strong, my day-born doubts dissolve,
And death, that dread annulment which life shuns,
Or fain would shun, becomes to life the way,
The thoroughfare to greater worlds on high,
The bridge from star to star. Seek how we may,
There is no other road across the sky;
And, looking up, I hear star-voices say:
"You could not reach us if you did not die."

From more works of Tennyson

Though Tennyson mentioned other planets in several of his well-known poems, references to them also appear in a number of his less famous ones. The pessimism of some reflects not only the decline of human belief in the ideal perfection of worlds other than ours, but the dawn of awareness that if they are inhabited, it is by beings with problems similar to our own.

From "Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington" (1852)

Tho' world on world in myriad myriads roll
Round us, each with different powers,
And other forms of life than ours,
What know we greater than the soul?

From "Despair" (1881)

And the suns of the limitless universe sparkled and shone in
the sky,
Flashing with fires as of God, but we knew that their light was
a lie--
Bright as with deathless hone--but, however they sparkled and
The dark little worlds running round them were worlds of woe
like our own.

From "Vastness" (1885)

Many a hearth upon our dark globe sighs after many a
vanish'd face,
Many a planet by many a sun may roll with the dust of a
vanish'd race.
Raving politics, never at rest--as this poor earth's pale
history runs,
What is it all but a trouble of ants in the gleam of a million
million of Suns?

From "Epilogue" to "The Charge of the Heavy Brigade" (1885)

The fires that arch this dusky dot--
Yon myriad-worlded way--
The vast sun-clusters' gather'd blaze,
World-isles in lonely skies,
Whole heavens within themselves, amaze
Our brief humanities.

From Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Locksley Hall Sixty Years After" (1886)

Tennyson's best-known poem about the future is "Locksley Hall," in which he made some accurate prophecies concerning aviation but did not mention space. This one, written 60 years later, deals with the evolution of humans here and elsewhere, and is as relevant today as when it was first published.

Earth at last a warless world, a single race, a single tongue--
I have seen her far away--for is not Earth as yet so young?
Every tiger madness muzzled, every serpent passion kill'd,
Every grim ravine a garden, every blazing desert till'd,
Robed in universal harvest up to either pole she smiles,
Universal ocean softly washing all her warless isles.
Warless? when her tens are thousands, and her thousands
millions, then--
All her harvest all too narrow--who can fancy warless men?
Warless? War will die out late then. Will it ever? late or soon?
Can it, till this outworn earth be dead as yon dead world the moon?
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Dead, but how her living glory lights the hall, the dune, the grass!
Yet the moonlight is the sunlight, and the sun himself will pass.
Venus near her! smiling downward at this earthlier earth of ours,
Closer on the sun, perhaps a world of never-fading flowers.
Hesper, whom the poet call'd the Bringer home of all good things--
All good things may move in Hesper, perfect peoples, perfect kings.
Hesper--Venus--were we native to that splendor or in Mars,
We should see the globe we groan in, fairest of their evening stars.
Could we dream of wars and carnage, craft and madness, lust
and spite,
Roaring London, raving Paris, in that point of peaceful light?
Might we not in glancing heavenward on a star so silver-fair,
Yearn, and clasp the hands and murmur, "Would to God that we
were there"?
Forward, backward, hackward, forward, in the immeasurable sea,
Sway'd by vaster ebbs and flows than can be known to you or me.
All the suns--are these but symbols of innumerable man,
Man or Mind that sees a shadow of the planner or the plan?
Is there evil but on earth? or pain in every peopled sphere?
Well, be grateful for the sounding watchword "Evolution" here,
Evolution ever climbing after some ideal good,
And Reversion ever dragging evolution in the mud.
What are men that He should heed us? cried the king of sacred
Insects of an hour, that hourly work their brother insect wrong,
While the silent heavens roll, and suns along their fiery way,
All their planets whirling round them, flash a million miles a day.
Many an aeon moulded earth before her highest, man, was born,
Many an aeon too may pass when earth is manless and forlorn,
Earth so huge, and yet so bounded--pools of salt, and plots of
Shallow skin of green and azure--chains of mountain, grains of sand
Only That which made us meant us to be mightier by and by,
Set the sphere of all the boundless heavens within the human eye,
Sent the shadow of Himself, the boundless, thro' the human soul;
Boundless inward, in the atom, boundless outward, in the Whole.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Far away beyond her myriad coming changes earth will be
Something other than the wildest modern guess of you and me.

From Helen Hunt Jackson, "Emigravit" (1886)

This expresses an idea different from the 18th-century belief that souls would voyage through space after death merely to observe; it suggests a future life on another world, as distinguished from the traditional concept of Heaven. Although this idea is rarely talked about, there are people today who hope that they will be reincarnated on some planet elsewhere in the universe.

Who knows what myriad colonies there are
Of fairest fields, and rich, undreamed-of gains
Thick planted in the distant shining plains
Which we call sky because they lie so far?
Oh, write of me, not "Died in bitter pains,"
But "Emigrated to another star!"

From Rudyard Kipling, "To the True Romance" (1893)

Beyond the bounds our staring rounds,
Across the pressing dark,
The children wise of outer skies
Look hitherward and mark
A light that shifts, a glare that drifts,
Rekindling thus and thus,
Not all forlorn, for thou hast borne
Strange tales to them of us.

From George Meredith, "Meditation Under Stars" (1888)

I placed this last because though published a few years before Kipling's, it is the most "modern" of the 19th-century poems about other worlds, and reveals best the sense of kinship humankind now feels, more than a century later, with life throughout the universe.

What links are ours with orbs that are
So resolutely far:
The solitary asks, and they
Give radiance as from a shield:
Still at the death of day,
The seen, the unrevealed.
Implacable they shine
To us who would of Life obtain
An answer for the life we strain,
To nourish with one sign.
Nor can imagination throw
The penetrative shaft: we pass
The breath of thought, who would divine
If haply they may grow
As Earth; have our desire to know;
If life comes there to grain from grass,
And flowers like ours of toil and pain;
Has passion to beat bar,
Win space from cleaving brain;
The mystic link attain,
Whereby star holds on star.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
The spirit leaps alight,
Doubts not in them is he,
The binder of his sheaves, the same, the right:
Of magnitude to magnitude is wrought,
To feel it large of the great life they hold:
In them to come, or vaster intervolved,
The issues known in us, our unsolved solved:
That there with toil Life climbs the self-same Tree,
Whose roots enrichment have from ripeness dropped.
So may we read and little find them cold:
Let it but be the lord of Mind to guide
Our eyes; no branch of Reason's growing lopped;
Nor dreaming on a dream; but fortified
By day to penetrate black midnight; see,
Hear, feel, outside the senses; even that we,
The specks of dust upon a mound of mould,
We who reflect those rays, though low our place,
To them are lastingly allied.

So may we read, and little find them cold:
Not frosty lamps illumining dead space,
Not distant aliens, not senseless Powers.
The fire is in them whereof we are born;
The music of their motion may be ours.
Spirit shall deem them beckoning Earth and voiced
Sisterly to her, in her beams rejoiced.

Part I - 17th and 18th Centuries

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