January 19, 2020

Review: The Sky in Early Modern English Literature.

A classic of astronomical history…

Sometimes, astronomical references pop up in places we least expect them. This week, we journey back to 16th-17th century England for a look at The Sky in Early Modern English Literature: A Study of Allusions to Celestial Events in Elizabethan and Jacobean Writing, 1572-1620 by David Levy.  Mr. Levy is the discoverer of 22 comets in counting, including the famous Shoemaker-Levy 9 that crashed into Jupiter on July 1994. He is also an avid eclipse-chaser and conceiver of the Telescopes for Telethon program. As a former neighbor, I can attest that his Jarnac observatory in Vail, Arizona just outside of Tucson may be the closest one can get to astronomer’s heaven.

Mr. Levy also has a passion for literature as well as the cosmos. The Sky in Early Modern English Literature was conceived as part of his doctoral thesis, and is a fascinating read for fans of Shakespeare, eclipse-chasers, or students of historical astronomy. The era of the late 16th century going into the early 17th was a tumultuous one both for the European continent and the blossoming field of astronomy. The last bright supernovae in our galaxy were seen in 1572 & 1604, Kepler was formulating his laws of planetary motion, and Galileo turned his newly constructed telescope towards the heavens. From 1573 to 1607 alone, no less than 15 bright comets were seen. Several lunar and solar eclipses were visible from Europe and England. For the astrologically superstitious, an occultation of the planet Saturn occured directly after the Moon exited eclipse on December 30th, 1591. An outburst of the Leonid meteor shower was also seen on 1602 similar to the one we witnessed in 1998. These left an indelible impression on the literature of the day. Mr. Levy cites primarily astronomical references from more well known authors as Marlowe and Shakespeare, although some rare and wonderful citations of more obscure works are also noted. We were familiar with such staples as “When beggars die, there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth for the death of princes…” from Julius Caesar, although Shakespeare’s ultimate outlook on astrology may be best summed up by the line “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves,” also from the same work.

The 1591 lunar eclipse+occultation of Saturn. (Created by the Author in Starry Night).

It’s fascinating to see how the people of the time viewed the world and the universe around them, as I’m sure that future researchers will view the science fiction of today. Shakespeare himself may have witnessed the supernova of 1572 as a boy, and consistently referenced eclipses more than any author of the period. Mr. Levy also provides a fascinating discussion of the evolution of the “perspective glass” up to the familiar telescope that Galileo first used. Included are some fascinating sketches of the Moon by Thomas Harriot drawn just prior to Galileo’s observations in 1609.

How faithful is a mention or painting of an astronomical event centuries later? It’s always tough to tell, and perhaps one should be careful not to read too much accuracy where artistic license may come into play. After all, what might future historians make of a Battlestar: Galactica episode? (Hopefully, they dig up the re-imagined series!) But Mr. Levy skillfully and convincingly weaves a portrait of how astronomy influenced the literature of the day. I would recommend seeking out The Sky in Early Modern English Literature as well as listening to David & his wife Wendee on their weekly astronomy broadcast Let’s Talk Stars. It’s worth keeping an eye out for the astronomical in history and literature; there are still connections out there waiting to be made!



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  1. [...] spy Uranus with binoculars near the lunar limb during totality? Another such rarity occurred during Shakespeare’s time on December 30th, 1591, involving Saturn and the eclipsed Moon, and another such odd occurrence [...]

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