How The Heavens Are Portrayed in Poetry
The sky has always held a fascination for mankind from the earliest times of our existence. Today, we know what lies beyond the clouds and the wide expanse of cerulean blue, but there was a time when we did not, when everything about the heavens was treated with reverence and awe. Because of that, hundreds--perhaps thousands--of poems have been written about--or at least referencing--the unfathomable celestia.
The most common reference to the sky that one will find in poetry is comparing people, emotions, and other objects to it. Alexander Pope, in his epic poem "The Rape of the Lock" writes of Belinda, the poem's muse, "Fairest of Mortals, thou distinguish'd Care/Of thousand bright Inhabitants of Air!/If e'er one Vision touch'd thy infant Thought/Of all the Nurse and all the Priest have taught/Of airy Elves by Moonlight Shadows seen,"(Part I, V. III) thus comparing her to the moon, the mysterious celestial body of the night. Later in the same verse, a reference to the sky appears again: "Know then, unnumbered Spirits round thee fly/The light Militia of the lower Sky/These, tho' unseen, are ever on the Wing," and again, "As now your own, our Beings were of old/And once inclos'd in Woman's beauteous mold;/Thence, by a soft Transition, we repair/From earthly vehicles to these of Air." In this passsage, Pope continues to compare the lovely Belinda with the celestial world, for, surely, nothing else but the moon and the stars could match her beauty.
Another poet who used the sky to perfect effect was Alfred Noyes, whose most famous poem, "The Highwayman" was recently reintroduced to audiences in 1998 by singer Loreena McKennitt. The opening lines of this haunting poem call up images of the night sky to set the mood and scene of the tragic poem. "The wind was a torrent of darkness/Among the gusty trees/The moon was a ghostly galleon/Tossed upon the cloudy seas/The road was a ribbon of moonlight/Over the purple moor/And the highwman came riding/Riding, riding/ The highwayman came riding up to the old inn door." The image of the moon as an oceanic vessel upon seas of clouds is an impressive one; the thought of witnessing such a sight stays with the reader for days after one has read the poem. Later in the work, Noyes again references the sky, but this time, during daylight: "He did not come at the dawning/He did not come at noon/And out of the tawny sunset/Before the rise of the moon/When the road was a gypsy's ribbon/ Looping the purple moor/The redcoat troops came marching/Marching, marching/The roadcoat troops came marching up to the old inn door."
The romantic nature of the night sky is not one of recent invention; a Pictish inscription, thought by some to be a poem, also speaks of the enigmatic object above us.