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Alfred Noyes 1880 (Wolverhampton) – 1958 (Isle of Wight)
The neighbours gossiped idly at the door.
Copernicus lay dying overhead.
His little throng of friends, with startled eyes,
Whispered together, in that dark house of dreams,
From which by one dim crevice in the wall
He used to watch the stars.
"His book has come
From Nuremberg at last; but who would dare
To let him see it now?"--
"They have altered it!
Though Rome approved in full, this preface, look,
Declares that his discoveries are a dream!"--
"He has asked a thousand times if it has come;
Could we tear out those pages?"--
"What shall be done, then?"--
"Hold it back awhile.
That was the priest's voice in the room above.
He may forget it. Those last sacraments
May set his mind at rest, and bring him peace."--
Then, stealing quietly to that upper door,
They opened it a little, and saw within
The lean white deathbed of Copernicus
Who made our world a world without an end.
There, in that narrow room, they saw his face
Grey, seamed with thought, lit by a single lamp;
They saw those glorious eyes
Closing, that once had looked beyond the spheres
And seen our ancient firmaments dissolve
Into a boundless night.
Beside him knelt
Two women, like bowed shadows. At his feet,
An old physician watched him. At his head,
The cowled Franciscan murmured, while the light
Shone faintly on the chalice.
All grew still.
The fragrance of the wine was like faint flowers,
The first breath of those far celestial fields....
Then, like a dying soldier, that must leave
His last command to others, while the fight
Is yet uncertain, and the victory far,
Copernicus whispered, in a fevered dream,
"Yes, it is Death. But you must hold him back,
There, in the doorway, for a little while,
Until I know the work is rightly done.
Use all your weapons, doctor. I must live
To see and touch one copy of my book.
Have they not brought it yet?
They promised me
It should be here by nightfall.
One of you go
And hasten it. I can hold back
Death till dawn.
Have they not brought it yet?--from Nuremberg.
Do not deceive me. I must know it safe,
Printed and safe, for other men to use.
I could die then. My use would be fulfilled.
What has delayed them? Will not some one go
And tell them that my strength is running out?
Tell them that book would be an angel's hand
In mine, an easier pillow for my head,
A little lantern in the engulfing dark.
You see, I hid its struggling light so long
Under too small a bushel, and I fear
It may go out forever. In the noon
Of life's brief day, I could not see the need
As now I see it, when the night shuts down.
I was afraid, perhaps, it might confuse
The lights that guide us for the souls of men.
But now I see three stages in our life.
At first, we bask contented in our sun
And take what daylight shows us for the truth.
Then we discover, in some midnight grief,
How all day long the sunlight blinded us
To depths beyond, where all our knowledge dies.
That's where men shrink, and lose their way in doubt.
Then, last, as death draws nearer, comes a night
In whose majestic shadow men see God,
Absolute Knowledge, reconciling all.
So, all my life I pondered on that scheme
Which makes this earth the centre of all worlds,
Lighted and wheeled around by sun and moon
And that great crystal sphere wherein men thought
Myriads of lesser stars were fixed like lamps,
Each in its place,--one mighty glittering wheel
Revolving round this dark abode of man.
Night after night, with even pace they moved.
Year after year, not altering by one point,
Their order, or their stations, those fixed stars
In that revolving firmament. The Plough
Still pointed to the Pole. Fixed in their sphere,
How else explain that vast unchanging wheel?
How, but by thinking all those lesser lights
Were huger suns, divided from our earth
By so immense a gulf that, if they moved
Ten thousand leagues an hour among themselves,
It would not seem one hair's-breadth to our eyes.
Utterly inconceivable, I know;
And yet we daily kneel to boundless Power
And build our hope on that Infinitude.
This did not daunt me, then. Indeed, I saw
Light upon chaos. Many discordant dreams
Began to move in lucid music now.
For what could be more baffling than the thought
That those enormous heavens must circle earth
Diurnally--a journey that would need
Swiftness to which the lightning flash would seem
A white slug creeping on the walls of night;
While, if earth softly on her axle spun
One quiet revolution answered all.
It was our moving selves that made the sky
Seem to revolve. Have not all ages seen
A like illusion baffling half mankind
In life, thought, art? Men think, at every turn
Of their own souls, the very heavens have moved.
Light upon chaos, light, and yet more light;
For--as I watched the planets--Venus, Mars,
Appeared to wax and wane from month to month
As though they moved, now near, now far, from earth.
Earth could not be their centre. Was the sun
Their sovran lord then, as Pythagoras held?
Was this great earth, so 'stablished, so secure,
A planet also? Did it also move
Around the sun? If this were true, my friends,
No revolution in this world's affairs,
Not that blind maelstrom where imperial Rome
Went down into the dark, could so engulf
All that we thought we knew. We who believed
In our own majesty, we who walked with gods
As younger sons on this proud central stage,
Round which the whole bright firmament revolved
For our especial glory, must we creep
Like ants upon our midget ball of dust
Lost in immensity?
I could not take
That darkness lightly. I withheld my book
For many a year, until I clearly saw,
And Rome approved me--have they not brought it yet?--
That this tremendous music could not drown
The still supernal music of the soul,
Or quench the light that shone when Christ was born.
For who, if one lost star could lead the kings
To God's own Son, would shrink from following these
To His eternal throne?
This at the least
We know, the soul of man can soar through heaven.
It is our own wild wings that dwarf the world
To nothingness beneath us. Let the soul
Take courage, then. If its own thought be true,
Not all the immensities of little minds
Can ever quench its own celestial fire.
No. This new night was needed, that the soul
Might conquer its own kingdom and arise
To its full stature. So, in face of death,
I saw that I must speak the truth I knew.
Have they not brought it? What delays my book?
I am afraid. Tell me the truth, my friends.
At this last hour, the Church may yet withhold
Her sanction. Not the Church, but those who think
A little darkness helps her.
Were this true,
They would do well. If the poor light we win
Confuse or blind us, to the Light of lights,
Let all our wisdom perish. I affirm
A greater Darkness, where the one true Church
Shall after all her agonies of loss
And many an age of doubt, perhaps, to come,
See this processional host of splendours burn
Like tapers round her altar.
So I speak
Not for myself, but for the age unborn.
I caught the fire from those who went before,
The bearers of the torch who could not see
The goal to which they strained. I caught their fire,
And carried it, only a little way beyond;
But there are those that wait for it, I know,
Those who will carry it on to victory.
I dare not fail them. Looking back, I see
Those others,--fallen, with their arms outstretched
Dead, pointing to the future.
Far, far back,
Before the Egyptians built their pyramids
With those dark funnels pointing to the north,
Through which the Pharaohs from their desert tombs
Gaze all night long upon the Polar Star,
Some wandering Arab crept from death to life
Led by the Plough across those wastes of pearl....
Long, long ago--have they not brought it yet?
My book?--I finished it one summer's night,
And felt my blood all beating into song.
I meant to print those verses in my book,
A prelude, hinting at that deeper night
Which darkens all our knowledge. Then I thought
The measure moved too lightly.
Do you recall
Those verses, Elsa? They would pass the time.
How happy I was the night I wrote that song!"
Then, one of those bowed shadows raised her head
And, like a mother crooning to her child,
Murmured the words he wrote, so long ago.
In old Cathay, in far Cathay,
Before the western world began,
They saw the moving fount of day
Eclipsed, as by a shadowy fan;
They stood upon their Chinese wall.
They saw his fire to ashes fade,
And felt the deeper slumber fall
On domes of pearl and towers of jade.
With slim brown hands, in Araby,
They traced, upon the desert sand,
Their Rams and Scorpions of the sky,
And strove--and failed--to understand.
Before their footprints were effaced
The shifting sand forgot their rune;
Their hieroglyphs were all erased,
Their desert naked to the moon.
In Bagdad of the purple nights,
Haroun Al Raschid built a tower,
Where sages watched a thousand lights
And read their legends, for an hour.
The tower is down, the Caliph dead,
Their astrolabes are wrecked with rust.
Orion glitters overhead,
Aladdin's lamp is in the dust.
In Babylon, in Babylon,
They baked their tablets of the clay;
And, year by year, inscribed thereon
The dark eclipses of their day;
They saw the moving finger write
Its Mene, Mene, on their sun.
A mightier shadow cloaks their light,
And clay is clay in Babylon.
A shadow moved towards him from the door.
Copernicus, with a cry, upraised his head.
"The book, I cannot see it, let me feel
The lettering on the cover.
It is here!
Put out the lamp, now. Draw those curtains back,
And let me die with starlight on my face.
An angel's hand in mine . . . yes; I can say
My nunc dimittis now . . . light, and more light
In that pure realm whose darkness is our peace."
Submitted on August 03, 2020
- 8:58 min read
- 23 Views
|Scheme||Text too long|
|Closest metre||Iambic pentameter|
|Stanza Lengths||38, 15, 16, 31, 15, 40, 32, 13, 8, 8, 8, 8, 10|
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"Copernicus" Poetry.com. STANDS4 LLC, 2023. Web. 26 Mar. 2023. <https://www.poetry.com/poem/54708/copernicus>.
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