The Lost Art of Astropoetics: An 1881 Cosmic Masterpiece by the Forgotten Woman Who Popularized Astronomy
By Maria Popova
On February 8, 1881, a short and stunning piece appeared in the Providence Journal under the heading “The Beauty of the Evening Sky: Telescopic Observation of the Moon, Jupiter, Venus, and Mars.” Its poetic splendor captivated editors and audiences alike. It was reprinted in The New York Times two days later and went on to become what we today would call viral — newspapers all over the country began reprinting it, often without credit to the original source, and it remained in circulation for nearly a decade.
This uncommon masterpiece of astropoetics was written by an author whose name has been swallowed by history and was likely, per the era’s newspaper conventions, never printed in the first place. But after plunging into a rabbit hole of research for several days, I have emerged with sufficient evidence that the writer was a woman named Emma Converse (1820–1893), whose columns were among the first popular articles on astronomy to appear in any daily paper. A century before Carl Sagan, Converse pioneered the art of astropoetics, enchanting masses of ordinary people with the extraordinary splendor and mystery of the cosmos.
The planetary aspect of the evening sky has not been so beautiful for many years, and the show is now approaching its culmination. The heavens were glorious to behold during the evenings of the past week. The moon, commencing with the 2d, paid her respects on successive evenings to Venus, Jupiter, and Mars, and, excepting on one evening, there were no clouds to mar the exceptional beauty of the scene. No observers could lift their eyes to the golden mysteries enshrined above without being impressed with the exceeding loveliness of the shining throng. Sunday evening, however, carried off the palm for the remarkable clearness of the sky, the purity of the atmosphere, and the unruffled serenity of the elemental conditions. The night was one dear to the heart of astronomers. At 6:30 the celestial arch presented a charming picture, the trio of planets glowing in the west; the moon, one day past the first quarter, shining from the zenith with the clustering Pleiades not far away, Orion with his glittering brilliants filling the eastern sky with sparkling light, and the matchless Sirius shining in the south-east. The telescopic view of separate portions of the picture was superb beyond expression. Venus, when the far-seeing eye of the instrument was turned upon her, was an object of dazzling brightness, nearly the size of the moon, her disk half-enlightened, as our luminary looks at her quarter. Jupiter was splendidly brilliant, his belts radiant in prismatic hues, his great red spot visible, and his moons attending their giant chief, two on one side and two on the other.
But however beguiling our vignettes of the cosmos, they are and always will be inescapably incomplete. At the time of Converse’s writing, Jupiter’s only known moons were the Galilean quartet — Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, which inspired Shakespeare in what is perhaps the first momentous merger of astronomy and poetry. In 2016, there are 67 known moons. In fact, it was the very next year, 1882, that the astronomer E.E. Barnard discovered Amalthea — the first new moon since Galileo’s discoveries three centuries earlier.
In the remainder of the piece, Converse turns to our own moon. Her writing, while a beautiful embodiment of what physicist Sean Carroll has termed “poetic naturalism,” is strewn with reminders that even our most convincing theories must yield to observations that disprove them, for this is always how we inch closer to a more complete understanding of the universe and our place in it. Converse writes:
The telescope was then turned to the moon, a portion of the terminator or boundary between the bright and shaded portions being brought into the field. With a high power she seemed so near that one by reaching out might almost touch her surface. There is nothing in astronomy more impressive than the utter desolation and death that reign on the chalk-like surface of this dead planet. There are no clouds to diversify the sky, the twilight to prolong the day, no sound to break the eternal silence. Immense craters, deep fissures, rounded hillocks, and the scars of mighty commotions are all that remain of regions that were probably habitable like the earth in times gone by. The view on the terminator was the most interesting. Instead of the unbroken line of light that marks its appearance to the naked eye, the moon’s rough edge was formed of branching horns of radiant light, like the antlers of a stag or huge formations of coral. These were the summits of lunar mountains, lightened up by the sun, which was just rising to this part of the moon. The bright mountain-peaks were weird and wonderful as well as beautiful, though their only admirers were observers 240,000 miles away.
Today, when science and writing have a relationship drained of magic by grant proposals and press releases, Converse’s beguiling prose radiates a certain bittersweetness. To write like this about astronomy in our era is incredibly rare and, therefore, incredibly satisfying when it occurs.
For an earthly counterpart, see Georgia O’Keeffe’s arresting account of the beauty of the Southwest sky, then revisit pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell’s electrifying field report of a solar eclipse.
Published June 16, 2016