The Marginalian
The Marginalian

How to Bear Your Suffering: The Young Poet Anne Reeve Aldrich’s Extraordinary Letter to Emily Dickinson

“It is only through the gates of suffering, either mental or physical, that we can pass into that tender sympathy with the griefs of all of mankind which it ought to be the ideal of every soul to attain.”

How to Bear Your Suffering: The Young Poet Anne Reeve Aldrich’s Extraordinary Letter to Emily Dickinson

“What happened could have happened to anyone, but not everyone could have carried on,” Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Stoic strategy for turning suffering into strength.

Two millennia later, the young poet Anne Reeve Aldrich (April 25, 1866–June 28, 1892) attested to this insight with her life, short and soaring, spent writing soulful poems she considered “chiefly in a minor key” — the lyric epitome of “the bittersweet.”

Anne’s father died when she was eight. Immersed in music and art, with a gift for mathematics, she was only fifteen when she submitted her first poem to a magazine. With the notice of rejection came a friendly note of encouragement and praise from the editor, who eventually published a poem of hers two years later. Soon, her poems were populating prominent magazines, and newspapers frequently quoted verses from them.

But midway through her twenties, the impartial hand of chance dealt her a rapidly debilitating illness. She lived through it with fierce devotion to life. Like Beethoven, who vowed to “take fate by the throat” when chance dealt him his own hand of suffering, Aldrich went on composing poems at a feverish pace until the very end, even as she grew too weak to write by hand. She dictated her last poem, “Death at Daybreak,” and died just before dawn on June 18, 1892 — a season after Whitman. She was twenty-six.

Anne Reeve Aldrich

Her final poetry collection, aptly titled Songs about Love, Life, and Death (public library | public domain), was posthumously published by summer’s end. The Springfield Republican — the first paper to print Emily Dickinson’s poetry in her lifetime — lauded Aldrich as one of “the few who nearest share the moods of Sappho and her talents.” Seven years after her death, a major newspaper was still celebrating her “brief poems of unusual merit,” reprinting from them these “especially pregnant lines” — lines of abiding insight into how often we are the architects of our own suffering, a knowledge we carry with an uneasy awareness that only unmasons us more:

I made the cross myself, whose weight
Was later laid on me.
This thought adds anguish as I toil
Up life’s steep Cavalry.

She understood that personal suffering — pain on the scale of our individual lives — is the grandest portal to sympathy with universal life; she understood that “we bear a common pain” — the elemental pain that is the price of being alive, pain often invisible and always ineffable, except perhaps through art. She articulated this understanding with uncommon sympathy and splendor of sentiment in an 1890 letter to Emily Dickinson — herself a patron saint of suffering.

A year after the publication of her debut collection, The Rose of Flame, and Other Poems of Love (public library | public domain), the twenty-four-year-old Aldrich writes to the fifty-year-old Dickinson, whose own immense body of work never appeared as a book in her lifetime:

A life of patient suffering, such as I am sure yours must be, dear Miss Dickinson is a better poem in itself than we can any of us write, and I believe it is only through the gates of suffering, either mental or physical, that we can pass into that tender sympathy with the griefs of all of mankind which it ought to be the ideal of every soul to attain.

Art by Virginia Frances Sterrett, who died barely out of her twenties. (Available as a print.)

Those who read Anne Reeve Aldrich’s melancholy poetry speculated that she must be “an invalid” or “a sufferer,” but those who knew her knew a sunny-spirited young woman with a sense of humor and an exceptionally hopeful nature. Upon the posthumous publication of her final poems, she was compared to Elizabeth Barrett Browning — herself an emissary of radiance through inordinate suffering, who saw felicitous perseverance as a moral obligation. “Since Mrs. Browning has died, no sweeter spirit has breathed its life into verse than that of Anne Reeve Aldrich,” declared The Atlanta Constitution, noting how difficult it must be to die at the peak of one’s powers and prophesying that her poems would go on to “have a life of their own.” In them, she exalted not suffering itself but the full surrender to suffering, which triumph over it requires:

I love to feel a bitter throe
Rise to its fullest height,
Then watch a conquering anodyne
Softly assert its might.

Complement with Simone Weil on how to make use of our suffering, Ursula K. Le Guin on getting to the other side of pain, and Sophie Scholl, who was even younger than Aldrich when she died for her values, on suffering, strength, and the deepest wellspring of courage, then revisit Dostoyevsky, just after his death sentence was repealed moments before his execution, on what makes life worth living.

BP

Psychedelic Dinosaurs, Four-Dimensional Hummingbirds, and How We Got Our Vision: Color, Consciousness, and the Dazzling Universe of Tetrachromacy

“When we pay attention to other animals, our own world expands and deepens.”

Psychedelic Dinosaurs, Four-Dimensional Hummingbirds, and How We Got Our Vision: Color, Consciousness, and the Dazzling Universe of Tetrachromacy

Without color, life would be a mistake. I mean this both existentially and evolutionarily: Color is not only our primary sensorium of beauty — that aesthetic rapture without which life would be a desert of the soul — but color is how we came to exist in the first place. Our perception of color, like our entire perceptual experience, is part of our creaturely inheritance and bounded by it — experience that differs wildly from that of other species, and even varies vastly within our own species. In that limitation lies a glorious invitation to fathom the fundaments of our humanity and step beyond ourselves into other sensoria more dazzling than our consciousness is even equipped to imagine.

That is the invitation Ed Yong — one of the most insightful science writers of our time, and one of the most soulful — extends in An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us (public library), appropriately titled after a verse by William Blake:

How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?

A quarter millennium of science after Blake — a quarter millennium of magnifying delight through the lens of knowledge — Yong writes:

Earth teems with sights and textures, sounds and vibrations, smells and tastes, electric and magnetic fields. But every animal can only tap into a small fraction of reality’s fullness. Each is enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of an immense world.

Color wheel based on the classification system of the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul from Les phénomènes de la physique by Amédée Guillemin, 1882. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

With an eye to the Umwelt — that lovely German word for the sensory bubble each creature inhabits, both limiting and defining its perceptual reality — he adds:

Our Umwelt is still limited; it just doesn’t feel that way. To us, it feels all-encompassing. It is all that we know, and so we easily mistake it for all there is to know. This is an illusion, and one that every animal shares.

[…]

Nothing can sense everything, and nothing needs to. That is why Umwelten exist at all. It is also why the act of contemplating the Umwelt of another creature is so deeply human and so utterly profound. Our senses filter in what we need. We must choose to learn about the rest.

We are insentient to myriad realities readily available to our fellow creatures — the temperature currents by which a fly, Blake’s supreme existentialist, navigates the air; the ultrasonic calls with which hummingbirds hover between science and magic; the magnetic fields by which nightingales migrate. With the perspectival felicity that science singularly confers, Yong writes:

The Umwelt concept can feel constrictive because it implies that every creature is trapped within the house of its senses. But to me, the idea is wonderfully expansive. It tells us that all is not as it seems and that everything we experience is but a filtered version of everything that we could experience. It reminds us that there is light in darkness, noise in silence, richness in nothingness. It hints at flickers of the unfamiliar in the familiar, of the extraordinary in the everyday, of magnificence in mundanity… When we pay attention to other animals, our own world expands and deepens.

No corner of the house of the senses is more fascinating — for its aesthetic gifts, its evolutionary convolutions, and its almost spiritual effects — than color.

One of Goethe’s geometric studies of color perception

“Color itself is a degree of darkness,” Goethe wrote in his poetic theory of color and emotion. Although the theory was falsified by science and revised by the very scientists whom it inspired, this particular statement from it stands as an apt description of the evolutionary history of color vision.

To see at all, ancient animals developed a type of protein receptor called opsin, which patrols the surface of the cell that contains it — a type of cell called a cone — and grabs at light-absorbing molecules, forming a partnership that sparks the chemical reaction of electrical signals that carry vital information to neurons — information which resolves in what we call vision. Some 500 million years ago, once our primordial ancestors moved from the depths to the shallows of the sea, they confronted something profound confusing from the vantage point of a creature with primitive monochromatic eyes only capable of distinguishing degrees of darkness: sunlight dancing on the surface of the rippling waves, rapidly refracting into the water. Suddenly, a single patch of visible space could vary in brightness a hundredfold from moment to moment under the flickering rays. Against this strobe assault, it became impossible to detect predator or prey.

To cope with the dangerous disorientation, our monochromat ancestors needed a way to not only detect binary variations of brightness and darkness, but to compare them. Cones and their opsins grew more and more specialized, with different types emerging to absorb different wavelengths of light — long, which we perceive as red, medium for green, and short for blue. A complex neural network emerged to compute these comparisons — neurons excited by some cones but inhibited by others, allowing creatures to detect particular colors, indistinguishable by degrees of darkness in monochromatic vision — certain shades of red and green can (and do, to the red-green colorblind) look identical in grayscale.

This process, known as opponency, is the basis of all color vision. Different animals have different types and numbers of opsins, unmooring the perception of color from its physics and making it an inherently subjective experience.

“Spectra of various light sources, solar, stellar, metallic, gaseous, electric” from Les phénomènes de la physique by Amédée Guillemin, 1882. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Our own animal experience of color, as fundamental to our consciousness as it may be, came by rather haphazardly, by a glorious accident of evolution. (Then again, we could say the same of consciousness itself, and perhaps of all of life — none of it was inevitable, none part of some grand score for the symphony of chance.) Yong writes:

The first primates were almost certainly dichromats. They had two cones, short and long. They saw in blues and yellows, like dogs. But sometime between 29 and 43 million years ago, an accident occurred that permanently changed the Umwelt of one specific lineage of primates: They gained an extra copy of the gene that builds their long opsin. Such duplications often happen when cells divide and DNA is copied. They’re mistakes, but fortuitous ones, for they provide a redundant copy of a gene that evolution can tinker with without disrupting the work of the original. That’s exactly what happened with the long-opsin gene. One of the two copies stayed roughly the same, absorbing light at 560 nanometers. The other gradually shifted to a shorter wavelength of 530 nanometers, becoming what we now call the medium (green) opsin. These two genes are 98 percent identical, but the 2 percent gulf between them is also the difference between seeing only in blues and yellows and adding reds and greens to the mix. With the new medium opsins joining the earlier long and short ones, these primates had evolved trichromacy. And they passed their expanded vision to their descendants — the monkeys and apes of Africa, Asia, and Europe, a group that includes us.

This accidentally duplicated long-opsin gene suddenly expanded our rainbow by an order of magnitude:

A monochromat can make out roughly a hundred grades of gray between black and white. A dichromat adds around a hundred steps from yellow to blue, which multiplies with the grays to create tens of thousands of perceivable colors. A trichromat adds another hundred or so steps from red to green, which multiplies again with a dichromat’s set to boost the color count into the millions. Each extra opsin increases the visual palette exponentially.

It is easy, then, to imagine that if someone were to wave a magic wand over a dichromat, who sees only 1% of the colors a tetrachromat sees, and add an extra cone, the transformation would be nothing less than a revolution of reality. It would be, were our frames of reference not a stronger determinant of reality than our perceptions. (Thoreau captured this haunting aspect of the animal soul when he observed that “we hear and apprehend only what we already half know.”) When researchers took this fortuitous long-opsin gene that chance handed humans and gave it to a pair of squirrel monkeys, dichromatic by nature, the monkeys gained instant access to a world a hundred times more colorful. But instead of moving wonder-stricken through this new wonderland, gasping at every suddenly green leaf and every suddenly red berry, they went about their ordinary lives in the ordinary way, illustrating the relativity of wonder. Yong reflects:

Seeing more colors isn’t advantageous in and of itself. Colors are not inherently magical. They become magical when and if animals derive meaning from them. Some are special to us because, having inherited the ability to see them from our trichromatic ancestors, we imbued them with social significance. Conversely, there are colors that don’t matter to us at all. There are colors we cannot even see.

Art by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Nobel laureate Roald Hoffmann.

One hallmark of our species may be that, unlike our squirrel monkey cousins, we are animated by a restless wonderment about what lies beyond the horizon of the known and the visible. Whether we call it curiosity or imagination, it is the longing that fuels all creativity, in science or in art. And this blind spot of our vision is where the chromatic equation grows infinitely interesting.

It all began in the 1880s, when the polymathic banker turned scientist and philanthropist John Lubbock shone a beam of light through a prism, splitting it into its constituent colors and letting the rainbow fall onto some ants. Predictably, they fled from the light; unexpectedly, they ran not only for the colors he could see but from a patch just past the violet end that appeared completely dark to him. This was the discovery of the ultraviolet range of the electromagnetic spectrum — light with wavelengths between 10 to 400 nanometers, too short for the human eye to detect.

Blues from the Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours: Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Anatomy, and the Arts, which inspired Darwin. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

This was an era when science still clung to the dangerous Cartesian binary of human exceptionalism, under which other animals experienced the world either exactly as we do or in greatly diminished ways — non-human animals were thought to either see the same rainbow we do or to be entirely colorblind. The notion that they could see color, and see it differently than we do, and see what we cannot see, was a radical demolition of dogma — too radical to fully accept. For a long while, ants were thought to be exceptional in the animal kingdom — fortunate flukes unrepresentative of the sub-human whole. Eventually, bees joined them.

But then, in a mere century of science — a blink of evolutionary time — numerous birds, fish, reptiles, and insects were reluctantly admitted into the UV-sighted ranks. Still, we excluded mammals from the realm of possibility — this is the history of our species — until, in a humbling testament to Richard Feynman’s insistence that the imagination of nature will always exceed that of the human animal, a team of scientists discovered a short cone tuned to UV light in three species of rodents. Within half a human generation, many mammals — including dogs, cats, reindeer, cows, and ferrets — were discovered to detect UV light with their short blue cones.

Now we know that most animals can perceive ultraviolet, and we are the unfortunate flukes.

Even some human animals — those who have had their lenses damaged in some way — can perceive the UV end of the spectrum as a pale blue, none more famous than Claude Monet and his water lilies, the dazzling product of his refusal to have his cataracts — a progressive clouding of the lens that filters color — surgically removed; instead, he went on painting the world as he saw it, increasingly warping the electromagnetic spectrum into otherworldly colors.

Claude Monet: The Water Lilies – Setting Sun, 1915-1926. (Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris.)

With an eye to bees — tetrachromats with opsins most tuned to blue, green, and ultraviolet — Yong winks at our human tendency toward self-reference and celebrates the supreme gift of science, that of achieving perspective:

If bees were scientists, they might marvel at the color we know as red, which they cannot see and which they might call “ultrayellow.” They might assert at first that other creatures can’t see ultrayellow, and then later wonder why so many do. They might ask if it is special. They might photograph roses through ultrayellow cameras and rhapsodize about how different they look. They might wonder whether the large bipedal animals that see this color exchange secret messages through their flushed cheeks. They might eventually realize that it is just another color, special mainly in its absence from their vision. And they might wonder what it would be like to add it to their Umwelt, bolstering their three dimensions of color with a fourth.

But bees are still trichromats, like us, just shifted along the electromagnetic spectrum. The truly mind-bending part — quite literally, for it flexes our cognitive capacity for imagination beyond the hard-wired perceptual limits of our consciousness — is when we raise color vision by another order of magnitude, to tetrachromacy: the addition of a whole other cone with a whole other opsin. Just as in the leap from dichromacy to trichromacy, a trichromat sees only 1% of the colors available to a tetrachromat. Dinosaurs were almost certainly tetrachromats, walking a psychedelic primordial world. Hummingbirds — those feathered miniature heirs of the bygone giant reptiles — are tetrachromats. They see hundreds of millions of colors and can readily distinguish between flowers that appear to us identical in hue.

One of artist Rosalind Hobley’s stunning cyanotype portraits of flowers, which rely on a chemical process sensitive to light on the edge of blue and ultraviolet

But for a trichromat to imagine tetrachromacy is as challenging as for a two-dimensional creature to imagine a three-dimensional world — we inhabit a chromatic Flatland, in which the vision of a hummingbird remains to us as enticing and elusive an abstraction as a Klein bottle.

Yong writes:

[Hummingbirds] don’t just have human vision plus ultraviolet, or bee vision plus red. Tetrachromacy doesn’t just widen the visible spectrum at its margins. It unlocks an entirely new dimension of colors.

[…]

Picture trichromatic human vision as a triangle, with the three corners representing our red, green, and blue cones. Every color we can see is a mix of those three, and can be plotted as a point within that triangular space. By comparison, a bird’s color vision is a pyramid, with four corners representing each of its four cones. Our entire color space is just one face of that pyramid, whose spacious interior represents colors inaccessible to most of us.

Rucker’s Hermit Hummingbird by John Gould, 1861. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

In a wonderfully Dr. Seussian passage, Yong sums up the revolutionary discoveries of violinist turned sensory ecologist and evolutionary biologist Mary Caswell “Cassie” Stoddard, who spearheaded the hummingbird research:

If our red and blue cones are stimulated together, we see purple — a color that doesn’t exist in the rainbow and that can’t be represented by a single wavelength of light. These kinds of cocktail colors are called non-spectral. Hummingbirds, with their four cones, can see a lot more of them, including UV-red, UV-green, UV-yellow (which is red + green + UV), and probably UV-purple (which is red + blue + UV). At my wife’s suggestion, and to Stoddard’s delight, I’m going to call these rurple, grurple, yurple, and ultrapurple. Stoddard found that these non-spectral colors and their various shades account for roughly a third of those found on plants and feathers. To a bird, meadows and forests pulse with grurples and yurples. To a broad-tailed hummingbird, the bright magenta feathers of the male’s bib are actually ultrapurple.

[…]

As a violinist, [Stoddard] knows that two simultaneously played notes can either sound separate or merge into completely new tones. By analogy, do hummingbirds perceive rurple as a blend of red and UV, or as a sublime new color in its own right? When they make choices about which flowers to visit, “do they group rurple with reds, or do they see it as an entirely different hue?” she asks. They can tell that it’s different from pure red, “but I can’t articulate what it looks like to them.”

Goethe’s color wheel, 1809. (Available as a print.)

Many more ineffable wonders of perception come abloom on the pages of Yong’s An Immense World. Complement this fragment of it with the great nature writer Ellen Meloy on the conscience of color from chemistry to culture and physicist Arthur Zajonc on the entwined history of vision and consciousness, then revisit cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on how to see reality beyond the habitual limits of our perception.

BP

The Milky Way, the Pond, and the Meaning of Life: Thoreau on Solitude, Sympathy, and the Salve for Melancholy

“There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still.”

“These are the times in life — when nothing happens — but in quietness the soul expands,” the artist Rockwell Kent wrote as he was finding himself on the solitary shores of Alaska, contemplating the relationship between wilderness, solitude, and creativity while immersed in the writings of the Transcendentalist philosopher and poet Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862).

Since its publication on August 9, 1854, Thoreau’s Walden (public library | public domain) has gone on to inspire generations with its purehearted ethos, its prayerful passion for the living world, and its singular lens on how human nature is annealed by communion with the rest of nature.

Henry David Thoreau (Daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham, 1856)

In one of the boldest and most shimmering passages in all of literature, Thoreau writes:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Solitary by nature, Thoreau let solitude nurture him in the cabin he built for a total of $28.12½ on the shore of a small lake in New England, where his nearest neighbor was a mile away and all about he could see only hilltops. He writes:

It is as solitary where I live as on the prairies. It is as much Asia or Africa as New England. I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself.

[…]

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go [out among others] than when we stay in our chambers.

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach, 1931 — one of Hasui Kawase’s stunning vintage Japanese woodblocks. (Available as a print.)

Nearly a century later, Rilke channeled the underlying elemental truth in his observing that “there is only one solitude, and it is large and not easy to bear” as he reckoned with the relationship between solitude, intimacy, and creativity, concluding: “People are drawn to the easy and to the easiest side of the easy. But it is clear that we must hold ourselves to the difficult.”

And yet on the other side of the difficult, once we cease trying to control life out of loneliness and instead surrender to the elemental solitude — there lies an ease with an edge of ecstasy. That is what Thoreau discovered at Walden. In one of the most transcendent passages from the book — an exquisite specimen of the unphotographable — he writes under the heading “Solitude”:

This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself. As I walk along the stony shore of the pond in my shirt sleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, and I see nothing special to attract me, all the elements are unusually congenial to me. The bullfrogs trump to usher in the night, and the note of the whippoorwill is borne on the rippling wind from over the water. Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath; yet, like the lake, my serenity is rippled but not ruffled.

[…]

There is commonly sufficient space about us. Our horizon is never quite at our elbows. The thick wood is not just at our door, nor the pond, but somewhat is always clearing, familiar and worn by us, appropriated and fenced in some way, and reclaimed from Nature. For what reason have I this vast range and circuit, some square miles of unfrequented forest, for my privacy, abandoned to me by men?

Solitude by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Two generations later, Hermann Hesse would arrive at his own answer, which might be the universal answer: “Solitude is not chosen, any more than destiny is chosen,” Hesse wrote as he contemplated solitude, the courage to be yourself, and how to find your destiny. “Solitude comes to us if we have within us the magic stone that attracts destiny.”

Solitude chose Thoreau as much as he chose it, for in it he found a remedy for the most somber recesses of his destiny: his frequent spells of depression, for which, in the epochs before medication, he knew no better medicine than unpeopled time in nature:

The most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man. There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still.

Part of the Milky Way, from a study made between 1874 and 1876
One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s nineteenth-century astronomical drawings, observed through the era’s most powerful telescope. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

From the the personal he pivots to the universal, from the creaturely to the cosmic:

This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way? This… to me not to be the most important question. What sort of space is that which separates a man* from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another.

This may be the most haunting and most transcendent discovery for any of us who seek and savor those long salutary solitudes under branch and cloud: the realization that the price of consciousness is loneliness, for infinite space and infinite incomprehension exists between any two minds and their singular umwelts. Life may be the art of bridging lonelinesses, but we are born into the one great solitude and die into it. The value of the space between the bookends is what we might call love. Or art.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss.

Complement these fragments of the altogether soul-slaking Walden — which includes Thoreau’s abiding wisdom on the courage to define your own success, even against the tide of convention — with May Sarton on solitude as the seedbed of self-discovery and the cure for despair, Kahlil Gibran on silence, solitude, and the courage to know yourself, and Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor on the art of solitude as contemplative and creative practice, then revisit Thoreau on nature as prayer, knowing vs. seeing, and what it means to be awake.

BP

The Soul, the Universe, and the Vastness of Music: Composer Caroline Shaw Brings Whitman and Tennyson to Life in the Spirit of the Golden Record

“Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”

“After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Aldous Huxley wrote as he contemplated the transcendent power of music half a century before this supreme hallmark of our species sailed into the eternal silence of spacetime aboard the Voyager, encoded on the Golden Record as the sonic fingerprint of what we yearn for and what we are — “atoms with consciousness.”

The rings of Saturn, captured by the Voyager in 1981.

All of our most inexpressible feelings — our loneliness and our longing, our grief and our famishing hunger for meaning — are scale models of our great cosmic loneliness, microcosms of the immense silence of spacetime itself. And so, to bear it all, we sing — singing as sensemaking, singing as the supreme gesture that bridges lonelinesses, singing as the tonic gasp at the wonder of existence and the ravishing improbability of it all.

And yet music was not inevitable — nothing in our animal architecture calls for this extravagance of expression, nothing in the laws of probability inclines toward it. But once there was consciousness — which is also, arguably, not inevitable: look at every other planet we have studied — music arose from our complex consciousness, from this cathedral of thought and feeling: a byproduct as inevitable as god.

Uranus, Voyager, 1986.

This glorious inevitability comes alive with uncommon splendor in The Listeners — the staggering oratorio composer, violinist, vocalist, and polymathic music-sibyl Caroline Shaw made for and recorded with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, inspired by the Golden Record dreamt up a generation ago by the poetic, prophetic Carl Sagan, who saw us as “a species endowed with hope and perseverance, at least a little intelligence, substantial generosity and a palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos.”

Five centuries of celebrated poetry take on a new radiance in the light of Shaw’s music, recorded live at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, California, in the spring and autumn of 2019. Among the spoken-word recordings that punctuate the sung poems, their soulful prose-poetry magnified by the orchestral magic, are Sagan’s own words from his iconic Pale Blue Dot speech and a recording the Secretary General of the United Nations made that NASA never asked for, but which Sagan found “so sensitively and gracefully composed, and so appropriate,” that they included it on the Golden Record:

We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we are called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate. We know full well that our planet and all its inhabitants are but a small part of the immense universes that surrounds us and it is with humility and hope that we take this step.

The fifth piece on the record, titled “Of a Million Million,” inspirits Tennyson’s 1885 poem “Vastness” — a masterwork of moral clarity and scientific foresight that envisioned, epochs before the Kepler mission discovered the first exoplanet, a universe of innumerable possible worlds and held up, a century before Maya Angelou did, a mirror to humanity with lines of searing resonance today:

Many a hearth upon our dark globe sighs after many a vanish’d face,
Many a planet by many a sun may roll with a 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?

Lies upon this side, lies upon that side, truthless violence mourn’d by the Wise,
Thousands of voices drowning his own in a popular torrent of lies upon lies;

[…]

National hatreds of whole generations, and pigmy spites of the village spire;
Vows that will last to the last death-ruckle, and vows that are snapp’d in a moment of fire;

[…]

Spring and Summer and Autumn and Winter, and all these old revolutions of earth;
All new-old revolutions of Empire — change of the tide — what is all of it worth?

[…]

What is it all, if we all of us end but in being our own corpse-coffins at last,
Swallow’d in Vastness, lost in Silence, drown’d in the deeps of a meaningless Past?

What but a murmur of gnats in the gloom, or a moment’s anger of bees in their hive? —

Peace, let it be! for I loved him, and love him for ever: the dead are not dead but alive.

But, to me, the crowning glory of the record is the second piece, drawn from Whitman — the poet laureate of astronomy, who called himself a “kosmos” and uniquely understood music as the profoundest expression of nature.

Caroline Shaw recomposes Leaves of Grass in such a way that the singer — bass-baritone Dashon Burton — enters Whitman’s river of language mid-stream, partway through the forty-sixth section of “Song of Myself,” culminating in that one exquisite line that titles the song:

Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.

Inexpressible feeling riding on a pillar of breath — the true Pillars of Creation, both steadying the soul and setting it free.

The Listeners, also savorable on Spotify, is an enchantment in its entirety. Complement it with one of Emily Dickinson’s deepest-feeling and farthest-seeing poems, brought to life in an animated song.

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