Gospel & Universe
If Only 1: Bruno & Yeats
This page focuses on shifting beliefs following Hubble's discovery of other galaxies in the 1920s. It also touches on the high price Giordano Bruno paid in 1600 for challenging the Church's views on astronomy.
Hubble & Yeats - Giordano Bruno
Hubble & Yeats
The moon was once a friendly thing, full of mystery and seduction. The Chinese poet Li Bai hoped that one day he would meet it, deep in the Milky Way.
And the sun was once a god.
Then the fine glass of Venice made its way into the telescope of Galileo. While some ignored it back then, today we still feel it: the ground moved. The sun god became a statue. Andromeda became NGC 224.
The Son of God became a tale. Or did he?
The official story was that sometime around the turn of the Century, the widening gyre of our knowledge got dangerously wide, and the blood-dimmed tide was loosed upon the world:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
(W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming,” 1919)
The crazy countryside up near Yeats’ Sligo sprouted leprechauns the size of planets, and in the giant whirling of this startling après-guerre — the crazy 1920s, when so many new horizons swam into our ken — unexpectedly, the old Infinity reappeared. Or did it?
The far-off circling worlds were lost at the end of Galileo’s telescope, when Hubble looked upward in 1922 to the uncharted skies. The scientist lost his grip just when he was sure about Darwin and Modernism. Spinning, the dervish saw the atoms spin. The falconer couldn’t see the falcon, lost in a purple sky deep as galaxy UGC 12158
With spectrographic eyes and red-shift ears science scanned poetry, and with heels brighter than Mercury when he circles closest to the sun, poetry leapt into science.
Like Keats’ Cortes in a distant land, what we once couldn't see now swam into our ken:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortes when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific – and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
The scientist was astounded, agog to see the contours of this galaxy and the next
to see God wheeling infinity from quadrant to quadrant
The astronomer just sat there with his friend, the physicist
ready to believe now in anything
even that within the clouds of knowing were winds unknown
and that winds unknown were blown by currents unseen;
that unknown poles were turning our galaxy
and that deep within substructures of matter were spirits circling
and dancing like the atoms of Eliot and Rumi
defying astronomers like Al-Biruni
who worked so hard to separate the ancient fantasies of astrology
from the mathematics of astronomy;
all that fine distinction was now in peril
now that atoms danced an unpredictable dance
out of this world and into the next
now that God reasserted Himself in gamma rays and ways we’d never seen
and ways that physicists could see were totally unpredictable
like Heisenberg on steroids
the mystic atoms ran into the void and back again
while further afield each star was an electron unknown
each galaxy a nimble thread
in a tapestry as tall as the Empire State Building
and seventy billion times as wide
All woven by what?
What natural laws could now be passed?
What instincts obeyed
but those that made a deeper sense
beyond the logic that could no longer be followed to predictable ends
now that we could no longer call back the falcon
or call the mystic’s logic illogical
logic itself having slipped the noose like Yeats’ desert birds?
The deepest truth could now be anything
even the very thing we need
even the faintest glimmer of soul
would be better than Sartre's nothing
would be as likely as that nothing
that stumbling dance of chaos
that godless Fall
into broken dreams
and the emptiness of it all
Better spinning worlds unseen and Sufi atoms
than grounded dreams
Better light and serial questions leading only to Mystery
than this blood-dimmed tide
this grim darkness of eternal night
So, sometime in the 1920s the old dream factories opened their doors again
and the Church was quick to advertise a miraculous giravolta
reversing the damage done by condemning Copernicus and Galileo
and by disparaging the infinite worlds of Giordano Bruno
last seen in 1600 in the Field of the Flowers
hanging upside down and naked and burning at the stake
for daring to dream of worlds beyond the Vatican’s setting sun
As his flesh burnt, did Bruno see the pole star to his wandering bark?*
Was he pulled upward by some unseen structure as of yet undreamed
by mystic physicists in a bubble, beyond Hubble's bubble dream?
Was his spirit lifted upward, away from the flames that tore muscle from bone
toward some home amid the stars that shone in the night ten billion years before
someone in an old book wrote "Let there be Light"?
* wandering bark - in “Sonnet 116,” Shakespeare sees Love as a fixed star (like Polaris, the pole-star) that leads the sailor in a storm back to safety. Love is “the ever-fixéd mark / That looks on tempests and is never shaken. / It is the star to every wandering bark / Whose worth’s unknown although his [its] height be taken.”