Thursday, August 12, 2010

Riddled with light

Robert Burnham Jr., the author of Burnham's Celestial Handbook, was mentioned here in Comments some weeks ago. There is no need to retell his strange, sad story; you can read it on Wikipedia and elsewhere. I do want to say a few words about the Handbook. You might want to glance at the Wikipedia entry first.

My own copy, purchased not long after it was published by Dover in 1978, sits on the shelf here above my laptop, within easy reach, all three volumes, 2,138 pages, the most voluminous and useful compendium of star lore available to anyone who minds the universe. It is, like Burnham himself, an eccentric collection, organized by constellations, a mix of obtuse technical information, photographs and diagrams, and generous dollops of poetic lore from cultures around the world. This is not a book you sit down with and read. It is more an encyclopedia, and in the days before the internet it was an invaluable resource. (The book is now available on the net.) I referred to it often when writing 365 Starry Nights and Soul of the Night. At the time, like most people, I knew nothing of Burnham's straitened personal circumstances. Had I known, I would surely have been more generous in my acknowledgements.

A man of crippling shyness, apparently without loves and few friends, he found his only refuge in the night sky. He wanted to know and to gather into one place everything that was known about the stars he loved. It is clear from the Handbook that he combined in his tortured soul qualities of both scientist and poet.

The night sky can indeed be a source of grand intellectual adventure, and even a kind of intimacy, but for creatures of flesh and blood it is a joyless bed. When I think of Robert Burnham, I think of W. B. Yeats' poem The Cold Heaven:
Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. Ah! When the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?