Friday, November 15, 2013

L'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle

The poem I shared the other day, "First Frost," employed the rhyme scheme known as terza rima, first used by Dante in The Divine Comedy (ABA, BCB, CDC, etc.). Imagine keeping to so rigorous a design for so long a poem! Easier, I suppose, in Italian, with all those lines ending in -i or -o, than in English. The only English translation I'm familiar with that tries to conform to the original scheme is Robert Pinsky's Inferno; a stunning achievement, even through Pinksy's consonantal rhymes are not as exact as Dante's.

What brings me to Dante this morning? This photograph of a trio of galaxies in the constellation Draco (click to enlarge). It has been on my desktop for a few weeks, begging for comment.

What are we looking at? An edge-on galaxy, an elliptical galaxy, and a face-on spiral, all about 100 million light-years away. Each galaxy contains tens or hundreds of billions of stars. Nothing of what you see in the photo is visible to the naked eye. The photo covers a part of the sky that would be easily covered by the Moon. Most of the objects in the frame are stars in our own galaxy, foreground stars, hot blue stars and cooler red ones. But if you look closely, some of the dots -- the blurrier or elongated ones -- are other galaxies, far beyond the trio.

Three galaxies, three depths of field. A deep, deep pool of night that only the telescope lets us see. The telescope is our Beatrice, out guide to the celestial realms, our Paradiso. What Dante was for his 13th-century contemporaries, giant instruments on Earth and in space do for us.

But who pays attention? Who thinks deeply or long about what these celestial visions mean? Dante gave expression to a world view that encompassed heaven and hell and everything in between. Where is our Dante who will embrace the galaxies, seamlessly with the human heart? Where is the poet who will make us feel at home among the myriads of worlds?

Perhaps it's not possible. Perhaps the source of our ennui is the impossibility of feeling at home in the universe of the galaxies. I choose to think it is possible. Or at least that we have a moral obligation to try. Dante too balked at the challenge of describing what he had seen in the heavens:
O how scant is speech, too weak to frame my thoughts.
Compared to what I recall my words are faint --
to call them little is to praise them much.