Tuesday, 16 November 2010

With How Sad Steps, O Moon

When my son was small we were both great fans of the eccentric British astronomer Patrick Moore. We once went to see him speak at Blackpool’s Grand Theatre, we bought his Yearbook of Astronomy, and we equipped ourselves with a modest astronomical telescope which, at its best, let us see four of the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn.

However, not all the astronomical knowledge that the two of us mustered between us helps me to fully understand Morris’s biographer J.W. Mackail when he remarks, in his Studies of English Poets (1926), that ‘It is curious how constantly descriptive writers, both in prose and verse, go wrong about the moon’s movements and phases. Even Morris does so, in the lovely opening scene of “The Message of the March Wind”’ (p.100).

In that poem, you will remember, the narrator announces that ‘The moon’s rim is rising, a star glitters o’er us’, and then two stanzas later reflects that ‘When the young moon has set, if the March sky should darken,/We might see from the hill-top the great city’s glare’. So is Mackail right here? Has Morris really got his lunar observations in a twist?