Twenty-five years ago, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope began to lay bare the depths of space — from the evolution of galaxies to the age of the Universe. Beyond its contribution to science, Hubble’s dazzling images of galaxies, stellar nurseries and planetary moons have mesmerised a generation.
The orbiting scope has inspired in other ways. Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Tracy K. Smith wrote her collection Life on Mars (2011) partly in homage to a Hubble engineer — her father. (See our profile here.)
I asked Smith for her thoughts about Hubble now, and she noted that they centre on
how radically our sense of where we are and what we belong to has changed as a result of those marvellous images. They seem to straddle the real and the impossible so perfectly, hinting as they do at an order that is almost decipherable — almost visible — but that must, after a certain point, be taken for what it is: vast, mysterious, so large and ongoing as to be eternally beyond us. Perhaps that is why, at least for a writer like myself, they activate such powerful regions of the imagination.
Observational leaps have fired up poets for centuries. As scientists from the seventeenth century on harnessed ever more sophisticated optics to probe the heavens (see Philip Ball’s review of Galileo’s Telescope; 2015), transformative insights from their findings began to seep into culture, bolstered by populist works. Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle’s 1686 Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, for instance, championed the Copernican system, framing Earth as just one world in a crowded Universe and even playing with the idea of extraterrestrial life. By the eighteenth century, Newton’s revelation of a dynamic Universe had spurred poets such as Alexander Pope, Edward Young and James Thomson to play with the idea of the ‘cosmic sublime’.
Anna Barbauld’s 1772 nocturne A Summer Evening’s Meditation is a tour de force. Barbauld, assistant to the chemist Joseph Priestley and a champion of Enlightenment values, used science as a poetic springboard into speculation about the great beyond. “This dead of midnight is the noon of thought,/And wisdom mounts her zenith with the stars”, she writes, and imagines seeing
…solitary Mars; from the vast orb
Of Jupiter, whose huge gigantic bulk
Dances in ether like the lightest leaf;
To the dim verge, the suburbs of the system,
Where chearless Saturn ‘midst her watry moons
Girt with a lucid zone, majestic sits….
She ventures even into the interstellar, “the trackless deeps of space,/Where, burning round, ten thousand suns appear” — and on to regions “Where embryo systems and unkindled suns/Sleep in the womb of chaos”.
Almost a decade later, William Herschel spotted Uranus in the “suburbs”, a discovery celebrated by poet and inventor Erasmus Darwin and used by the young John Keats as a symbol of Romantic wonder itself, in his 1816 sonnet On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/When a new planet swims into his ken”.
Trawling the skies 200 years on, the atmospheres of exoplanets are just one of the phenomena probed by Hubble among the million images gleaned on its 4.8-billion-kilometre journey. A latterday starry messenger, it is still offering up visions that seem to “straddle the real and the impossible”. As Smith recalls in “My God, It’s Full of Stars” from Life on Mars, her father “spent whole seasons/Bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find”:
The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is —
So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.