Poetry & First Light

On November 1, 1917, a small crowd gathered in the new dome at sunset as the 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory was readied for its first look at the sky. George Ellery Hale invited renowned English poet Alfred Noyes (1880 – 1958) as the event’s special guest. Inspired by the evening, Noyes’ later published his ‘Watchers of the Sky”, the first volume of his “The Torch Bearers” trilogy, recalling the event in the book’s prologue. Regarding the book, Noyes wrote:

“This volume, while it is complete in itself, is also the first of a trilogy, the scope of which is suggested in the prologue. The story of scientific discovery has its own epic unity—a unity of purpose and endeavour—the single torch passing from hand to hand through the centuries; and the great moments of science when, after long labour, the pioneers saw their accumulated facts falling into a significant order—sometimes in the form of a law that revolutionised the whole world of thought—have an intense human interest, and belong essentially to the creative imagination of poetry. It is with these moments that my poem is chiefly concerned, not with any impossible attempt to cover the whole field or to make a new poetic system, after the Lucretian model, out of modern science.

The theme has been in my mind for a good many years; and the first volume, dealing with the “Watchers of the Sky,” began to take definite shape during what was to me an unforgettable experience—the night I was privileged to spend on a summit of the Sierra Madre Mountains, when the first trial was made of the new 100-inch telescope. The prologue to this volume attempts to give a picture of that night, and to elucidate my own purpose.”

The full volume is available to read for free here, but please enjoy this beautiful prologue, “The Observatory”.


by Alfred Noyes

At noon, upon the mountain’s purple height,
Above the pine-woods and the clouds it shone
No larger than the small white dome of shell
Left by the fledgling wren when wings are born.
By night it joined the company of heaven,
And, with its constant light, became a star.
A needle-point of light, minute, remote,
It sent a subtler message through the abyss,
Held more significance for the seeing eye
Than all the darkness that would blot it out,
Yet could not dwarf it.
High in heaven it shone,
Alive with all the thoughts, and hopes, and dreams
Of man’s adventurous mind.
Up there, I knew
The explorers of the sky, the pioneers
Of science, now made ready to attack
That darkness once again, and win new worlds.
To-morrow night they hoped to crown the toil
Of twenty years, and turn upon the sky
The noblest weapon ever made by man.
War had delayed them. They had been drawn away
Designing darker weapons. But no gun
Could outrange this.
“To-morrow night”—so wrote their chief—”we try
Our great new telescope, the hundred-inch.
Your Milton’s ‘optic tube’ has grown in power
Since Galileo, famous, blind, and old,
Talked with him, in that prison, of the sky.
We creep to power by inches. Europe trusts
Her ‘giant forty’ still. Even to-night
Our own old sixty has its work to do;
And now our hundred-inch . . . I hardly dare
To think what this new muzzle of ours may find.
Come up, and spend that night among the stars
Here, on our mountain-top. If all goes well,
Then, at the least, my friend, you’ll see a moon
Stranger, but nearer, many a thousand mile
Than earth has ever seen her, even in dreams.
As for the stars, if seeing them were all,
Three thousand million new-found points of light
Is our rough guess. But never speak of this.
You know our press. They’d miss the one result
To flash ‘three thousand millions’ round the world.”
To-morrow night! For more than twenty years,
They had thought and planned and worked. Ten years had gone,
One-fourth, or more, of man’s brief working life,
Before they made those solid tons of glass,
Their hundred-inch reflector, the clear pool,
The polished flawless pool that it must be
To hold the perfect image of a star.
And, even now, some secret flaw—none knew
Until to-morrow’s test—might waste it all.
Where was the gambler that would stake so much,—
Time, patience, treasure, on a single throw?
The cost of it,—they’d not find that again,
Either in gold or life-stuff! All their youth
Was fuel to the flame of this one work.
Once in a lifetime to the man of science,
Despite what fools believe his ice-cooled blood,
There comes this drama.
If he fails, he fails
Utterly. He at least will have no time
For fresh beginnings. Other men, no doubt,
Years hence, will use the footholes that he cut
In those precipitous cliffs, and reach the height,
But he will never see it.”
So for me,
The light words of that letter seemed to hide
The passion of a lifetime, and I shared
The crowning moment of its hope and fear.
Next day, through whispering aisles of palm we rode
Up to the foot-hills, dreaming desert-hills
That to assuage their own delicious drought
Had set each tawny sun-kissed slope ablaze
With peach and orange orchards.
Up and up,
Along the thin white trail that wound and climbed
And zig-zagged through the grey-green mountain sage,
The car went crawling, till the shining plain
Below it, like an airman’s map, unrolled.
Houses and orchards dwindled to white specks
In midget cubes and squares of tufted green.
Once, as we rounded one steep curve, that made
The head swim at the canyoned gulf below,
We saw through thirty miles of lucid air
Elvishly small, sharp as a crumpled petal
Blown from the stem, a yard away, a sail
Lazily drifting on the warm blue sea.
Up for nine miles along that spiral trail
Slowly we wound to reach the lucid height
Above the clouds, where that white dome of shell,
No wren’s now, but an eagle’s, took the flush
Of dying day. The sage-brush all died out,
And all the southern growths, and round us now,
Firs of the north, and strong, storm-rooted pines
Exhaled a keener fragrance; till, at last,
Reversing all the laws of lesser hills,
They towered like giants round us. Darkness fell
Before we reached the mountain’s naked height.
Over us, like some great cathedral dome,
The observatory loomed against the sky;
And the dark mountain with its headlong gulfs
Had lost all memory of the world below;
For all those cloudless throngs of glittering stars
And all those glimmerings where the abyss of space
Is powdered with a milky dust, each grain
A burning sun, and every sun the lord
Of its own darkling planets,—all those lights
Met, in a darker deep, the lights of earth,
Lights on the sea, lights of invisible towns,
Trembling and indistinguishable from stars,
In those black gulfs around the mountain’s feet.
Then, into the glimmering dome, with bated breath,
We entered, and, above us, in the gloom
Saw that majestic weapon of the light
Uptowering like the shaft of some huge gun
Through one arched rift of sky.
Dark at its base
With naked arms, the crew that all day long
Had sweated to make ready for this night
Waited their captain’s word.
The switchboard shone
With elfin lamps of white and red, and keys
Whence, at a finger’s touch, that monstrous tube
Moved like a creature dowered with life and will,
To peer from deep to deep.
Below it pulsed
The clock-machine that slowly, throb by throb,
Timed to the pace of the revolving earth,
Drove the titanic muzzle on and on,
Fixed to the chosen star that else would glide
Out of its field of vision.
So, set free
Balanced against the wheel of time, it swung,
Or rested, while, to find new realms of sky
The dome that housed it, like a moon revolved,
So smoothly that the watchers hardly knew
They moved within; till, through the glimmering doors,
They saw the dark procession of the pines
Like Indian warriors, quietly stealing by.
Then, at a word, the mighty weapon dipped
Its muzzle and aimed at one small point of light
One seeming insignificant star.
The chief,
Mounting the ladder, while we held our breath,
Looked through the eye-piece.
Then we heard him laugh
His thanks to God, and hide it in a jest.
“A prominence on Jupiter!”—
They laughed,
“What do you mean?”—”It’s moving,” cried the chief,
They laughed again, and watched his glimmering face
High overhead against that moving tower.
“Come up and see, then!”
One by one they went,
And, though each laughed as he returned to earth,
Their souls were in their eyes.
Then I, too, looked,
And saw that insignificant spark of light
Touched with new meaning, beautifully reborn,
A swimming world, a perfect rounded pearl,
Poised in the violet sky; and, as I gazed,
I saw a miracle,—right on its upmost edge
A tiny mound of white that slowly rose,
Then, like an exquisite seed-pearl, swung quite clear
And swam in heaven above its parent world
To greet its three bright sister-moons.
A moon,
Of Jupiter, no more, but clearer far
Than mortal eyes had seen before from earth,
O, beautiful and clear beyond all dreams
Was that one silver phrase of the starry tune
Which Galileo’s “old discoverer” first
Dimly revealed, dissolving into clouds
The imagined fabric of our universe.
“Jupiter stands in heaven and will stand
Though all the sycophants bark at him,” he cried,
Hailing the truth before he, too, went down,
Whelmed in the cloudy wreckage of that dream.
So one by one we looked, the men who served
Urania, and the men from Vulcan’s forge.
A beautiful eagerness in the darkness lit
The swarthy faces that too long had missed
A meaning in the dull mechanic maze
Of labour on this blind earth, but found it now.
Though only a moment’s wandering melody
Hopelessly far above, it gave their toil
Its only consecration and its joy.
There, with dark-smouldering eyes and naked throats,
Blue-dungareed, red-shirted, grimed and smeared
With engine-grease and sweat, they gathered round
The foot of that dim ladder; each muttering low
As he came down, his wonder at what he saw
To those who waited,—a picture for the brush
Of Rembrandt, lighted only by the rift
Above them, where the giant muzzle thrust
Out through the dim arched roof, and slowly throbbed,
Against the slowly moving wheel of the earth,
Holding their chosen star.
There, like an elf,
Perched on the side of that dark slanting tower
The Italian mechanician watched the moons,
That Italy discovered.
One by one,
American, English, French, and Dutch, they climbed
To see the wonder that their own blind hands
Had helped to achieve.
At midnight while they paused
To adjust the clock-machine, I wandered out
Alone, into the silence of the night.
The silence? On that lonely height I heard
Eternal voices;
For, as I looked into the gulf beneath,
Whence almost all the lights had vanished now,
The whole dark mountain seemed to have lost its earth
And to be sailing like a ship through heaven.
All round it surged the mighty sea-like sound
Of soughing pine-woods, one vast ebb and flow
Of absolute peace, aloof from all earth’s pain,
So calm, so quiet, it seemed the cradle-song,
The deep soft breathing of the universe
Over its youngest child, the soul of man.
And, as I listened, that Aeolian voice
Became an invocation and a prayer:
O you, that on your loftier mountain dwell
And move like light in light among the thoughts
Of heaven, translating our mortality
Into immortal song, is there not one
Among you that can turn to music now
This long dark fight for truth? Not one to touch
With beauty this long battle for the light,
This little victory of the spirit of man
Doomed to defeat—for what was all we saw
To that which neither eyes nor soul could see?—
Doomed to defeat and yet unconquerable,
Climbing its nine miles nearer to the stars.
Wars we have sung. The blind, blood-boltered kings
Move with an epic music to their thrones.
Have you no song, then, of that nobler war?
Of those who strove for light, but could not dream
Even of this victory that they helped to win,
Silent discoverers, lonely pioneers,
Prisoners and exiles, martyrs of the truth
Who handed on the fire, from age to age;
Of those who, step by step, drove back the night
And struggled, year on year, for one more glimpse
Among the stars, of sovran law, their guide;
Of those who searching inward, saw the rocks
Dissolving into a new abyss, and saw
Those planetary systems far within,
Atoms, electrons, whirling on their way
To build and to unbuild our solid world;
Of those who conquered, inch by difficult inch,
The freedom of this realm of law for man;
Dreamers of dreams, the builders of our hope,
The healers and the binders up of wounds,
Who, while the dynasts drenched the world with blood,
Would in the still small circle of a lamp
Wrestle with death like Heracles of old
To save one stricken child.
Is there no song
To touch this moving universe of law
With ultimate light, the glimmer of that great dawn
Which over our ruined altars yet shall break
In purer splendour, and restore mankind
From darker dreams than even Lucretius knew
To vision of that one Power which guides the world.
How should men find it? Only through those doors
Which, opening inward, in each separate soul
Give each man access to that Soul of all
Living within each life, not to be found
Or known, till, looking inward, each alone
Meets the unknowable and eternal God.
And there was one that moved like light in light
Before me there,—Love, human and divine,
That can exalt all weakness into power,—
Whispering, Take this deathless torch of song…
Whispering, but with such faith, that even I
Was humbled into thinking this might be
Through love, though all the wisdom of the world
Account it folly.
Let my breast be bared
To every shaft, then, so that Love be still
My one celestial guide the while I sing
Of those who caught the pure Promethean fire
One from another, each crying as he went down
To one that waited, crowned with youth and joy,—
Take thou the splendour, carry it out of sight
Into the great new age I must not know,
Into the great new realm I must not tread.