System Of The Heavens As Revealed By Lord Rosse’s Telescopes by Thomas De Quincey

Story type: Essay

But the lower lip, which is drawn inwards with the curve of a conch shell,–oh what a convolute of cruelty and revenge is there! Cruelty!–to whom? Revenge!–for what? Ask not, whisper not. Look upwards to other mysteries. In the very region of his temples, driving itself downwards into his cruel brain, and breaking the continuity of his diadem, is a horrid chasm, a ravine, a shaft, that many centuries would not traverse; and it is serrated on its posterior wall with a harrow that perhaps is partly hidden. From the anterior wall of this chasm rise, in vertical directions, two processes; one perpendicular, and rigid as a horn, the other streaming forward before some portentous breath. What these could be, seemed doubtful; but now, when further examinations by Sir John Herschel, at the Cape of Good Hope, have filled up the scattered outline with a rich umbrageous growth, one is inclined to regard them as the plumes of a sultan. Dressed he is, therefore, as well as armed. And finally comes Lord Rosse, that glorifies him with the jewellery [Footnote: The jewellery of Stars. And one thing is very remarkable, viz., that not only the stars justify this name of jewellery, as usual, by the life of their splendor, but also, in this case, by their arrangement. No jeweller could have set, or disposed with more art, the magnificent quadrille of stars which is placed immediately below the upright plume. There is also another, a truncated quadrille, wanting only the left hand star (or you might call it a bisected lozenge) placed on the diadem, but obliquely placed as regards the curve of that diadem. Two or three other arrangements are striking, though not equally so, both from their regularity and from their repeating each other, as the forms in a kaleidoscope.] of stars: he is now a vision ‘to dream of, not to tell:’ he is ready for the worship of those that are tormented in sleep: and the stages of his solemn uncovering by astronomy, first by Sir W. Herschel, secondly, by his son, and finally by Lord Rosse, is like the reversing of some heavenly doom, like the raising of the seals that had been sealed by the angel, in the Revelations. But the reader naturally asks, How does all this concern Lord Rosse’s telescope on the one side, or general astronomy on the other? This nebula, he will say, seems a bad kind of fellow by your account; and of course it will not break my heart to hear, that he has had the conceit taken out of him. But in what way can that affect the pretensions of this new instrument; or, if it did, how can the character of the instrument affect the general condition of a science? Besides, is not the science a growth from very ancient times? With great respect for the Earl of Rosse, is it conceivable that he, or any man, by one hour’s working the tackle of his new instrument, can have carried any stunning revolutionary effect into the heart of a section so ancient in our mathematical physics? But the reader is to consider, that the ruins made by Lord Rosse, are in sidereal astronomy, which is almost wholly a growth of modern times; and the particular part of it demolished by the new telescope, is almost exclusively the creation of the two Herschels, father and son. Laplace, it is true, adopted their views; and he transferred them to the particular service of our own planetary system. But he gave to them no new sanction, except what arises from showing that they would account for the appearances, as they present themselves to our experience at this day. That was a negative confirmation; by which I mean, that, had their views failed in the hands of Laplace, then they were proved to be false; but, not failing, they were not therefore proved to be true. It was like proving a gun; if the charge is insufficient, or if, in trying the strength of cast iron, timber, ropes, etc., the strain is not up to the rigor of the demand, you go away with perhaps a favorable impression as to the promises of the article; it has stood a moderate trial; it has stood all the trial that offered, which is always something; but you are still obliged to feel that, when the ultimate test is applied, smash may go the whole concern. Lord Rosse applied an ultimate test; and smash went the whole concern. Really I must have laughed, though all the world had been angry, when the shrieks and yells of expiring systems began to reverberate all the way from the belt of Orion; and positively at the very first broadside delivered from this huge four- decker of a telescope.

But what was it then that went to wreck? That is a thing more easy to ask than to answer. At least, for my own part, I complain that some vagueness hangs over all the accounts of the nebular hypothesis. However, in this place a brief sketch will suffice.

Herschel the elder, having greatly improved the telescope, began to observe with special attention a class of remarkable phenomena in the starry world hitherto unstudied, viz.: milky spots in various stages of diffusion. The nature of these appearances soon cleared itself up thus far, that generally they were found to be starry worlds, separated from ours by inconceivable distances, and in that way concealing at first their real nature. The whitish gleam was the mask conferred by the enormity of their remotion. This being so, it might have been supposed that, as was the faintness of these cloudy spots or nebulae, such was the distance. But that did not follow: for in the treasury of nature it turned out that there were other resources for modifying the powers of distance, for muffling and unmuffling the voice of stars. Suppose a world at the distance x, which distance is so great as to make the manifestation of that world weak, milky, nebular. Now let the secret power that wields these awful orbs, push this world back to a double distance! that should naturally make it paler and more dilute than ever: and yet by compression, by deeper centralization, this effect shall be defeated; by forcing into far closer neighborhood the stars which compose this world, again it shall gleam out brighter when at 2x than when at x. At this point of compression, let the great moulding power a second time push it back; and a second time it will grow faint. But once more let this world be tortured into closer compression, again let the screw be put upon it, and once again it shall shake off the oppression of distance as the dew-drops are shaken from a lion’s mane. And thus in fact the mysterious architect plays at hide-and-seek with his worlds. ‘I will hide it,’ he says, ‘and it shall be found again by man; I will withdraw it into distances that shall seem fabulous, and again it shall apparel itself in glorious light; a third time I will plunge it into aboriginal darkness, and upon the vision of man a third time it shall rise with a new epiphany.’

But, says the objector, there is no such world; there is no world that has thus been driven back, and depressed from one deep to a lower deep. Granted: but the same effect, an illustration of the same law, is produced equally, whether you take four worlds, all of the same magnitude, and plunge them simultaneously into four different abysses, sinking by graduated distances one below another, or take one world and plunge it to the same distances successively. So in Geology, when men talk of substances in different stages, or of transitional states, they do not mean that they have watched the same individual stratum or phenomenon, exhibiting states removed from each other by depths of many thousand years; how could they? but they have seen one stage in the case A, another stage in the case B. They take, for instance, three objects, the same (to use the technical language of logic) generically, though numerically different, under separate circumstances, or in different stages of advance. They are one object for logic, they are three for human convenience. So again it might seem impossible to give the history of a rose tree from infancy to age: how could the same rose tree, at the same time, be young and old? Yet by taking the different developments of its flowers, even as they hang on the same tree, from the earliest bud to the full- blown rose, you may in effect pursue this vegetable growth through all its stages: you have before you the bony blushing little rose-bud, and the respectable ‘mediaeval’ full-blown rose.

This point settled, let it now be remarked, that Herschel’s resources enabled him to unmask many of these nebulae: stars they were, and stars he forced them to own themselves. Why should any decent world wear an alias? There was nothing, you know, to be ashamed of in being an honest cluster of stars. Indeed, they seemed to be sensible of this themselves, and they now yielded to the force of Herschel’s arguments so far as to show themselves in the new character of nebulae spangled with stars; these are the stellar nebulae; quite as much as you could expect in so short a time: Rome was not built in a day: and one must have some respect to stellar feelings. It was noticed, however, that where a bright haze, and not a weak milk- and-water haze, had revealed itself to the telescope, this, arising from a case of compression, (as previously explained,) required very little increase of telescopic power to force him into a fuller confession. He made a clean breast of it. But at length came a dreadful anomaly. A ‘nebula’ in the constellation Andromeda turned restive: another in Orion, I grieve to say it, still more so. I confine myself to the latter. A very low power sufficed to bring him to a slight confession, which in fact amounted to nothing; the very highest would not persuade him to show a star. ‘Just one,’ said some coaxing person; ‘we’ll be satisfied with only one.’ But no: he would not. He was hardened, ‘he wouldn’t split.’ And Herschel was thus led, after waiting as long as flesh and blood could wait, to infer two classes of nebulae; one that were stars; and another that were not stars, nor ever were meant to be stars. Yet that was premature: he found at last, that, though not raised to the peerage of stars, finally they would be so: they were the matter of stars; and by gradual condensation would become suns, whose atmosphere, by a similar process of condensing, would become planets, capable of brilliant literati and philosophers, in several volumes octavo. So stood the case for a long time; it was settled to the satisfaction of Europe that there were two classes of nebulae, one that were worlds, one that were not, but only the pabulum of future worlds. Silence arose. A voice was heard, ‘Let there be Lord Rosse!’ and immediately his telescope walked into Orion; destroyed the supposed matter of stars; but, in return, created immeasurable worlds.

As a hint for apprehending the delicacy and difficulty of the process in sidereal astronomy, let the inexperienced reader figure to himself these separate cases of perplexity: 1st, A perplexity where the dilemma arises from the collision between magnitude and distance:–is the size less, or the distance greater? 2dly, Where the dilemma arises between motions, a motion in ourselves doubtfully confounded with a motion in some external body; or, 3dly, Where it arises between possible positions of an object: is it a real proximity that we see between two stars, or simply an apparent proximity from lying in the same visual line, though in far other depths of space? As regards the first dilemma, we may suppose two laws, A and B, absolutely in contradiction, laid down at starting: A, that all fixed stars are precisely at the same distance; in this case every difference in the apparent magnitude will indicate a corresponding difference in the real magnitude, and will measure that difference. B, that all the fixed stars are precisely of the same magnitude; in which case, every variety in the size will indicate a corresponding difference in the distance, and will measure that difference. Nor could we imagine any exception to these inferences from A or from B, whichever of the two were assumed, unless through optical laws that might not equally affect objects under different circumstances; I mean, for instance, that might suffer a disturbance as applied under hypoth. B, to different depths in space, or under hypoth. A, to different arrangements of structure in the star. But thirdly, it is certain, that neither A nor B is the abiding law: and next it becomes an object by science and by instruments to distinguish more readily and more certainly between the cases where the distance has degraded the size, and the cases where the size being really less, has caused an exaggeration of the distance: or again, where the size being really less, yet co-operating with a distance really greater, may degrade the estimate, (though travelling in a right direction,) below the truth; or again where the size being really less, yet counteracted by a distance also less, may equally disturb the truth of human measurements, and so on.

A second large order of equivocating appearances will arise,–not as to magnitude, but as to motion. If it could be a safe assumption, that the system to which our planet is attached were absolutely fixed and motionless, except as regards its own internal relations of movement, then every change outside of us, every motion that the registers of astronomy had established, would be objective and not subjective. It would be safe to pronounce at once that it was a motion in the object contemplated, not in the subject contemplating. Or, reversely, if it were safe to assume as a universal law, that no motion was possible in the starry heavens, then every change of relations in space, between ourselves and them, would indicate and would measure a progress, or regress, on the part of our solar system, in certain known directions. But now, because it is not safe to rest in either assumption, the range of possibilities for which science has to provide, is enlarged; the immediate difficulties are multiplied; but with the result (as in the former case) of reversionally expanding the powers, and consequently the facilities, lodged both in the science and in the arts ministerial to the science. Thus, in the constellation Cygnus, there is a star gradually changing its relation to our system, whose distance from ourselves (as Dr. Nichol tells us) is ascertained to be about six hundred and seventy thousand times our own distance from the sun: that is, neglecting minute accuracy, about six hundred and seventy thousand stages of one hundred million miles each. This point being known, it falls within the arts of astronomy to translate this apparent angular motion into miles; and presuming this change of relation to be not in the star, but really in ourselves, we may deduce the velocity of our course, we may enter into our log daily the rate at which our whole solar system is running. Bessel, it seems, the eminent astronomer who died lately, computed this velocity to be such (viz., three times that of our own earth in its proper orbit) as would carry us to the star in forty-one thousand years. But, in the mean time, the astronomer is to hold in reserve some small share of his attention, some trifle of a side-glance, now and then, to the possibility of an error, after all, in the main assumption: he must watch the indications, if any such should arise, that not ourselves, but the star in Cygnus, is the real party concerned, in drifting at this shocking rate, with no prospect of coming to an anchorage. [Footnote: It is worth adding at this point, whilst the reader remembers without effort the numbers, viz., forty-one thousand years, for the time, (the space being our own distance from the sun repeated six hundred and seventy thousand times,) what would be the time required for reaching, in the body, that distance to which Lord Rosse’s six feet mirror has so recently extended our vision. The time would be, as Dr. Nichol computes, about two hundred and fifty millions of years, supposing that our rate of travelling was about three times that of our earth in its orbit. Now, as the velocity is assumed to be the same in both cases, the ratio between the distance (already so tremendous) of Bessel’s 61 Cygni, and that of Lord Rosse’s farthest frontier, is as forty- one thousand to two hundred and fifty millions. This is a simple rule- of-three problem for a child. And the answer to it will, perhaps, convey the simplest expression of the superhuman power lodged in the new telescope:–as is the ratio of forty-one thousand to two hundred and fifty million, so is the ratio of our own distance from the sun multiplied by six hundred and seventy thousand, to the outermost limit of Lord Rosse’s sidereal vision.]

Another class, and a frequent one, of equivocal phenomena, phenomena that are reconcilable indifferently with either of two assumptions, though less plausibly reconciled with the one than with the other, concerns the position of stars that seem connected with each other by systematic relations, and which yet may lie in very different depths of space, being brought into seeming connection only by the human eye. There have been, and there are, cases where two stars dissemble an interconnection which they really have, and other cases where they simulate an interconnection which they have not. All these cases of simulation and dissimulation torment the astronomer by multiplying his perplexities, and deepening the difficulty of escaping them. He cannot get at the truth: in many cases, magnitude and distance are in collusion with each other to deceive him: motion subjective is in collusion with motion objective; duplex systems are in collusion with fraudulent stars, having no real partnership whatever, but mimicking such a partnership by means of the limitations or errors affecting the human eye, where it can apply no other sense to aid or to correct itself. So that the business of astronomy, in these days, is no sinecure, as the reader perceives. And by another evidence, it is continually becoming less of a sinecure. Formerly, one or two men,– Tycho, suppose, or, in a later age, Cassini and Horrox, and Bradley, had observatories: one man, suppose, observed the stars for all Christendom; and the rest of Europe observed him. But now, up and down Europe, from the deep blue of Italian skies to the cold frosty atmospheres of St. Petersburg and Glasgow, the stars are conscious of being watched everywhere; and if all astronomers do not publish their observations, all use them in their speculations. New and brilliantly appointed observatories are rising in every latitude, or risen; and none, by the way, of these new-born observatories, is more interesting from the circumstances of its position, or more picturesque to a higher organ than the eye–viz., to the human heart–than the New Observatory raised by the university of Glasgow.[Footnote: It has been reported, ever since the autumn of 1845, and the report is now, (August, 1846,) gathering strength, that some railway potentate, having taken a fancy for the ancient college of Glasgow, as a bauble to hang about his wife’s neck, (no accounting for tastes,) has offered, (or will offer,) such a price, that the good old academic lady in this her moss-grown antiquity, seriously thinks of taking him at his word, packing up her traps, and being off. When a spirit of galavanting comes across an aged lady, it is always difficult to know where it will stop: so, in fact, you know, she may choose to steam for Texas. But the present impression is, that she will settle down by the side of what you may call her married or settled daughter–the Observatory; which one would be glad to have confirmed, as indicating that no purpose of pleasure-seeking had been working in elderly minds, but the instinct of religious rest and aspiration. The Observatory would thus remind one of those early Christian anchorites, and self-exiled visionaries, that being led by almost a necessity of nature to take up their residence in deserts, sometimes drew after themselves the whole of their own neighborhood.]

The New Observatory of Glasgow is now, I believe, finished; and the only fact connected with its history that was painful, as embodying and recording that Vandal alienation from science, literature, and all their interests, which has ever marked our too haughty and Caliph-Omar- like British government, lay in the circumstance that the glasses of the apparatus, the whole mounting of the establishment, in so far as it was a scientific establishment, and even the workmen for putting up the machinery, were imported from Bavaria. We, that once bade the world stand aside when the question arose about glasses, or the graduation of instruments, were now literally obliged to stand cap in hand, bowing to Mr. Somebody, successor of Frauenhofer or Frauendevil, in Munich! Who caused that, we should all be glad to know, if not the wicked Treasury, that killed the hen that laid the golden eggs by taxing her until her spine broke? It is to be hoped that, at this moment, and specifically for this offence, some scores of Exchequer men, chancellors and other rubbish, are in purgatory, and perhaps working, with shirt-sleeves tucked up, in purgatorial glass-houses, with very small allowances of beer, to defray the cost of perspiration. But why trouble a festal remembrance with commemorations of crimes or criminals? What makes the Glasgow Observatory so peculiarly interesting, is its position, connected with and overlooking so vast a city, having more than three hundred thousand inhabitants, (in spite of an American sceptic,) nearly all children of toil; and a city, too, which, from the necessities of its circumstances, draws so deeply upon that fountain of misery and guilt which some ordinance, as ancient as ‘our father Jacob,’ with his patriarchal well for Samaria, has bequeathed to manufacturing towns,–to Ninevehs, to Babylons, to Tyres. How tarnished with eternal canopies of smoke, and of sorrow; how dark with agitations of many orders, is the mighty town below! How serene, how quiet, how lifted above the confusion and the roar, how liberated from the strifes of earth, is the solemn Observatory that crowns the grounds above! And duly, at night, just when the toil of over-wrought Glasgow is mercifully relaxing, then comes the summons to the laboring astronomer. He speaks not of the night, but of the day and the flaunting day-light, as the hours ‘in which no man can work.’ And the least reflecting of men must be impressed by the idea, that at wide intervals, but intervals scattered over Europe, whilst ‘all that mighty heart’ is, by sleep, resting from its labors, secret eyes are lifted up to heaven in astronomical watch-towers; eyes that keep watch and ward over spaces that make us dizzy to remember, eyes that register the promises of comets, and disentangle the labyrinths of worlds.

Another feature of interest, connected with the Glasgow Observatory, is personal, and founded on the intellectual characteristics of the present professor, Dr. Nichol; in the deep meditative style of his mind seeking for rest, yet placed in conflict for ever with the tumultuous necessity in him for travelling along the line of revolutionary thought, and following it loyally, wearied or not, to its natural home.

In a sonnet of Milton, one of three connected with his own blindness, he distinguishes between two classes of servants that minister to the purposes of God. ‘His state,’ says he, meaning God’s state, the arrangement of his regular service, ‘is kingly;’ that is to say, it resembles the mode of service established in the courts of kings; and, in this, it resembles that service, that there are two classes of ministers attending on his pleasure. For, as in the trains of kings are some that run without resting, night or day, to carry the royal messages, and also others–great lords in waiting–that move not from the royal gates; so of the divine retinues, some are for action only, some for contemplation. ‘Thousands’ there are that

—-‘at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest.’

Others, on the contrary, motionless as statues, that share not in the agitations of their times, that tremble not in sympathy with the storms around them, but that listen–that watch–that wait–for secret indications to be fulfilled, or secret signs to be deciphered. And, of this latter class, he adds-that they, not less than the others, are accepted by God; or, as it is so exquisitely expressed in the closing line,

They also serve, that only stand and wait.’

Something analogous to this one may see in the distributions of literature and science. Many popularize and diffuse: some reap and gather on their own account. Many translate, into languages fit for the multitude, messages which they receive from human voices: some listen, like Kubla Khan, far down in caverns or hanging over subterranean rivers, for secret whispers that mingle and confuse themselves with the general uproar of torrents, but which can be detected and kept apart by the obstinate prophetic ear, which spells into words and ominous sentences the distracted syllables of aerial voices. Dr. Nichol is one of those who pass to and fro between these classes; and has the rare function of keeping open their vital communications. As a popularizing astronomer, he has done more for the benefit of his great science than all the rest of Europe combined: and now, when he notices, without murmur, the fact that his office of popular teacher is almost taken out of his hands, (so many are they who have trained of late for the duty,) that change has, in fact, been accomplished through knowledge, through explanations, through suggestions, dispersed and prompted by himself.

For my own part, as one belonging to the laity, and not to the clerus, in the science of astronomy, I could scarcely have presumed to report minutely, or to sit in the character of dissector upon the separate details of Dr. Nichol’s works, either this, or those which have preceded it, had there even been room left disposable for such a task. But in this view it is sufficient to have made the general acknowledgment which already has been made, that Dr. Nichol’s works, and his oral lectures upon astronomy, are to be considered as the fundus of the knowledge on that science now working in this generation. More important it is, and more in reconciliation with the tenor of my own ordinary studies, to notice the philosophic spirit in which Dr. Nichol’s works are framed; the breadth of his views, the eternal tendency of his steps in advance, or (if advance on that quarter, or at that point, happens to be absolutely walled out for the present,) the vigor of the reconnoissances by which he examines the hostile intrenchments. Another feature challenges notice. In reading astronomical works, there arises (from old experience of what is usually most faulty) a wish either for the naked severities of science, with a total abstinence from all display of enthusiasm; or else, if the cravings of human sensibility are to be met and gratified, that it shall be by an enthusiasm unaffected and grand as its subject. Of that kind is the enthusiasm of Dr. Nichol. The grandeurs of astronomy are such to him who has a capacity for being grandly moved. They are none at all to him who has not. To the mean they become meannesses. Space, for example, has no grandeur to him who has no space in the theatre of his own brain. I know writers who report the marvels of velocity, etc., in such a way that they become insults to yourself. It is obvious that in their way of insisting on our earth’s speed in her annual orbit, they do not seek to exalt her, but to mortify you. And, besides, these fellows are answerable for provoking people into fibs:–for I remember one day, that reading a statement of this nature, about how many things the Earth had done that we could never hope to do, and about the number of cannon balls, harnessed as a tandem, which the Earth would fly past, without leaving time to say, How are you off for soap? in vexation of heart I could not help exclaiming–‘That’s nothing: I’ve done a great deal more myself;’ though, when one turns it in one’s mind, you know there must be some inaccuracy there. How different is Dr. Nichol’s enthusiasm from this hypocritical and vulgar wonderment! It shows itself not merely in reflecting the grandeurs of his theme, and by the sure test of detecting and allying itself with all the indirect grandeurs that arrange themselves from any distance, upon or about that centre, but by the manifest promptness with which Dr. Nichol’s enthusiasm awakens itself upon every road that leads to things elevating for man; or to things promising for knowledge; or to things which, like dubious theories or imperfect attempts at systematizing, though neutral as regards knowledge, minister to what is greater than knowledge, viz., to intellectual power, to the augmented power of handling your materials, though with no more materials than before. In his geological and cosmological inquiries, in his casual speculations, the same quality of intellect betrays itself; the intellect that labors in sympathy with the laboring nisus of these gladiatorial times; that works (and sees the necessity of working) the apparatus of many sciences towards a composite result; the intellect that retires in one direction only to make head in another; and that already is prefiguring the route beyond the barriers, whilst yet the gates are locked.

There was a man in the last century, and an eminent man too, who used to say, that whereas people in general pretended to admire astronomy as being essentially sublime, he for his part looked upon all that sort of thing as a swindle; and, on the contrary, he regarded the solar system as decidedly vulgar; because the planets were all of them so infernally punctual, they kept time with such horrible precision, that they forced him, whether he would or no, to think of nothing but post- office clocks, mail-coaches, and book-keepers. Regularity may be beautiful, but it excludes the sublime. What he wished for was something like Lloyd’s list.
Comets –due 3; arrived 1.

Mercury, when last seen, appeared to be distressed; but made no ignals.

Pallas and Vesta, not heard of for some time; supposed to have foundered.

Moon, spoken last night through a heavy bank of clouds; out sixteen days: all right.

Now this poor man’s misfortune was, to have lived in the days of mere planetary astronomy. At present, when our own little system, with all its grandeurs, has dwindled by comparison to a subordinate province, if any man is bold enough to say so, a poor shivering unit amongst myriads that are brighter, we ought no longer to talk of astronomy, but of the astronomies. There is the planetary, the cometary, the sidereal, perhaps also others; as, for instance, even yet the nebular; because, though Lord Rosse has smitten it with the son of Amram’s rod, has made it open, and cloven a path through it, yet other and more fearful nebulae may loom in sight, (if further improvements should be effected in the telescope,) that may puzzle even Lord Rosse. And when he tells his famulus–‘Fire a shot at that strange fellow, and make him show his colors,’ possibly the mighty stranger may disdain the summons. That would be vexatious: we should all be incensed at that. But no matter. What’s a nebula, what’s a world, more or less? In the spiritual heavens are many mansions: in the starry heavens, that are now unfolding and preparing to unfold before us, are many vacant areas upon which the astronomer may pitch his secret pavilion. He may dedicate himself to the service of the Double Suns; he has my license to devote his whole time to the quadruple system of suns in Lyra. Swammerdam spent his life in a ditch watching frogs and tadpoles; why may not an astronomer give nine lives, if he had them, to the watching of that awful appearance in Hercules, which pretends to some rights over our own unoffending system? Why may he not mount guard with public approbation, for the next fifty years, upon the zodiacal light, the interplanetary ether, and other rarities, which the professional body of astronomers would naturally keep (if they could) for their own private enjoyment? There is no want of variety now, nor in fact of irregularity: for the most exquisite clock-work, which from enormous distance seems to go wrong, virtually for us does go wrong; so that our friend of the last century, who complained of the solar system, would not need to do so any longer. There are anomalies enough to keep him cheerful. There are now even things to alarm us; for anything in the starry worlds that look suspicious, anything that ought not to be there, is, for all purposes of frightening us, as good as a ghost.

But of all the novelties that excite my own interest in the expanding astronomy of recent times, the most delightful and promising are those charming little pyrotechnic planetoids,[Footnote: ‘Pyrotechnic Planetoids:’–The reader will understand me as alluding to the periodic shooting stars. It is now well known, that as, upon our own poor little earthly ocean, we fall in with certain phenomena as we approach certain latitudes; so also upon the great ocean navigated by our Earth, we fall in with prodigious showers of these meteors at periods no longer uncertain, but fixed as jail-deliveries. ‘These remarkable showers of meteors,’ says Dr. Nichol, ‘observed at different periods in August and November, seem to demonstrate the fact, that, at these periods, we have come in contact with two streams of such planetoids then intersecting the earth’s orbit.’ If they intermit, it is only because they are shifting their nodes, or points of intersection.] that variegate our annual course. It always struck me as most disgusting, that, in going round the sun, we must be passing continually over old roads, and yet we had no means of establishing an acquaintance with them: they might as well be new for every trip. Those chambers of ether, through which we are tearing along night and day, (for our train stops at no stations,) doubtless, if we could put some mark upon them, must be old fellows perfectly liable to recognition. I suppose, they never have notice to quit. And yet, for want of such a mark, though all our lives flying past them and through them, we can never challenge them as known. The same thing happens in the desert: one monotonous iteration of sand, sand, sand, unless where some miserable fountain stagnates, forbids all approach to familiarity: nothing is circumstantiated or differenced: travel it for three generations, and you are no nearer to identification of its parts: so that it amounts to travelling through an abstract idea. For the desert, really I suspect the thing is hopeless: but, as regards our planetary orbit, matters are mending: for the last six or seven years I have heard of these fiery showers, but indeed I cannot say how much earlier they were first noticed,[Footnote: Somewhere I have seen it remarked, that if, on a public road, you meet a party of four women, it is at least fifty to one that they are all laughing; whereas, if you meet an equal party of my own unhappy sex, you may wager safely that they are talking gravely, and that one of them is uttering the word money. Hence it must be, viz, because our sisters are too much occupied with the playful things of this earth, and our brothers with its gravities, that neither party sufficiently watches the skies. And that accounts for a fact which often has struck myself, viz., that, in cities, on bright moonless nights, when some brilliant skirmishings of the Aurora are exhibiting, or even a luminous arch, which is a broad ribbon of snowy light that spans the skies, positively unless I myself say to people–‘Eyes upwards!’ not one in a hundred, male or female, but fails to see the show, though it may be seen gratis, simply because their eyes are too uniformly reading the earth. This downward direction of the eyes, however, must have been worse in former ages: because else it never could have happened that, until Queen Anne’s days, nobody ever hinted in a book that there was such a thing, or could be such a thing, as the Aurora Borealis; and in fact Halley had the credit of discovering it.] as celebrating two annual festivals–one in August, one in November. You are a little too late, reader, for seeing this year’s summer festival; but that’s no reason why you should not engage a good seat for the November meeting; which, if I recollect, is about the 9th, or the Lord Mayor’s day, and on the whole better worth seeing. For anything we know, this may be a great day in the earth’s earlier history; she may have put forth her original rose on this day, or tried her hand at a primitive specimen of wheat; or she may, in fact, have survived some gunpowder plot about this time; so that the meteoric appearance may be a kind congratulating feu-de-joye, on the anniversary of the happy event. What it is that the ‘cosmogony man’ in the ‘Vicar of Wakefield’ would have thought of such novelties, whether he would have favored us with his usual opinion upon such topics, viz., that anarchon ara kai ateleutaion to pan, or have sported a new one exclusively for this occasion, may be doubtful. What it is that astronomers think, who are a kind of ‘cosmogony men,’ the re
ader may learn from Dr. Nichol, Note B, (p. 139, 140.)

In taking leave of a book and a subject so well fitted to draw out the highest mode of that grandeur, which can connect itself with the external, (a grandeur capable of drawing down a spiritual being to earth, but not of raising an earthly being to heaven,) I would wish to contribute my own brief word of homage to this grandeur by recalling from a fading remembrance of twenty-five years back a short bravura of John Paul Richter. I call it a bravura, as being intentionally a passage of display and elaborate execution; and in this sense I may call it partly ‘my own,’ that at twenty-five years’ distance, (after one single reading,) it would not have been possible for any man to report a passage of this length without greatly disturbing [Footnote: ‘Disturbing;’–neither perhaps should I much have sought to avoid alterations if the original had been lying before me: for it takes the shape of a dream; and this most brilliant of all German writers wanted in that field the severe simplicity, that horror of the too much, belonging to Grecian architecture, which is essential to the perfection of a dream considered as a work of art. He was too elaborate, to realize the grandeur of the shadowy.] the texture of the composition: by altering, one makes it partly one’s own; but it is right to mention, that the sublime turn at the end belongs entirely to John Paul.

‘God called up from dreams a man into the vestibule of heaven, saying, –“Come thou hither, and see the glory of my house.” And to the servants that stood around his throne he said,–“Take him, and undress him from his robes of flesh: cleanse his vision, and put a new breath into his nostrils: only touch not with any change his human heart–the heart that weeps and trembles.” It was done; and, with a mighty angel for his guide, the man stood ready for his infinite voyage; and from the terraces of heaven, without sound or farewell, at once they wheeled away into endless space. Sometimes with the solemn flight of angel wing they fled through Zaarrahs of darkness, through wildernesses of death, that divided the worlds of life: sometimes they swept over frontiers, that were quickening under prophetic motions from God. Then, from a distance that is counted only in heaven, light dawned for a time through a sleepy film: by unutterable pace the light swept to them, they by unutterable pace to the light: in a moment the rushing of planets was upon them: in a moment the blazing of suns was around them. Then came eternities of twilight, that revealed, but were not revealed. To the right hand and to the left towered mighty constellations, that by self-repetitions and answers from afar, that by counter-positions, built up triumphal gates, whose architraves, whose archways–horizontal, upright–rested, rose–at altitudes, by spans– that seemed ghostly from infinitude. Without measure were the architraves, past number were the archways, beyond memory the gates. Within were stairs that scaled the eternities above, that descended to the eternities below: above was below, below was above, to the man stripped of gravitating body: depth was swallowed up in height insurmountable, height was swallowed up in depth unfathomable. Suddenly as thus they rode from infinite to infinite, suddenly as thus they tilted over abysmal worlds, a mighty cry arose–that systems more mysterious, that worlds more billowy,–other heights, and other depths,–were coming, were nearing, were at hand. Then the man sighed, and stopped, shuddered and wept. His over-laden heart uttered itself in tears; and he said,–“Angel, I will go no farther. For the spirit of man aches with this infinity. Insufferable is the glory of God. Let me lie down in the grave from the persecutions of the infinite; for end, I see, there is none.” And from all the listening stars that shone around issued a choral voice, “The man speaks truly: end there is none, that ever yet we heard of.” “End is there none?” the angel solemnly demanded: “Is there indeed no end? And is this the sorrow that kills you?” But no voice answered, that he might answer himself. Then the angel threw up his glorious hands to the heaven of heavens; saying, “End is there none to the universe of God? Lo! also there is no Beginning.”‘

NOTE.–On throwing his eyes hastily over the preceding paper, the writer becomes afraid that some readers may give such an interpretation to a few playful expressions upon the age of our earth, etc., as to class him with those who use geology, cosmology, etc., for purposes of attack, or insinuation against the Scriptures. Upon this point, therefore, he wishes to make a firm explanation of his own opinions, which, (whether right or wrong,) will liberate him, once and for all, from any such jealousy.

It is sometimes said, that the revealer of a true religion, does not come amongst men for the sake of teaching truths in science, or correcting errors in science. Most justly is this said: but often in terms far too feeble. For generally these terms are such as to imply, that, although no function of his mission, it was yet open to him– although not pressing with the force of an obligation upon the revealer, it was yet at his discretion–if not to correct other men’s errors, yet at least in his own person to speak with scientific precision. I contend that it was not. I contend, that to have uttered the truths of astronomy, of geology, etc., at the era of new- born Christianity, was not only below the purposes of a religion, but would have been against them. Even upon errors of a far more important class than any errors in science can ever be,– superstitions, for instance, that degraded the very idea of God; prejudices and false usages, that laid waste human happiness, (such as slavery and many hundreds of other abuses that might be mentioned,) the rule evidently acted upon by the Founder of Christianity was this– Given the purification of the fountain, once assumed that the fountains of truth are cleansed, all these derivative currents of evil will cleanse themselves. And the only exceptions, which I remember, to this rule, are two cases in which, from the personal appeal made to his decision, Christ would have made himself a party to wretched delusions, if he had not condescended to expose their folly. But, as a general rule, the branches of error were disregarded, and the roots only attacked. If, then, so lofty a station was taken with regard even to such errors as had moral and spiritual relations, how much more with regard to the comparative trifles, (as in the ultimate relations of human nature they are,) of merely human science! But, for my part, I go further, and assert, that upon three reasons it was impossible for any messenger from God, (or offering himself in that character,) for a moment to have descended into the communication of truth merely scientific, or economic, or worldly. And the reasons are these: First, Because it would have degraded his mission, by lowering it to the base level of a collision with human curiosity, or with petty and transitory interests. Secondly, Because it would have ruined his mission; would utterly have prostrated the free agency and the proper agency of that mission. He that, in those days, should have proclaimed the true theory of the Solar System and the heavenly forces, would have been shut up at once–as a lunatic likely to become dangerous. But suppose him to have escaped that; still, as a divine teacher, he has no liberty of caprice. He must stand to the promises of his own acts. Uttering the first truth of a science, he is pledged to the second: taking the main step, he is committed to all which follow. He is thrown at once upon the endless controversies which science in every stage provokes, and in none more than in the earliest. Or, if he retires as from a scene of contest that he had not anticipated, he retires as one confessing a human precipitance and a human oversight, weaknesses, venial in others, but fatal to the pretensions of a divine teacher. Starting besides from such pretensions, he could not (as others might) have the privilege of selecting arbitrarily or partially. If upon one science, then upon all,–if upon science, then upon, art,–if upon art and science, then upon every branch of social economy, upon every organ of civilization, his reformations and advances are equally due; due as to all, if due as to any. To move in one direction, is constructively to undertake for all. Without power to retreat, he has thus thrown the intellectual interests of his followers into a channel utterly alien to the purposes of a spiritual mission.

Thus far he has simply failed: but next comes a worse result; an evil, not negative but positive. Because, thirdly, to apply the light of a revelation for the benefit of a merely human science, which is virtually done by so applying the illumination of an inspired teacher, is–to assault capitally the scheme of God’s discipline and training for man. To improve by heavenly means, if but in one solitary science–to lighten, if but in one solitary section, the condition of difficulty which had been designed for the strengthening and training of human faculties, is pro tanto to disturb–to cancel–to contradict a previous purpose of God, made known by silent indications from the beginning of the world. Wherefore did God give to man the powers for contending with scientific difficulties? Wherefore did he lay a secret train of continual occasions, that should rise, by intervals, through thousands of generations, for provoking and developing those activities in man’s intellect, if, after all, he is to send a messenger of his own, more than human, to intercept and strangle all these great purposes? When, therefore, the persecutors of Galileo, alleged that Jupiter, for instance, could not move in the way alleged, because then the Bible would have proclaimed it,–as they thus threw back upon God the burthen of discovery, which he had thrown upon Galileo, why did they not, by following out their own logic, throw upon the Bible the duty of discovering the telescope, or discovering the satellites of Jupiter? And, as no such discoveries were there, why did they not, by parity of logic, and for mere consistency, deny the telescope as a fact, deny the Jovian planets as facts? But this it is to mistake the very meaning and purposes of a revelation. A revelation is not made for the purpose of showing to idle men that which they may show to themselves, by faculties already given to them, if only they will exert those faculties, but for the purpose of showing that which the moral darkness of man will not, without supernatural light, allow him to perceive. With disdain, therefore, must every considerate person regard the notion,–that God could wilfully interfere with his own plans, by accrediting ambassadors to reveal astronomy, or any other science, which he has commanded men to cultivate without revelation, by endowing them with all the natural powers for doing so.

Even as regards astronomy, a science so nearly allying itself to religion by the loftiness and by the purity of its contemplations, Scripture is nowhere the parent of any doctrine, nor so much as the silent sanctioner of any doctrine. Scripture cannot become the author of falsehood,–though it were as to a trifle, cannot become a party to falsehood. And it is made impossible for Scripture to teach falsely, by the simple fact that Scripture, on such subjects, will not condescend to teach at all. The Bible adopts the erroneous language of men, (which at any rate it must do, in order to make itself understood,) not by way of sanctioning a theory, but by way of using a fact. The Bible uses (postulates) the phenomena of day and night, of summer and winter, and expresses them, in relation to their causes, as men express them, men, even, that are scientific astronomers. But the results, which are all that concern Scripture, are equally true, whether accounted for by one hypothesis which is philosophically just, or by another which is popular and erring.

Now, on the other hand, in geology and cosmology, the case is still stronger. Here there is no opening for a compliance even with popular language. Here, where there is no such stream of apparent phenomena running counter (as in astronomy) to the real phenomena, neither is there any popular language opposed to the scientific. The whole are abstruse speculations, even as regards their objects, not dreamed of as possibilities, either in their true aspects or their false aspects, till modern times. The Scriptures, therefore, nowhere allude to such sciences, either under the shape of histories, applied to processes current and in movement, or under the shape of theories applied to processes past and accomplished. The Mosaic cosmogony, indeed, gives the succession of natural births; and that succession will doubtless be more and more confirmed and illustrated as geology advances. But as to the time, the duration, of this cosmogony, it is the idlest of notions that the Scriptures either have or could have condescended to human curiosity upon so awful a prologue to the drama of this world. Genesis would no more have indulged so mean a passion with respect to the mysterious inauguration of the world, than the Apocalypse with respect to its mysterious close. ‘Yet the six days of Moses!’ Days! But is any man so little versed in biblical language as not to know that (except in the merely historical parts of the Jewish records) every section of time has a secret and separate acceptation in the Scriptures? Does an aeon, though a Grecian word, bear scripturally [either in Daniel or in Saint John] any sense known to Grecian ears? Do the seventy weeks of the prophet mean weeks in the sense of human calendars? Already the Psalms, (xc) already St. Peter, (2d Epist.) warn us of a peculiar sense attached to the word day in divine ears? And who of the innumerable interpreters understands the twelve hundred and odd days in Daniel, or his two thousand and odd days, to mean, by possibility, periods of twenty-four hours? Surely the theme of Moses was as mystical, and as much entitled to the benefit of mystical language, as that of the prophets.

The sum of the matter is this:–God, by a Hebrew prophet, is sublimely described as the Revealer; and, in variation of his own expression, the same prophet describes him as the Being ‘that knoweth the darkness.’ Under no idea can the relations of God to man be more grandly expressed. But of what is he the revealer? Not surely of those things which he has enabled man to reveal for himself, and which he has commanded him so to reveal, but of those things which, were it not through special light from heaven, must eternally remain sealed up in the inaccessible darkness. On this principle we should all laugh at a revealed cookery. But essentially the same ridicule applies to a revealed astronomy, or a revealed geology. As a fact, there is no such astronomy or geology: as a possibility, by the a priori argument which I have used, (viz., that a revelation on such fields, would contradict other machineries of providence,) there can be no such astronomy or geology. Consequently there can be none such in the Bible. Consequently there is none. Consequently there can be no schism or feud upon these subjects between the Bible and the philosophies outside. Geology is a field left open, with the amplest permission from above, to the widest and wildest speculations of man.

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