The Old Astronomer – Sarah Williams

This is one of my favorite poems of all time, probably. I think a lot of people are, at least, aware of it; I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night is the oft-quoted line that I’ve seen all across the internet.

It’s a beautiful line on its own, but I wish the full poem was more widely read, because I think it provides context that makes the line even more beautiful. The way in which science is not only a love of facts but a wonder at the unknown; the way work is not only creating a thing for yourself but in building a legacy that you have to eventually let go of. The old astronomer confronts death, regretting not the incomplete state of his work (for what can ever be said to be complete work?) but wishing that he might have been more kind throughout his life.

As someone in a science field myself, I think sometimes we focus too much on individual genius and achievement, on a sort of science heroism. The old astronomer is most delighted of all that his pupil wants to carry on his work—still with the reminder that “Not to-day nor yet to-morrow can complete a perfect age.” The work will never be done; the best we can do is to pass our understanding on to those who follow, so that they can take it farther than we could ever imagine. Even Tycho Brahé “may know the law of all things, yet be ignorant of how / We are working to completion, working on from then to now.