The Great Eclipse

Right now, if the sky was clear, Londoners would be able to watch (with appropriate safety precautions) an eclipse of the sun. Unfortunately, we’ve had the heaviest mist (smog?) over London for the past few days, and it isn’t doing us any favours right now. It appears, from looking outside, that we can’t see *any* difference in the monotonous heavy blanket of grey which continues to smother London.

But fret not!

Below is an extract from my novel, Double the Stars, based on the life of astronomer Caroline Herschel. As a child, she and her family did observe a “Great Eclipse” – and it is described below. The novel is available from Cinnamon Press.

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The memory Alexander had prompted was the earliest she had of purposely looking up to the heavens. But it was not the grandest. Sloshing a bucket of washing water into the kitchen basin, Caroline was reminded of a much larger tub of water that Isaac had set up in order to watch the Great Eclipse.

            He’d gathered the family. Frau Herschel was impatient; Jacob was absent; Dietrich was more interested in a butterfly that had landed on the sun-warmed cobblestones. But Caroline, just home from school and breathless with haste, leaned eagerly over the tub.

            ‘The Great Eclipse,’ Father announced, rubbing his hands together, ‘is meant to take place in just minutes. Now, don’t look at the sun – don’t, don’t!’ he yelped as both Dietrich and Caroline turned their heads skywards. Caroline blinked, wincing, as spots sprang to her vision.

            ‘Listen, children!’ Father said, exasperated. ‘Shortly, the moon will pass between Sun and Earth, obscuring the Sun.’

            Dietrich splashed his fingers in the tub and Father tutted. ‘Dietrich, please don’t touch the water. We want it smooth as a mirror in order to watch. It will protect our eyes. It damages our vision to look at the Sun directly. You’ve both just tested this theory.’

            Frau Herschel put a restraining hand on Dietrich’s shoulder and he danced with impatience.

            ‘The sky will darken,’ their father continued, ‘but you need not fear – as the moon continues on its orbit, the sun will shine again, just as before.’

            ‘Oh,’ Caroline gasped. The sky had indeed begun to darken, and a black sliver was creeping towards the wavering reflection of the sun. Dietrich fell quiet, watching, and even their mother looked on now with interest.

            ‘Marvellous, just marvellous,’ Isaac muttered.

The family held a unified breath as darkness slid across the sun’s face, and daylight was cloaked in tarnished silver. The moon sat directly in front of the sun, a ring of blackness rimmed with fierce light, reminding Caroline of some great cosmic version of the shadow-puppets Dietrich played at, making shapes in front of a lantern with his fingers. The obstructed beam, with the light behind, projected the shapes onto wherever the candlelight shone. This meant that there should be a great circular shadow pouring down onto the Earth, and Caroline gave a little shudder as she realised that shadow must be the darkness in which they stood. The brightest blackness she had ever seen trembled as a gust of wind danced across the surface of the water.

As they peered into the tub, the moon carried along its path, and, five minutes later, slid off the face of the sun. Silent, they watched it go.

Returning to Poetry by Stepping Away

Last week, I had the pleasure of teaching a poetry workshop for Year 4 Medical Students studying Medical Humanities at Imperial College London.

This has become an annual workshop, a two-and-a-half hour opportunity to bring poetry to students who, for the most part, haven’t read or thought of the genre since school exams – though to be fair, there were quite a few in this class who enjoyed reading, and in a few cases, writing, poetry.

In the past, we’ve enjoyed incorporating A Humument, and while it is always an excellent workshop, this time I chose something more theory-based. We spent a whole hour discussing Leslie Saunders’s provocative article:

Saunders, L. (2014) Do poetry and science have interesting and important things in common? Some thoughts on ‘parsimony’ and ‘provisionality’, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 39(1): 6–20.

This took us well into preparing for the next exercise, which was “sonnet building”. I’ve created a simple structural framework that I think of as “scaffolding” that begins with list words, which students are prompted to draw either from an article, in this case, or, in the case of some workshops, from looking at museum objects. The list words then need to be developed into a double list of rhyming pairs, and so on…until one has, roughly, “built” a sonnet. It is a challenging way to write a poem, and by approaching it (as I think,) backwards, the point is for students to better understand the structure of sonnets – we focus on Shakespearean, though there is a chance to try Petrarchan or Spencerian, sonnet form.

To be honest, I’d been somewhat apprehensive about teaching this workshop, because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to approach it with enthusiasm. Last year I had two books of poetry published as well as my first novel, and I’ve been feeling completely creatively burnt-out. Not only did I feel incapable of writing poetry, I didn’t even want to read it – I didn’t even want to think about it. Current, London poetry was utterly disgusting me. Everything felt the same. (And everything was about bees.) When I was asked to write a review of T.S. Eliot Prizewinner David Harsent’s Fire Songs, it took me a long time to work out what I wanted to say, because I was feeling so ambivalent about poetry overall. (The review is forthcoming in The Lancet.)

Fortunately, there was nothing much forcing me to consume poetry, so I avoided it for some months. What brought me back, perhaps oddly, was a bout of flu. I had so little energy to do much of anything that I spent a lot of the week in bed reading Elizabeth Bishop. She reminded me of my love for poetry. I was so happy to read “Casabianca,” which I remembered studying at university, struggling to emulate its rhyme and rhythm. It truly was like meeting an old friend.

Then, I brought out Emily Dickinson, who is one of my favourite poets, hands-down. Her poems create a heart-beat, a rhythm, for daily life, and they capture the heart-beat, the rhythm, of everyday epiphanies. Every little poem of hers is a prayer or an offering – perfect examples of parsimony (as related to the Saunders article, cited above).

Funny, I just remembered that both of these female poets are from Massachusetts…I wonder if a good portion of their familiarity and comfort comes from a shared landscape, a shared home (I am from Rhode Island).

There’s always some poetry out there to love, and I’m glad I rediscovered it. Also, I was glad to approach last week’s workshop with enthusiasm!