Two beautiful poems about outer (and inner) space–by John Masefield and Conrad Aiken

In discussing the first poem I’ve selected today, John Masefield’s “I Could Not Sleep for Thinking of the Sky,” I want to illustrate some of what I think draws us into the subject of outer space, which is often a metaphor in poetry for our inner space, our reachings toward infinity in an interior direction.  What I am suggesting in fact is that in Masefield’s poem, the “sky,” “The unending sky, with all its million suns” is in fact an example of T. S. Eliot’s “objective correlative.”  For, as Masefield continues, we see a place where the poet watches “the fire-haired comet run[],” and “a point of gloss/Burn to a glow, and glare, and keep amassing.”  He tries to imagine what it would be like if he could “sail that nothing,” if he could “proceed” and see a sun’s “last light upon his last moon’s granites/Die to a dark that would be night indeed.”  That his poem is a masterful exposition about death itself becomes more obvious in his last lines, when he says he might experience “Night where [his] soul might sail a million years/In nothing, not even Death, not even tears.”  Thus, though the poem is concerned with the birth and death of solar systems, which take up ever so much more time than humans to die, he can imagine himself living a kind of immortality almost like that of a god in heaven, but in a literal heaven of planets, stars, suns, moons and the like.  In form, the poem is a sonnet, first eight lines, then six, and the set pattern of the form enforces a sort of masterful containment of emotion, a condensation of intensity and meaning which sets up parallels between the wide and limitless-seeming sleepless night, the dark sky above with isolated bright spots, and the final and eventual and otherwise unimaginable experience of Death with a capital D, the final death of an individual seeming so small beside the deaths of galaxies and universes.  Yet it is this supposedly limited human intelligence, this small and insignificant human being, who is having this vast experience of the heavens.  In small space and time, two very indicative words here, Masefield has painted both an exterior and an interior notion of vastness and illimitable places.

Conrad Aiken’s poem, “Morning Song of Senlin,” is both longer and more filled with comic ironies.  Yet, it too is about shooting through space.  Aiken’s poetic voice, however, does not see the experience of going through space at top speed as something he could or would or might do were it possible, but in fact seems to treat the inner space of his private existence as a foil and in counterpoint to the experience of travelling on planet Earth through the universe.  Yet the two experiences in this poem are intimately connected.  The poem begins, “It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning/When the light drips through the shutters like the dew,/I arise, I face the sunrise,/And do the things my fathers learned to do.”  It might be remarked that the name “Senlin” was said by Aiken to mean “little old man,” and so it is that we can imagine so easily the daily ablutions and activities of a precise, neat, circumspect senior citizen, whose unbounded if somewhat humorously ironical remarks about travelling through space as he completes his daily brushing and combing activities could easily take our own breaths away as we imagine them.  He seems so very smug and self-satisfied.  The first stanza ends, “And I myself on a swiftly tilting planet/Stand before a glass and tie my tie.”  The chorus occurs periodically throughout the poem and reinforces the sense of a very small and insular even if natural world on the Earth around Senlin:  “Vine leaves tap my window,/Dew-drops sing to the garden stones,/The robin chirps in the chinaberry tree/Repeating three clear tones.”  In the second stanza, we get again the repetition of the little old man looking in the mirror, tying his tie, combing his hair, but in this case the heavenly accompaniment to this activity is: “The green earth tilts through a sphere of air/And bathes in a flame of space.”

In the next stanza, final things are thought of, but again rather comically, as if in the attitude of a member of a boys’ club who has a special understanding with the club president:  “It is morning…Should I not pause in the light to remember god?/Upright and firm I stand on a star unstable,/He is immense and lonely as a cloud./I will dedicate this moment before my mirror/To him alone, for him I will comb my hair,/Accept these humble offerings, cloud of silence!/I will think of you as I descend the stair.”

The poem mentions, of course, that “The walls are about me still as in the evening,/I am the same, and the same name still I keep.”  Yet, this seems an odd sort of reassurance to juxtapose with the next of the travelling-at-high-speed-through-an-unknown-firmament passages, which reads, “In a whistling void I stand before my mirror,/Unconcerned, and tie my tie.”  The next morning comes and is related in similar form, in this fashion:  “It is morning.  I stand by the mirror/And surprise my soul once more;/The blue air rushes above my ceiling,/There are suns beneath my floor…”  We continue with the alternation back and forth through the rest of the poem of Senlin getting ready in the morning with such images from his mind as “I ascend from darkness/And depart on the winds of space for I know not where….”  The last we actually hear of Senlin’s voice, we hear “There are shadows across the windows…And a god among the stars;and I will go/Thinking of him as I might think of daybreak/And humming a tune I know…”  We get one final repetition of the natural earth-bound images in the chorus with slight variation, and thus the poem ends.

But what has Senlin actually said, when it’s taken all together?  There seem to be four main lines of monologue going on in this mind we are listening to:  one is that he’s abstracted with getting ready for his day, and his daily routine.  The second is that after all, there are daily images outside his window as well which can be seen as being nearly as reassuring as the routine itself.  The third and most terrifying set of images are associated with the fact that yes, he is on a “swiftly tilting planet,” and these images open the door to startling and frightening possibilities of collision, not so much of planets with each other, but of the quotidian with the unearthly and heavenly.  Yet, for Senlin’s convenience, in the fourth set of images he has imagined himself a god who, though “immense and lonely as a cloud” may still be appeased by someone going through his daily cycle, minding his own business, and giving a polite if highly conventional tip of the hat to the notion of god itself.  This is a strangely and hilariously apt picture of a man keeping his balance in ways which most of us practice from time to time, as we note that scary things do happen (but of course, not to us!).  And this is what makes this poem of universal interest to all of us, even those of us who are not getting on in years and able only to make the best of things in this way.

These two poems seems opposed in another way in the sense that Masefield’s poem takes place at night, and incorporates a sense of the sheer vastness of a life experience when it is filled with a notion of the unearthly and wide expanses of eternity.  And Aiken’s poem takes place in the morning, in a calm and domesticated setting, where the “wild” element is introduced by the thoughtful though somewhat dismissive acceptance of outer space and the earth’s place in it by the composed and superior-to-the-experience attitude of Senlin.  The first poem has somber and tragic tonalities; the second has counterpoint and comic irony.  Yet, both are about our place in the universe and how we face it.  For this reason, I’ve always loved these two poems, and found comfort, complexity, and amusement during the many times I’ve read them through.

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