The Music of the Spheres

NATURE, red in tooth and claw, is not the whole story. Nature is also mystery, awe, majesty. In it and through it we sense the divine. Our forebears knew this and responded appropriately, and our poets, inspired themselves, have often enough led the perceptive reader deep into the heart of things. Perhaps, in our post-modern age, we are more than ready to be drawn into the vastness of cosmic immensity in search of the transcendent.

Like the ancients, we too sense the wonder of the order, harmony and dependability of the planets and the stars in their seemingly endless course. The silent music and harmony of the spheres makes a great deal of sense to us, as it did centuries ago when it was first mooted as a concept. It is but a short step, then, to reach out to the `Creator of the rolling spheres’, the God of harmony, peace, concord, love.

Henry Vaughan, back in the mid-seventeenth century, at a crisis point in life, was fired with poetic zeal and inspiration. After the example of George Herbert, his predecessor by a few years, his fervour expressed itself in religious verse which still speaks eloquently today. True poetry is often forged out of adversity.

Vaughan grieved particularly because of the state of confusion and disunity in the English Church of his day. King Charles I had been executed in 1649 so that Church and State together were in disarray. As a strong Royalist supporter and High Churchman Vaughan found that his whole world-view had collapsed about him. Not surprisingly these things are echoed in his verse, though, importantly, they are not the whole story, there is much else besides. However, there is a particularly moving poem, entitled The Constellation (published about a year after the martyrdom of King Charles) in which Vaughan finds himself able to put some of his deepest feelings into words. It is in fact the awesomeness of the night sky and the order and harmony of the heavenly bodies that inspire him to express his anguish
The poem begins not merely descriptively but with Vaughan addressing the stars in recognition of their divine origin and in admiration of their silent, ordered movement across the firmament in obedience to their fixed laws. The sheer beauty of their quiet motion speaks of the ineffable joys of heaven:

Fail, ordered lights, whose motion without noise
Resembles those true Joys
Whose spring is on that hill, where you do grow,
And here we taste sometimes below,
With what exact obedience do you move
Now beneath, and now above!
And in your vast progressions overlook
The darkest night, and closest nook!

Sometimes the stars appear here, sometimes there and even when they cannot be seen by mortal eye they do not cease to shine. How different it is with human kind:

No sleep nor sloth assailes you, but poor man
Still either sleeps, or slips his span.

Vaughan develops the contrast. Humans spend most of the time with their eyes fixed on the earth, scarcely ever raising them to heavenly things. O yes, they occupy themselves with musick and mirth, but not the heavenly harmonies of the spheres. Frivolous human pleasures can scarcely be termed music but men and women for the most part are trapped and weighed down by them. Those who see things otherwise are deemed to be crazy:

Who kneels, or sighs a life, is mad.

Nothing has changed, once in a while on a sleepless night some one may glance at the night sky and some even claim to be able to foretell the future by the stars, but they are deluded. The true lesson learnt from the stars is their obedience, order, light and above all their harmony and peace:

… though the glory differ in each star;
yet there is peace still and no war.

A Sister of Holy Cross Convent, Rempstone.