Notes from Away: Starry Night
Thursday, August 27, 2015 10:10 AM
ROCKPORT. Van Gogh’s famous painting of the night sky was painted from memory, in daylight.
Of course, it had to be. Candlelight or gaslight would have effaced the stars and sitting outside in darkness would have made it impossible to see his paints. His landscapes by contrast were mostly done out of doors, and their frenetic impasto brushstrokes hold insects and specks of grain from the provincial fields. In fact, as he wrote his brother Theo, he created “Starry Night” in his room, at dawn, after sitting the whole night by his asylum window.
The Dutch artist was well read (and a good writer) in English, and so almost certainly knew the poignant lines of a young, and never to be old, Keats:
And when I see upon the night’s starred face
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I might never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance . . .
What I have always thought remarkable about that particular painting, aside from its characteristic strength and beauty, is the great spiral of star tracks that dominates the scene.
A spiral! How, one wonders, did Van Gogh intuit this whorled, unsubtle, astrophysical shape? The great discovery of modern astronomy, that there are millions of galaxies outside our own, and that vast forces have given most of them a spiral shape, was not confirmed until decades after his death.
Was it the swirling mistral wind in his beloved cypress trees, was it the whirling dervishes in his anguished mind, or was it a sublime awareness of a turning earth and the turning stars around Polaris as the night progressed?
There was a night here in Maine two weeks or so ago when the night sky was remarkably clear and the moon did not rise until well after midnight. I heard that many people went out that night to look at the stars.
That night, towards 11:00, I heard the children go outside, so I stirred myself too, and turned out the lights in the living room, and took a blanket and lay down in a beach chair on the lawn as my eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness.
It was a windless midnight, I seem to recall, bringing to mind another reverie of Keats:
As when, upon a trance-ed summer night . . .
Tall oaks, branch-charmed by the earnest stars,
Dream, and so dream all night without a stir,
Save from one gradual solitary gust,
Which comes upon the silence and dies off.
Gradually my eyes could make out the hazy band of light the ancient Greeks called galaxias, from their word gala for milk. The great god Zeus, we are told in myth, placed the infant Heracles, his son by a mortal woman, on the nursing breast of his goddess wife Hera (so the boy could become immortal), but the waking Hera shoved the unwanted child away, and her milk streaked the night sky forever.
Other ancients saw in that band of light the luminous path of a ship, gliding at night through the phosphorescent Aegean.
There were meteors that night as well, quick lines of light in the corner of one’s vision. There was also the steady progression across the sky of the flashing lights and the delayed rumble of a passing jet, guided by computer to Europe.
Milton, writing in the 17th century, in the darkness visible of his inspired blindness, imagined great ships under sail navigating by the stars in distant seas:
As when far off at Sea a Fleet descried
Hangs in the Clouds . . .
Close sailing from Bengala . . .
They on the trading flood . . .
Ply stemming nightly toward the Pole.
It is hard not to wonder at those gigantic beings burning so many light years away, seemingly unconsumed, like the bush that Moses was shown in the desert.
Our minds are stunned by the thought of these stars, huge and powerful as our own Sun, but so far away as to be mere pinpoints of photons to the naked eye.
A romantic Yeats saw this paradox in tiny “pools among the rushes that scarce could bathe a star.”
It is easy to be grateful to have been vouchsafed the sight of these stars, by the thousands, as on that special night in Maine last week. It is wondrous to believe that there are millions of galaxies beyond our Milky Way, stretching some billions of light years away to the edge of the visible universe.
But it is impossible to envy those exploding and collapsing giants of hydrogen and helium, burning for eons without memory or reflection.
Perhaps that is why we rarely spend too much time looking at them, really, considering all the time we could.
Stephen Harder is a resident of Rockport, living and working in China, and home for the summer.