Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
All 27 of the known moons of the planet Uranus are named after characters from the work of Shakespeare and Alexander Pope. Astronomers have paid tribute to the poets; but what have poets had to say about outer space? Below, we’ve selected ten of the greatest poems about space, astronomy, and the solar system.
We’ve also included some of our favourite poems about the moon, to fit in with the ‘space’ theme; you can find more great moon poems here.
An honourable mention to our own Oliver Tearle’s ‘Conjunction’, a modern metaphysical love poem about the 2020 conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which can be read here.
1. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘The Light of Stars’.
The night is come, but not too soon;
And sinking silently,
All silently, the little moon
Drops down behind the sky.
There is no light in earth or heaven
But the cold light of stars;
And the first watch of night is given
To the red planet Mars.
Is it the tender star of love?
The star of love and dreams?
O no! from that blue tent above,
A hero’s armor gleams …
So begins this poem by the author of The Song of Hiawatha, about the planet named for the god of war rather than the god of love (Venus). What message for our lives can we take from the red planet?
2. Emily Dickinson, ‘Ah Moon – and Star!’
Ah, Moon—and Star!
You are very far—
But were no one
Farther than you—
Do you think I’d stop
For a Firmament—
Or a Cubit—or so?
So begins this poem, in which Dickinson (1830-86) does a bit of star-gazing, and concludes that, far away from her though the moon and stars are, they are not as far away as her beloved.
Thus a poem that begins a little like a nursery rhyme or lullaby – reminiscent of a child’s classic like ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ – ends up striking a wistful and slightly plangent note, as we realise that, far away though the moon and star are, Dickinson feels that the one she loves is farther off still. Or may as well be, since she cannot be with him. ‘Star-cross’d lovers’, indeed.
But which star? It may not be a star at all. The fact that Dickinson pairs the moon with one star in particular suggests that she may have Venus in mind. Poets have referred to that planet, which is visible in the night sky like a large, bright star, as the Evening Star for many centuries.
The end of the poem is ambiguous, allowing for us to interpret this unspecified beloved as Jesus Christ, making this a religious poem (or, more accurately, a poem about religious doubt) as well as a fine poem about the stars.
3. Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The Starlight Night’.
Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize …
So begins this sonnet by Victorian poetry’s most idiosyncratic writer. It entreats the reader to look up at the stars on a ‘starlight night’; Hopkins likens the stars to numerous things, from people or ‘fire-folk’ sitting in the night sky, to the eyes of elves, and to diamonds – ‘diamond delves’ likens the stars in the night sky to diamonds in dark mines or caves.
The idea that the darker patches of the night sky (where there are fewer stars) are like ‘grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies’ shows Hopkins’s linguistic inventiveness: ‘quickgold’ picks up on the idea of mines containing precious minerals (recall those ‘diamond delves’), linked by the mention of ‘elves’ (drawing on the mythical idea of elves living below-ground guarding treasure such as gold). But ‘quickgold’ (a Hopkins coinage) suggests ‘quicksilver’, another name for the element mercury (but also faintly suggesting the planet of that name?).
4. A. E. Housman, ‘Astronomy’.
This poem earns its place on this list not just because it’s a great poem about astronomy, but because it was written by one of the greater scholars and translators of a great astronomical poet, namely the Roman poet Manilius (who wrote a long poem titled Astronomica).
In this poem, Housman laments the death of a man he loved and admired, drawing upon the language of the constellations:
The Wain upon the northern steep
Descends and lifts away.
Oh I will sit me down and weep
For bones in Africa.
For pay and medals, name and rank,
Things that he has not found,
He hove the Cross to heaven and sank
The pole-star underground.
And now he does not even see
Signs of the nadir roll
At night over the ground where he
Is buried with the pole.
5. Robert Frost, ‘But Outer Space’.
One of Frost’s short, pithy poems, ‘But Outer Space’ essentially says that although the vastness of outer space holds a fascination for many people, there isn’t much out there except for … space.
But as so often with Robert Frost, all the fun is in how he puts across such a simple and plain idea: the way ‘space’ and ‘populace’ look like perfect rhymes but are merely eye-rhymes, and the way ‘fuss’ has more in common with ‘populace’ in terms of their sounds, when spoken aloud. The final three lines act as a sort of triplet, in that ‘populace’, ‘popular’, and ‘populous’ all share a root, with two of the words being perfect rhymes. In such a short, straightforward poem, Frost conveys the vast emptiness of space.
6. Carl Sandburg, ‘Moonset’.
This short poem is almost actively ‘unpoetical’ in its imagery, and offers a fresh look at the moon. We have often found poets praising the beauty of the sunset, but what about the setting of the moon? The image of moon sand in the second line almost convinces us that moondust has fallen to earth and is there in the canal.
The poem’s final image of ‘dark listening to dark’ is especially eye-catching.
7. Edith Södergran, ‘On Foot I Had to Cross the Solar System’.
Södergran (1892-1923) is not widely known in the English-speaking world: she was a Finnish poet, but she wrote in Swedish. This short lyric is beautifully cryptic about the personal being mapped onto the universal (and we really do mean ‘universal’): ‘Somewhere in space hangs my heart, / shaking in the void …’
8. Richard Aldington, ‘Evening’.
In this poem from Aldington’s imagist period, the speaker stands at the kitchen sink and observes the night sky through the window. The moon poses in the sky, looking like ‘an awkward Venus’ – summoning the god of love but also glimmering faintly with a suggestion of the second planet from the sun. Scroll down the link above to find the poem.
Imagist poetry reduced everything in poetry to the image – and here, the central image of the moon posing like the goddess Venus simultaneously raises the moon’s status (it is likened to a deity) and brings the moon down to earth (it is like an awkward, embarrassed woman posing in diaphanous clothing for some male spectator).
It is qualities like this which make the poetry of Richard Aldington worthy of closer attention than it has often received – this is a fine example of his imagist mode.
9. Louis MacNeice, ‘Star-Gazer’.
The reputations of the Thirties Poets, and how individual reputations have changed over time, are curious: Auden has remained popular and (thanks partly to Four Weddings and a Funeral) continues to enjoy a very healthy readership; Stephen Spender is now little-read except for a few anthology favourites; and Louis MacNeice, in many ways a more Romantic poet than either of his fellow Thirties Poets, has become more and more acclaimed as time has gone on.
Although, like Auden, he wrote long poems as well as short, and his Autumn Journal is a masterpiece, MacNeice is generally at his best in his short lyric poems.
To look at the night sky is to look into the past: we are looking at stars, not as they are now, but as they were thousands, perhaps even millions of years ago. MacNeice’s ‘Star-Gazer’ thinks bigger than man’s three-score-and-ten, reflecting on the fact that some of the stars now bursting into life will never be seen by the poet, because they are so far away their light will only reach earth a long, long time in the future.
10. Sarah Howe, ‘Relativity’.
Howe wrote this poem about scientific ideas – specifically relating to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and its impact on subsequent physics – and read it to Stephen Hawking, to whom the poem is dedicated. It’s beautiful, moving, and shows that science continues to inspire some of the finest poetry.
Discover more classic poetry with these birthday poems, short poems about death, and these classic war poems. We also recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.