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.
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.’ 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?
Emily Dickinson, ‘Ah Moon – and Star!’ In this poem, Dickinson 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. 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.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The Starlight Night’. This sonnet by Victorian poetry’s most idiosyncratic writer 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 Starlight Night’ was one of two poems which Hopkins sent to his mother as a birthday present, the other poem being ‘God’s Grandeur’. What a birthday present!
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.’
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.
Carl Sandburg, ‘Moonset’. This short poem is almost actively ‘unpoetical’ in its imagery, and offers a fresh look at the moon. The poem’s final image of ‘dark listening to dark’ is especially eye-catching.
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 …’
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.
Louis MacNeice, ‘Star-Gazer’. 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. Written in 1967 but looking back to his eighteenth birthday some 42 years earlier, 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.
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.