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Chesterton on “The poetizing of natural history”

“In the early days of the world, the discovery of a fact of natural history was immediately followed by the realization of it as a fact of poetry. When man awoke from the long fit of absent-mindedness which is called the automatic animal state and began to notice the queer facts that the sky was blue and the grass green, he immediately began to use those facts symbolically. Blue, the color of the sky, became a symbol of celestial holiness; green passed into the language as indicating a freshness verging upon unintelligence. If we had the good fortune to live in a world in which the sky was green and the grass blue, the symbolism would have been different.

“But for some mysterious reason this habit of realizing poetically the facts of science has ceased abruptly with scientific progress, and all the confounding portents preached by Galileo and Newton have fallen on deaf ears. They painted a picture of the universe compared with which the Apocalypse with its falling stars was a mere idyll. They declared that we are all careening through space, clinging to a cannon-ball, and the poets ignore the matter as if it were a remark about the weather. They say that an invisible force holds us in our own armchairs while the earth hurtles like a boomerang, and men still go back to dusty records to prove the mercy of God. They tell us that Mr. Scott’s monstrous vision of a mountain of sea-water rising in a solid dome, like the glass mountain in the fairy-tale, is actually a fact, and men still go back to the fairy-tale.

“To what towering heights of poetic imagery might we not have risen if only the poetizing of natural history had continued and man’s fancy had played with the planets as naturally as it once played with the flowers! We might have had a planetary patriotism, in which the green leaf should be like a cockade, and the sea an everlasting dance of drums. We might have been proud of what our star has wrought, and worn its heraldry haughtily in the blind tournament of the spheres. All this, indeed, we may surely do yet; for with all the multiplicity of knowledge there is one thing happily that no man knows: whether the world is old or young.”   — G.K. Chesterton


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Howard Nelson January 9, 2019, 8:50 PM

    As we explore moons, Mars, UFOs, capabilities of AI-melded human minds, we’ll discover more than whether our world is old or young, we’ll discover how bold we are with songs as yet unsung. Our earning is in our yearning — ask any infant after it takes its first step or says its first word.

  • ghostsniper January 10, 2019, 4:50 AM

    aggressive hair comber right there

  • jwm January 10, 2019, 7:14 AM

    It’s pretty simple really. The world was quite young in 1972. Now, the world is much older, and getting a little tired of it all.


  • Mark Allinson January 10, 2019, 9:17 PM

    I am all for the poetizing of natural history – Thompson’s “The Seasons” is a favourite. I would love to see it make a big comeback, and as the turning wheel of history suggests, that day will return.

    Below is one of my own attempts at the genre – a Spenserian sonnet on the topic of supernovae.

    Night Blooms

    A mega-star will rage like fifty suns,
    Eating its heart away a thousand times
    Faster than the mere five million tons
    Our sun consumes each second as it shines.
    This brilliant matter-factory combines
    Two nuclei of hydrogen to gain
    Helium then carbon till it refines
    The element that makes a prison chain:
    Iron will be the last, and will contain
    An atom-bomb twelve thousand miles wide,
    Where grinding atom-crunches soon entrain
    A blast as fusing nuclei collide.
    In violent birth the dying sun will shower
    The elemental seeds to grow a flower.

  • Vanderleun January 11, 2019, 8:19 AM

    Mark, I like that so much I’m putting it in the sidebar for a bit if you don’t mind.

  • AesopFan January 12, 2019, 6:20 PM

    Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine publishes poetry in just about every issue.
    I don’t read it much anymore, because, reasons; however, the index for this past year shows several titles that could be Poetizing Nature, or at least Science.


  • Howard Nelson January 12, 2019, 6:32 PM

    AesopFan: “… because, reasons”