The Universe in Verse: Astrophysicist Natalie Batalha Reads Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Renascence” and Tells a Lyrical Personal Story About Her Path to Science
A poetic reflection on what we look at and what we see through the veils of our perception.
By Maria Popova
Among the thousands of people around the world watching the livestream of the inaugural Universe in Verse was one spectator who would become a centerpiece of the show the following year: Natalie Batalha — an astrophysicist involved in the search for life on planets orbiting stars outside our Solar System and the project scientist on NASA’s Kepler mission, which has outlived its expected lifespan of 3.5 years nearly threefold and has discovered an astonishing 1,000 exoplanets.
In a beautiful essay marking the third anniversary of the mission, Batalha reflected on the life of pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler, after whom it was named, and on the larger questions animating scientists in the search for other worlds. She wrote:
Reality is a poem on the tip of my tongue that I can’t quite remember, familiar yet distant. It’s a form seen through a veil.
When she kindly agreed to participate in the second annual Universe in Verse, I asked her to read a portion of a very old, very long poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892–October 19, 1950), which deals with this question of what we look at and what we see through the veils of our perception — an excerpt from the title poem in Millay’s 1917 collection Renascence and Other Poems (free ebook | public library).
Batalha prefaced her reading with the lyrical personal story of her uncommon path to science and recounted two formative experiences that awakened her to the beauty, fragility, and interconnectedness of life on our own planet — experiences remarkably resonant with Millay’s poem. Enjoy:
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I’d started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
Over these things I could not see;
These were the things that bounded me;
And I could touch them with my hand,
Almost, I thought, from where I stand.
And all at once things seemed so small
My breath came short, and scarce at all.
But, sure, the sky is big, I said;
Miles and miles above my head;
So here upon my back I’ll lie
And look my fill into the sky.
And so I looked, and, after all,
The sky was not so very tall.
The sky, I said, must somewhere stop,
And — sure enough! — I see the top!
The sky, I thought, is not so grand;
I ‘most could touch it with my hand!
And reaching up my hand to try,
I screamed to feel it touch the sky.
I screamed, and — lo! — Infinity
Came down and settled over me;
Forced back my scream into my chest,
Bent back my arm upon my breast,
And, pressing of the Undefined
The definition on my mind,
Held up before my eyes a glass
Through which my shrinking sight did pass
Until it seemed I must behold
Immensity made manifold;
Whispered to me a word whose sound
Deafened the air for worlds around,
And brought unmuffled to my ears
The gossiping of friendly spheres,
The creaking of the tented sky,
The ticking of Eternity.
Among the other highlights from The Universe in Verse are astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Terrance Hayes reading Lucille Clifton’s ode to the kinship of all things, and poet Marie Howe’s remarkable tribute to Stephen Hawking. Edna St. Vincent Millay also figured in the inaugural Universe in Verse with her stunning sonnet about Euclid.
Published August 3, 2018