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Robinson Jeffers on Moral Beauty, the Interconnectedness of the Universe, and the Key to Peace of Mind

“One may contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things by making one’s own life and environment beautiful, so far as one’s power reaches. This includes moral beauty.”

Robinson Jeffers on Moral Beauty, the Interconnectedness of the Universe, and the Key to Peace of Mind

“Happy people die whole,” Robinson Jeffers (January 10, 1887–January 20, 1962) wrote in one of his poems. “Integrity is wholeness,” he wrote in another. For Jeffers, whose verses became revered hymns of the environmental movement as Rachel Carson was making ecology a household word, this meant wholeness not only within oneself but also wholeness with the rest of the natural world, with the integrity of the universe itself — an ethos consonant with his contemporary John Muir’s insistence that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Jeffers coined the term inhumanism to describe the perilous counterpoint to this awareness. Humanity, he worried, had become too solipsistic, too divorced from the rest of nature, too blind to the “astonishing beauty of things” — beauty the protection of and participation in which is both our natural inheritance and our civilizational responsibility.

Although Jeffers’s ideas moved and influenced generations of readers, writers, artists, activists, and even policymakers — from Ansel Adams and Edward Weston to Bill McKibben and Terry Tempest Williams — he never formally articulated his spiritual credo outside of verse. Never, except once.

Robinson Jeffers by Edward Weston

In the autumn of 1934, Jeffers received a letter from Sister Mary James Power — a principal and teacher at a girls’ Catholic high school in Massachusetts. A lifelong lover of poetry, Power had endeavored to edit an anthology of prominent poets’ reflections on the spiritual dimensions of their art and their creative motive force. She invited Jeffers to contribute, asking about his “religious attitudes.” His response, originally published in Powers’s 1938 book Poets at Prayer and later included in The Wild God of the World: An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers (public library), is one of the most beautiful and succinct articulations of a holistic, humanistic moral philosophy ever committed to words — some of the wisest words to live and think and feel by.

Jeffers writes:

It is a sort of tradition in this country not to talk about religion for fear of offending — I am still a little subject to the tradition, and rather dislike stating my “attitudes” except in the course of a poem. However, they are simple. I believe that the universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy, and they are all in communication with each other, influencing each other, therefore parts of one organic whole. (This is physics, I believe, as well as religion.)

Illustration by Oliver Jeffers from Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth

Writing in the same era in which Carson revolutionized our understanding of the natural world and our place in it with her lyrical writings about the sea, observing that “against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change,” Jeffers adds:

The parts change and pass, or die, people and races and rocks and stars, none of them seems to me important in itself, but only the whole. This whole is in all its parts so beautiful, and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it, and to think of it as divine. It seems to me that this whole alone is worthy of the deeper sort of love; and that here is peace, freedom, I might say a kind of salvation.

But this “salvation,” Jeffers observes in a sensitive caveat, is not something that happens to us, passively — it is something that happens in us, through our active participation in life, through the choices we make during the brief interlude of our existence as animate beings in an animate universe. Wholeness itself is a participatory act — both a faculty of being and a function of becoming, to be mastered and refined in the course of living. (I too have wondered how, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, we attain completeness of being.) Jeffers writes:

I think that one may contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things by making one’s own life and environment beautiful, so far as one’s power reaches. This includes moral beauty, one of the qualities of humanity, though it seems not to appear elsewhere in the universe. But I would have each person realize that his contribution is not important, its success not really a matter for exultation nor its failure for mourning; the beauty of things is sufficient without him.

Complement this fragment of the wholly ravishing Wild God of the World with poet and philosopher Parker Palmer, a modern-day Jeffers of a kind, on the elusive art of inner wholeness, neurologist Oliver Sacks on beauty as a lens on the interconnectedness of the universe, evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis on the spirituality of science and the interconnectedness of life.

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Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman

“Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”

Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman

“To soothe and spiritualize, and, as far as may be, solve the mysteries of death and genius, consider them under the stars at midnight,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) wrote in his daybook upon receiving word of another great poet’s death. “Is there not something about the moon, some relation or reminder, which no poem or literature has yet caught?” he wondered as he approached the end of his own life.

As a young man, Whitman had written in the preface to his Leaves of Grass, which forever changed the soul and sinew of poetry:

The sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests, mountains, and rivers, are not small themes… but folks expect of the poet to indicate more than the beauty and dignity which always attach to dumb real objects… they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls.

No literary artist has wrested grander themes out of the reality of the natural world, nor channeled those themes more beautifully, than Whitman, for whom astronomy was a particularly beguiling lens on humanity’s intimacy with nature. He lived through a golden age of American astronomy, when the first university observatories were being erected, when comet discoveries and eclipse observations regularly made the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. After astronomers at the U.S. Naval Observatory discovered the first moon of Mars, and soon the second, Whitman exulted in his notebook: “Mars walks the heavens lord-paramount now; all through this month I go out after supper and watch for him; sometimes getting up at midnight to take another look at his unparallel’d lustre.”

But as much as Whitman relished the discoveries of astronomy, the undiscovered cosmos called to him with even greater allure and he called back with uncommon divination. More than a century before the first confirmed detection of an exoplanet, this poetic seer peered far out into “the orbs and the systems of orbs.” Half a century before Edwin Hubble glimpsed Andromeda, upending humanity’s millennia-old conviction that ours is the only galaxy in the universe, Whitman envisioned that “those stellar systems… suggestive and limitless as they are, merely edge more limitless, far more suggestive systems.” A century before scientists theorized a multiverse, he bellowed from the invigorating pages of Song of Myself: “Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”

“Give me nights perfectly quiet… and I looking up at the stars.” Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

And yet as much as the triumphs of science thrilled him, as ecstatically as he sailed along the ever-expanding shorelines of knowledge into the vast expanse of the knowable, Whitman fixed his gaze on the horizon of the known, aware that past it lay an oceanic immensity infinitely vaster. A century before Carl Sagan insisted that “the universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it,” Whitman revolted against the hubris of certitude and celebrated what science does not yet know, and perhaps might never know, in his poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” published in 1855 and brought to life in a stunning reading by astrophysicist and poetic science writer Janna Levin at the opening of the third annual Universe in Verse, benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first-ever public observatory at Pioneer Works — a dream many times dreamt since the founding of the city, many times attempted, and many times failed, including an effort in the middle of the 19th century advertised in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, in which Whitman made his name.

WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER
by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Complement with John Cameron Mitchell reading Whitman’s ode to the unfathomed universe below the surface of the ocean and Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity at the second annual Universe in Verse, then join me in supporting Pioneer Works and making this long-dreamt observatory dream a reality.

For more wonder and splendor at the intersection of poetry and science, savor Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by the astronomer, poet, and tragic genius Rebecca Elson, Amanda Palmer reading “Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich, and James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop’s poignant poem about the nature of knowledge.

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101-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor Helen Fagin Reads Walt Whitman

“The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me, / The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.”

“Whitman is a projection into literature of the cosmic sense and conscience of the people, and their participation in the forces that are shaping the world,” the great naturalist and essayist John Burroughs wrote of Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) in his more-than-biography of this titanic poet whose verses continue to stir the hearts and minds of readers two centuries hence. Their sublimest, most enduring gift springs from Whitman’s resolute insistence on embracing our variegated, inconstant, polyphonous selves — on harmonizing the individualistic and the egalitarian, nature and culture, the body and the soul. “Do I contradict myself?” he asked unselfconsciously. “Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” His poems bellow the bold, countercultural assurance that in acknowledging the contradictions within us, we collapse the contradictions between us; that only by exploring the myriad facets of selfhood, from its brightest summits to its darkest recesses, can we begin to dissolve the illusion of separateness and the antagonisms of otherness that divide us from one another.

Nowhere is Whitman’s unflinching belief in the indivisibility of the human spirit distilled more exquisitely than in the opening verse of the twenty-first section of his poem “Song of Myself,” included in the self-published 1855 masterpiece Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain) and read here by 101-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin, who escaped Nazi-occupied Poland as a young woman, having embodied the most powerful testament to how literature saves lives. After arriving in America without speaking a word of English, this impassioned and devoted reader went on to earn a Ph.D. and to teach literature for decades, remaining to this day an ardent lover of poetry in general and of Whitman in particular. To hear Whitman’s humanistic and humanizing words channeled through a voice that has lived through humanity’s darkest hour, through a century of incalculable trials and triumphs of the spirit, is to be reminded of what it means to be alive, to be human, to be a pulsing, breathing, beautifully contradictory multitude.

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate
into a new tongue.

Couple with Fagin’s cousin Neil Gaiman reading to her Ursula K. Le Guin’s poem about timelessness on the eve of her 101st birthday, then revisit Whitman’s timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life, his wisdom on democracy, and his serenade to the universe.

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May 29, 1919: The Animated Story of How Eddington’s Historic Eclipse Expedition Confirmed Relativity, Catapulted Einstein into Celebrity, and United Humanity

How one of humanity’s greatest scientific achievements became one of humanity’s most humane moments, uniting a divided world under the same sky after its darkest hour.

May 29, 1919: The Animated Story of How Eddington’s Historic Eclipse Expedition Confirmed Relativity, Catapulted Einstein into Celebrity, and United Humanity

On May 29, 1919, the young English astronomer Arthur Eddington (December 28, 1882–November 22, 1944) catapulted Albert Einstein into celebrity by proving the most significant scientific model of the universe since Newtonian gravity: the general theory of relativity, completed four years earlier.

For a quarter millennium, Newton’s conception of space as static and absolute had gone unquestioned. According to his instantaneous-action-at-a-distance theory, gravity is a force that, like magnetism, acts through space but not on space, and light travels only in straight lines. According to Einstein’s theory, space and time are one entity — the foundational fabric of the universe — and gravity is a force caused by spacetime: Massive objects don’t merely draw small objects with their gravitational pull but bend the fabric of spacetime itself with their mass, pulling smaller objects into the depressions and bending light along the curvature.

Arthur Eddington (left) and Albert Einstein

At a time when very few scientists considered relativity plausible, and very few Englishmen would risk their reputation by defending a German’s ideas, Eddington set out to test Einstein’s theory against reality in an ingenious experiment nature herself had furnished. With his small team, he traveled to the remote island of Príncipe off the western coast of Africa to observe the longest total solar eclipse — 6 minutes and 51 seconds — in five centuries. When the Moon curtained the sun, Eddington hoped to see light of the Hyades cluster positioned directly behind the sun from Earth’s vantage point. If Einstein was right and Newton wrong, the sun’s massive gravitational field would warp spacetime itself, bending the path of the light to make it visible from Earth. The Hyades starlight would thus be deflected from its baseline nighttime position, which Eddington had recorded several months earlier.

It was an incredibly ambitious endeavor, both conceptually and practically. After days of heavy rains and overcast skies, resigned to failure, Eddington and his crew watched in awe as the clouds parted just in time for the eclipse, clearing the way for the telescope they had hauled to their cliffside encampment. As totality swept its otherworldly veil over the island, they took several photographic plates. All but two were ruined by the crude technology — but in those two, the Hyades clearly speckled the side of the Sun, matching Einstein’s theoretical prediction and disproving Newton.

One of Eddington’s photographic plate negatives.

“Dear Mother, joyous news today,” Einstein wrote upon receiving word of the triumphant results, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe and shaped the course of modern physics. “New theory of the universe,” the London Times soon proclaimed under the heading REVOLUTION IN SCIENCE, “Newtonian ideas overthrown.”

The scientific triumph was also a heartening, humane moment — just after the close of World War I, a pacifist English Quaker, who had refused to be drafted in the war at the risk of being jailed for treason, and a pacifist German Jew united humanity under the same sky, under the deepest truths of the universe. It was an invitation to perspective in the largest sense — one to which the third annual Universe in Verse was dedicated.

In this lovely short film, animated by English artist Hannah Jacobs and produced by Massive Science, astrophysicist, author, and my Universe in Verse co-conspirator Janna Levin elucidates the science behind the historic expedition and contextualizes the triumph of relativity, the legacy of which animates her sublimely beautiful book Black Hole Blues.

Eddington, unlike some of his compatriots, had no urge to denigrate Einstein’s accomplishments, although he was a citizen of a country so recently a bitter enemy — Einstein, born in Germany, and Eddington, in England. Out of the shadow of the War into the shadow of the Moon, they were citizens of the same Earth and relativity was heralded as one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

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