Contributor: Caroline Bertonèche
Description: In 1781, when William Herschel, the British astronomer and musician who died in Hanover, Germany, in 1822 just a year after Keats’s death in Italy, discovered the new planet Uranus, Keats was not yet born. However, after his birth in 1795, it only took Keats a few years, around a decade or so, to discover the world of astronomy. In his Recollections of Keats by an Old School-Fellow, dated January 1861, his friend Charles Cowden Clarke recalls how Keats had learned about planetary movement and the architecture of the skies in boyhood. His teacher, John Rylands, used to introduce his students to the solar system by inventing games, a creative way of seeing the school playground as a place of experimentation and imagination where the boys could picture the heavens and build their own human orrery. Biographers are still unsure as to why exactly Keats was given John Bonnycastle’s work of popular science, An Introduction to Astronomy. In a Series of Letters from a Preceptor to his Pupil, originally published in 1786, and whether it was awarded to him in 1811 as a prize for one of his early essays or as a reward for his English translation of Virgil’s Aeneid – an epic project which he never quite finished. In the end, Keats only translated half of the poem, which for a young schoolboy was still a rather admirable accomplishment. From Latin poetry to Romantic astronomy, this example of Keatsian scholarship therefore makes for an interesting connection between Keats’s first translation of Virgil and George Chapman’s first translation of Homer (Keats had studied Latin but not Greek), which inspired the poet to write his now famous sonnet, ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’, published in The Examiner, on December 1st, 1816. By the end of the poem, the Romantic traveller will have paid tribute to many different European figures, both ancient and modern, including William Herschel, ‘the watcher of the skies’.
When Keats first opened Bonnycastle’s book on the most recent developments in the field of astronomy, this is what he would have read:
But of all the discoveries in this science, none will be thought more singular than that which has lately been made by Herschel who, as he was pursuing a design which he had formed of observing, with telescopes of his own construction, every part of the heavens, discovered in the neighbourhood of H Geminorum, a star, which in magnitude and situation, differed considerably from any that he had before observed, or found described in the catalogues. […] A discovery of this nature soon engaged the attention of the most eminent astronomers of Europe, and many observations were accordingly made at different times and places. Amongst which, those of M. Lexell of Petersbourg, appear to have been of particular service, in determining the real nature and class of celestial bodies to which this phenomenon belongs. These observations, compared with those of other eminent astronomers, sufficiently prove, that this star is a PRIMARY PLANET, belonging to the solar system, which, till the 13th of March 1781, when it was first seen by Dr. Herschell [sic], had escaped the observation of every other astronomer, both ancient and modern (1) .
Bonnycastle perfectly stages the discovery of Uranus, here depicted as a sensational, eye-opening discovery. There is something of a poetic effect in the preceptor’s art of storytelling and slight sense of exaggeration. The power of language and vision upstages science, especially at the end of the book where the ‘primary planet’ stands out as the new entry in Bonnycastle’s ‘explanation of the principal terms made use in astronomy’ but not yet under its official name, URANUS, only later included in the glossary of the 1816 edition: ‘GEORGIUM SIDUS, a new planet lately discovered by Dr. Herschell [sic], being the seventh in order from the sun, and the most distant of any in the system’; so distant in fact that it was not yet part of a new set of updated reproductions in the book, as is illustrated by Bonnycastle’s planetarium ‘showing the various phenomena of the Copernican system’ (plate XIX). However inconsistent from one edition to the next, proving the cosmos to be as subject to mutation and improvement as its literature, the book certainly made an impression on Keats who used its content as one of his many sources for his sonnet, in addition to “Robertson’s History of America, which was in the library at Enfield, and which describes the discovery of the Pacific; William Gilbert’s commentary on his poem ‘The Hurricane’, which Wordsworth quotes in one of his notes to The Excursion, and which describes how contemplation of ‘the distant, vast Pacific’ produces ‘imperial’ exaltation”(2). These sources Cowden Clarke would have been able to identify as major influences in Keats’s writing when he himself first read his friend’s poem, sitting at his breakfast table in Clerkenwell:
Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told.
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eye
He stared at the Pacific – and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Although neither Herschel nor Uranus is explicitly named in the poem, ‘the new planet swims into [Keats’s] ken’ to give the world (and the sonnet) a new definition. A planet is also just a word, like the term ‘ken’, which combines both the poem’s extended geographical and cultural horizon with the Romantic poet’s distant understanding of science, itself faced with the challenge of always adapting its discourse on the expansion of the universe. If Keats aspires to write like Homer or translate like Chapman, he also looks to Herschel for answers if he is to reach beyond the limits of his poem and levitate amongst the gods of poetry and science, somewhere between the ‘realms of gold’, Apollo’s kingdom and the wooden spheres of Bonnycastle’s planetarium.
Creator: John Bonnycastle
Subject: Keats’s sonnet and John Bonnycastle’s Introduction to Astronomy (1811)
Object Type: Book cover and illustration
Publisher: J. Johnson
- John Bonnycastle, An Introduction to Astronomy in a Series of Letters from a Preceptor to his Pupil, 6th edn (London: J. Johnson, 1811), pp.354-55.
- Andrew Motion, Keats (London: Faber and Faber, 1997), pp.111-12.