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Eclipse Literature

Pulter is unusual for depicting both a solar and a lunar eclipse in the same poem. Instead, most literary representations of eclipses are dazzled by the rarity and sublimity of the total solar eclipse. Gathered here are some of the best examples of eclipse literature, from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries.

In Book One of Paradise Lost, Milton draws on the traditional interpretation of the solar eclipse as a political portent in a simile describing Satan:

John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • his form had yet not lost
  • All her Original brightness, nor appear’d
  • Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th’ excess
  • Of Glory obscur’d: As when the Sun new ris’n
  • Looks through the Horizontal misty Air
  • Shorn of his Beams, or from behind the Moon
  • In dim Eclips disastrous twilight sheds
  • On half the Nations, and with fear of change
  • Perplexes Monarchs.
An excerpt from John Milton’s, Paradise Lost, 1.591-99. Luxon, Thomas H., ed. The Milton Reading Room, May, 2019.

In Samson Agonistes the total solar eclipse is a metaphor for Samson’s blindness and his feelings of physical and spiritual isolation at the beginning of the play:

John Milton, Samson Agonistes
  • O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
  • Irrecoverably dark, total Eclipse
  • Without all hope of day!
  • O first created Beam, and thou great Word,
  • Let there be light, and light was over all;
  • Why am I thus bereav’d thy prime decree?
  • The Sun to me is dark
  • And silent as the Moon,
  • When she deserts the night
  • Hid in her vacant interlunar cave.
An excerpt from John Milton’s, Samson Agonistes 80-89, Luxon, Thomas H., ed. The Milton Reading Room, May, 2019.

In this poem, Wordsworth describes an annular solar eclipse that occurred on September 7, 1820, which he observed in Italy. The following excerpts from the poem describe the distinctive quality of light during the eclipse and the appearance of the Sun during the latter stages of the eclipse:

William Wordsworth
The Eclipse of the Sun, 1820
  • No vapour stretched its wings; no cloud
  • Cast far or near a murky shroud;
  • The sky an azure field displayed;
  • ’Twas sunlight sheathed and gently charmed,
  • Of all its sparkling rays disarmed,
  • And as in slumber laid:–
  • Or something night and day between,
  • Like moonshine–but the hue was green;
  • Still moonshine, without shadow, spread
  • On jutting rock, and curvèd shore,
  • Where gazed the Peasant from his door,
  • And on the mountain’s head.
  • . . . . .
  • Lo! while I speak, the labouring Sun
  • His glad deliverance has begun:
  • The cypress waves its sombre plume
  • More cheerily; and Town and Tower,
  • The vineyard and the Olive bower,
  • Their lustre re-assume!
An excerpt from William Wordsworth’s, Wordsworth’s Poetical Works, ed. E. de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2nd. edition, 1954. Vol. 3, pages 184-86.

Most eclipse literature describes solar eclipses, but Hardy’s sonnet “At a Lunar Eclipse” is an exception:

Thomas Hardy, At a Lunar Eclipse
  • Thy shadow, Earth, from Pole to Central Sea,
  • Now steals along upon the Moon’s meek shine
  • In even monochrome and curving line
  • Of imperturbable serenity.
  • How shall I link such sun-cast symmetry
  • With the torn troubled form I know as thine,
  • That profile, placid as a brow divine,
  • With continents of moil and misery?
  • And can immense Mortality but throw
  • So small a shade, and Heaven’s high human scheme
  • Be hemmed within the coasts yon arc implies?
  • Is such the stellar gauge of earthly show,
  • Nation at war with nation, brains that teem,
  • Heroes, and women fairer than the skies?
The Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy. ed. James Gibson. New York: MacMillan, 1976. p. 79.
Emily Dickinson
It sounded as if the Streets were running
  • It sounded as if the Streets were running
  • And then — the Streets stood still —
  • Eclipse — was all we could see at the Window
  • And Awe — was all we could feel.
  • By and by — the boldest stole out of his Covert
  • To see if Time was there —
  • Nature was in an Opal Apron,
  • Mixing fresher Air.
The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955. vol. 3, poem 1397, p. 967.

Isaac Asimov’s classic short story “Nightfall” (originally published in Amazing Stories in 1941) is set on a planet whose inhabitants have never experienced darkness because of their system’s six suns. As much science fiction does, the story extrapolates the psychological, scientific, and cultural consequences of its initial condition. How would human life be different if we never experienced true darkness? The story’s central conflict involves a group of scientists and religious believers who have temporarily joined forces to solve the biggest puzzle of the planet’s history: a cycle in which the steady growth of civilization is repeatedly arrested by the appearance of a mysterious Darkness and the complete destruction of society every 2000 years. On the eve of the next predicted Darkness, a group of astronomers have finally put together the scientific information they need to understand that the Darkness is nothing more than the rare alignment of a previously unobserved moon with one of the planet’s six suns such that the resulting eclipse produces a night-like darkness. The story concludes when the characters observe a total solar eclipse, darkness, and the stars for the first time:

Isaac Asimov, Nightfall

With the slow fascination of fear, he lifted himself on one arm and turned his eyes toward the blood-curdling blackness of the window.
Through it shone the Stars!

Not Earth’s feeble thirty-six hundred Stars visible to the eye; Lagash was in the center of a giant cluster. Thirty thousand mighty suns shone down in a soul-searing splendor that was more frighteningly cold in its awful indifference than the bitter wind that shivered across the cold, horribly bleak world. . . . .

He was going mad and knew it, and somewhere deep inside a bit of sanity was screaming, struggling to fight off the hopeless flood of black terror. It was very horrible to go mad and know that you were going mad—to know that in a little minute you would be here physically and yet all the real essence would be dead and drowned in the black madness. For this was the Dark—the dark and the Cold and the Doom. The bright walls of the universe were shattered and their awful black fragments were falling down to crush and squeeze and obliterate him.

An excerpt from Isaac Asimov’s, The Complete Stories: Volume 1. New York: Doubleday Books, 1990, pages 361-62.

First published in 1982, Dillard’s essay describes the experience of observing a solar eclipse on February 26, 1979 in Washington State. This was the last total solar eclipse visible in the continental United States prior to the eclipse of August 2017. In the excerpt below, Dillard, like Wordsworth, describes the distinctive quality of light that occurs during a total solar eclipse:

Annie Dillard, Total Eclipse

I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on Earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.

An excerpt from Annie Dillard’s, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), page 16.