Eclipses of Shakespeare and the Poets


Eclipses of Shakespeare and the Poets is excerpted from The Story of Eclipses (1899), a popular science book for general readers published in anticipation of the May 28, 1900 solar eclipse.
An illustration for the story Eclipses of Shakespeare and the Poets by the author George F. Chambers
Jiri Daschitzsky, Great comet of 1577
An illustration for the story Eclipses of Shakespeare and the Poets by the author George F. Chambers
Jiri Daschitzsky, Great comet of 1577
An illustration for the story Eclipses of Shakespeare and the Poets by the author George F. Chambers

The sound of these words may be large but facts do not bear out the theory, for eclipses do not appear to have captivated our great poets to anything like the extent that Moon, Stars, and Comets have done.

Solar Eclipse May 28, 1900

Shakespeare has a few allusions to eclipses, but they are not of prime importance. In Macbeth we find:—

“And slips of yew
Shivered in the Moon’s eclipse”
—Act iv. sc. 1.

the precise meaning of which is not very obvious. “Shivered” of course means divided into pieces, but the idea intended is obscure.

The next quotation is more comprehensive and reflects more plainly the current of thought prevalent in Shakespeare’s day, albeit here again the word “eclipse” will be found to stand without much definite connection with what goes before. However the reader shall judge for himself:—

“As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the Sun; and the moist star,
Upon whose influence Neptune’s Empire stands,
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse.”
—Hamlet, act i. sc. 1.

In King Lear we seem to come upon something very definitely historical, but I am not able to say what it is. The Earl of Gloster says:—

“These late eclipses in the Sun and Moon portend no good to us.”

With this, Edmund, Gloster’s son, apparently agrees, for he exclaims:—

“These eclipses do portend these divisions.”
—Act i. sc. 2.

In Othello, the Moor of Venice himself, in a moment of excitement, says:—

“O, insupportable! O, heavy hour!
Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse
Of Sun and Moon, and that the affrighted globe
Should yawn at alteration.”
—Act v. sc. 2.

In Anthony and Cleopatra we find Anthony expressing what our forefathers so often thought in connection with astronomical matters:—

“Alack, our terrine Moon is now eclipsed;
And it portends alone
The fall of Anthony!”
—Act iii. sc. 11.

Milton has an allusion to an eclipse of the Sun which possesses a two-fold interest—intrinsic and extrinsic. The former feature will be self-evident when the passage is read. The poet, in describing [166] the faded splendour of the fallen archangel, compares him to the Sun seen under circumstances which have temporarily deprived it of its normal brilliancy and glory:—

“As when the Sun new-risen
Looks through the horizontal misty air
Shorn of his beams, or, from behind the Moon
In dim eclipse, disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes Monarchs.”

It has been well said by Dr. Orchard[167] that “this passage affords us an example of the sublimity of Milton’s imagination and of his skill in adapting the grandest phenomena of nature to the illustration of his subject.”

What I alluded to in saying that extrinsic interest attached to this quotation, is the fact that these lines might have caused the suppression of the poem as a whole. Mrs. Todd puts the matter thus:
—“Paradise Lost was begun probably in 1658, although not finished until 1663, nor its thorough revision completed until 1665. The censorship still existed, and Tomkyns (one of the chaplains through whom the Archbishop gave or refused license), although a broader-minded man than many of his day, found this passage especially objectionable. The poem was allowed to see the light only through the interposition of a friend of Milton. Upon such slender chances may hang the life of an incomparable work of art! But it is easy to see that in the turbulent days when Charles the Second had returned to power, after the death of Cromwell, these lines should have been deemed dangerously suggestive, in imputing to monarchs ‘perplexity’ and ‘fear of change.’”

Other allusions to eclipses by Milton will be found as follows:—

Through the air she comes,
“Lur’d with the smell of infant blood, to dance
With Lapland witches, while the labouring Moon
Eclipses at their charms.”
—Paradise Lost, Bk. ii. lines 663-6.
“So saying, he dismiss’d them; they with speed
Their course through thickest constellation held,
Spreading their bane; the blasted stars look’d wan,
And planets, planet-struck, real eclipse,
Then suffer’d.”
—Paradise Lost, Bk. x. lines 410-14.
“O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of Noon,
Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse,
Without all hope of day!”
—Samson Agonistes, Lines 80-2.
“It was that fatal and perfidious bark,
Built in th’ eclipse, and rigg’d with curses dark,
That sunk so low that sacred heart of thine.”
—Lycidas, Lines 100-2.

Pope, in the following lines, may be presumed to mean that the covering up of the Sun by the Moon, during a total eclipse, results in the Moon becoming visible, at the cost of the Sun’s disappearance:—

“For Envy’d wit, like Sol eclips’d, makes known
Th’ opposing body’s grossness, not its own.”
—Essay on Criticism, Lines 469-70.

I have not attempted to pursue this matter through the pages of our modern poets, but it is not unlikely that Scott and Tennyson (especially) would have something on the subject of eclipses.



[166] Paradise Lost, Book i., lines 594-9.
[167] The Astronomy of Milton, p. 259.

Eclipses of Shakespeare and the Poets was featured as The Short Story of the Day on Fri, Aug 18, 2017

Enjoy the works cited here by William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope. You may also enjoy reading James Fenimore Cooper's The Eclipse


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