Because starlight takes many years to reach us, the stars in the night sky are images of the past. This curious fact has inspired the following two poems, which like starlight have outlived their originators.

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For the Star

by Mihai Eminscu (1850 – 1889)
Translated from Romanian by A. Z. Foreman

It’s been a long way for that star
Now rising in our skies:
Its light has trekked a thousand years
To reach our earthborn eyes.

It may have long ago burned out
Amid the blue of space
Yet only now its ray has come
To set our sights ablaze.

That icon of a perished star
Climbs heaven’s canopy:
We who saw not the light that was
Now see what’s ceased to be.

It’s ever thus when our desires
Go, spent, into the night.
Our love still follows after us
With an extinguished light.

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Delay

by Elizabeth Jennings (1926 – 2001)

The radiance of the star that leans on me
Was shining years ago. The light that now
Glitters up there my eyes may never see,
And so the time lag teases me with how

Love that loves now may not reach me until
Its first desire is spent. The star’s impulse
Must wait for eyes to claim it beautiful
And love arrived may find us somewhere else.

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The idea also crops up in this poem by A. D. Hope.

3 thoughts on “The slowness of starlight

  1. The latest book I’ve read discussed in the foreword, among other topics, that Eminescu’s poem is not an original idea, but a mere translation of Siehst du den Stern from Gottfried Keller (you have here the text, on page 20 http://www.bcu-iasi.ro/pag/nr102008.pdf)and also inspired from other poems of the age (e.g. Gheorghios Drossinis – Maybe). It would be interesting to find out what sources Jennings had.
    However, the most important things should be their beauty and the fact that science was and still is represented in literature.

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  2. I like the idea of a photon travelling for billions of years since moments after the big-bang, past innumerable stars and other planets, before it’s final fate, which is to be absorbed by a bit of concrete, raising the temperature of a pavement no-one’s looking at by a nano-Kelvin.

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