When nineteenth-century scientist, philosopher and poet, Constance Naden, contemplated the night sky, she saw a universe full of vitality. Here, Clare Stainthorp, reflects on Naden’s sonnets and the starry cosmos that inspired them.
Seeing science in the stars was a preoccupation for Constance Naden. A poet and a philosopher, she was drawn to the night sky, reflecting upon the enormity of the universe and the smallness of herself within it. And yet, this seeming tension was reconciled by her knowledge that underlying these vast distances was a material unity:
A life to each minutest atom given—
Whether it find in Man’s own heart a place,
Or past the suns, in unimagined space—
Thus, in Naden’s pair of sonnets ‘Starlight. I and II’ (Complete Poetical Works, pp. 142–43), the night sky opens up new vistas. Hers is a secular communion with the universe; the second poem begins by boldly stating that ‘Man needs no dread unwonted Avatar / The secrets of the heavenly host to show’. While God has no place in her world scheme, the universe is not void. Instead, the dark sky studded with stars is suffused with vitality, teeming with animate light waves:
Each ripple, starting long decades ago,
Pulsing to earth its blue or golden glow,
Beats with the life of some immortal star.
Fundamentally, this poem is about wonder and the ways that this can be felt by a freethinker who has broken free from Victorian expectations around religion and sentiment.
Naden (1858–1889) was an extraordinary woman whose list of achievements would be impressive for someone who lived twice as long. She published two volumes of poetry, mastered six languages, spent years studying science at Birmingham’s Mason College, travelled independently through Europe, the Middle East and India, and wrote numerous essays and pamphlets promoting her atheist philosophy. Upon her untimely death at the age of 31, a friend wrote of ‘the sudden and unexpected blow’ that deprived ‘the world of a fine and original thinker, Birmingham of its most gifted daughter, [and] progressive Science of a most distinguished worker’ (Constance Naden: A Memoir, p. 3).
Crucially, Naden used her extensive and varied learning to apply the lenses of the arts and the sciences to build a philosophy that, through looking and gazing, studying and staring, observing and watching, sought to find ‘that unity in diversity, which renders the world Cosmos instead of Chaos’ (Induction and Deduction, p. 79). It is this desire to find synthesis that informs the second sonnet’s closing couplet:
And see, wherever sun or spark is lit,
One Law, one Life, one Substance infinite.
It is a hopeful, meditative ending and one that speaks to the specificity of night as a time of reflection: ‘The light of other worlds is round me shed, / The glow of distant æons guides my feet.’ The night sky encompasses her, and us, and through contemplation of the universe’s abundance and multiplicity the possibility of transcending time and space opens up.
From sun to sun, from age to age I climb,
Until for Space I see Infinitude,
And feel Eternity, where was but Time.
In our current moment, when the parameters of our individual lives have changed radically and rapidly, often shrinking beyond recognition, the boundlessness of the night sky is a shared experience that anchors and joins us all. To repurpose a line from another of Naden’s poems, it is reassuringly ‘Changeful, yet changeless, e’en as life and love’ (Complete Poetical Works, p. 116).
Further Reading on Constance Naden
William R. Hughes, Constance Naden: A Memoir (London: Bickers & Son, 1890).
Constance Naden, Complete Poetical Works (London: Bickers & Son, 1894).
Clare Stainthorp, ‘Constance Naden: A Critical Overview’ in Literature Compass, (August 2017).
—, Constance Naden: Scientist, Philosopher, Poet, (2019).
— & Sarah Parker, ‘Tracing the Sculptural Legacy of Constance Naden: Memorialization, gender, and the Portrait Bust’ in Journal of Victorian Culture, 23, (October 2018), pp.508-526.
Feature image: detail from ‘Star Map’ in The Parents’ Review, Vol. 1, (1890), p.629a. For the full text, see archive.org.
About Clare Stainthorp
Clare Stainthorp is a researcher and writer interested in nineteenth-century poetry, the history of atheism, and the intersections of literature and science. Her first book, Constance Naden: Scientist, Philosopher, Poet, was published in 2019 and her work has also appeared in Victorian Poetry, Victorian Literature and Culture, and Journal of Victorian Studies. She received her PhD from the University of Birmingham and now works at University College London.
This article was commissioned under our new theme Night / Shift
For Night / Shift, we at Lucy Writers want to close our eyes to the rituals of the day and open them wide to the possibilities, sites, moves, sounds and forms visible only by night. Using Leonora Carrington’s work (see image above) as an entrance into this broad theme, we welcome writing – reviews, features, essays, creative non-fiction, (flash) fiction, poetry – and art work that explores night and its multiple shifts, liberating and otherwise, for womxn in particular.
Is night, as Carrington suggests, a feminine and feminist zone in itself, one which subverts daily codifications and rethinks day’s conditions? Or is night – also known as Nyx in Greek mythology, the maternal goddess of death, darkness, strife and sleep – still a period of discord, a stretch of time that threatens as much as it frees? For more information, see our Submissions & Contact page.