In honor of the total lunar eclipse that will take place this coming Monday–Tuesday night we have an extra homeschool poem this week. It’s a River Houses traditional for every lunar eclipse week: an astronomical sonnet-masterpiece from Thomas Hardy (1840–1928) that asks three questions and gives no answers. Why not read it with your students as the earth’s shadow steals upon the moon’s meek shine.
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?
When you introduce your students to a new poem, especially one in a traditional form, the first thing to have them do is count the lines and the syllables and map the rhyme scheme. How many lines? Fourteen, which tells you this is probably a sonnet — a Petrarchan sonnet in fact, which you can confirm by noting that the lines are grouped as 4 + 4 (the octave) and 3 + 3 (the sestet). (A Shakespearean sonnet, by contrast, is usually grouped as 4 + 4 + 4 + 2.) How many syllables in each line? Ten throughout. (And that gives you a clue about how certain words should be pronounced: Heaven’s is one long syllable here, not two.) The ten syllables in each line follow a generally iambic pattern, with the accent on the second syllable of each pair (most of the time). That makes this poem iambic pentameter: five iambic measures in each line. What about the rhyme scheme? The first two stanzas (the octave) are sea–shine–line–serenity and symmetry–thine–divine–misery. That looks like ABBA ABBA. The next six lines (the sestet) follow a different pattern: CDE CDE. By uncovering these details of structure your students will come to appreciate good poems as carefully crafted pieces of literary labor.
What about the poem’s theme or meaning? If I wanted to put “At a Lunar Eclipse” in its historical and cultural context, I would say that it is one of a number of literary works from the Victorian era that express sorrow or even despair about the seeming insignificance of human life. On the scale of the stars in the universe — the stellar gauge — is all of human existence really nothing more than a curving line on the moon? If you have high school students who are up for some college-level thinking, send them over to another famous example of this genre, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” How are Arnold’s ideas similar to and different from Hardy’s?
What wonderful words have you found and what poetical productions have you studied in your homeschool this Cygnus Term? 😊
❡ The stellar gauge of earthly show: If a special line or turn of phrase happens to strike you in one of our weekly poems, just copy it onto your homeschool bulletin board for a few days and invite your students to speak it aloud — that’s all it takes to begin a new poetical friendship and learn a few lovely words that will stay with you for life. 🌞 🌏 🌕
❡ Literary lives: The website of the Poetry Foundation includes biographical notes and examples of the work of many important poets (including Thomas Hardy) that are suitable for high school students and homeschool teachers. ✒️
❡ Here, said the year: This post is one of our regular homeschool poems-of-the-week. Print your own River Houses Poetry Calendar to follow along with us as we visit fifty of our favorite friends over the course of the year, and add your name to our River Houses mailing list to get posts like these delivered right to your mailbox every week. 🗞
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