Review – A Celestial Crown of Sonnets by Sam Illingworth & Stephen Paul Wren

Sometime in the 4th century BC, a Chinese astronomer named Shi Shen took it upon himself to map the stars visible in the night sky. The resulting work, containing some 800 stars, is generally considered to be the earliest star catalogue. Shi Shen’s achievements did not stop there; he also observed sunspots and wrote a number of astronomical and astrological treatises. In recognition of his contributions to astronomy, a crater on the far side of the moon has been named after him.

With my Eurocentric education I hadn’t heard of Shi Shen before reading A Celestial Crown of Sonnets, written by Sam Illingworth and Stephen Paul Wren. Each poem in this slim, beautifully produced volume focuses on an astronomer who made significant contributions to the advancement of our understanding of the universe. 

A crown of sonnets, also known as a sonnet redoublé, is a sequence of fifteen sonnets in which the last line of each sonnet forms the opening line of the next. The fifteenth (master) sonnet comprises the opening lines of each of the previous sonnets in successive order. Illingworth and Wren write in their foreword that they opted to use this tightly constrained form ‘as an homage to the tireless questioning of our chosen astronomers, which through either necessity or choice was often conducted under very limiting conditions.’ The structure also elegantly signifies how successive generations build upon the intellectual achievements and discoveries of their predecessors: as Newton wrote in a letter to Robert Hooke ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants’.

Newton is one of the fourteen astronomers presented in this sequence, which is ordered chronologically, beginning with the natural philosophers of ancient Greece and concluding with the advent of ‘professional science’ in the early nineteenth century. The opening sonnet is addressed to Thales of Miletus, born around 620 BC and considered to be the founder of astronomy, who ‘learned to chart the night’ and ‘forecast when the moon would blot the sun’. The final astronomer to be featured is William Herschel (1738 – 1832) whose many contributions included improving the design and construction of telescopes ‘By casting giant mirrors out of tin;/ Each surface forged and buffed’. (Sadly, the constraints of the form don’t allow space for an additional sonnet on Herschel’s sister Caroline, a formidable scientist in her own right who discovered a number of comets. She was the first woman to be granted a salary as an astronomer and in 1828 was awarded the Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal). 

Illingworth and Wren cast their net across the world: in addition to Shi Shen they include the 6th century Indian mathematician-astronomer Aryabhata, the 9th century Persian polymath Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmi (from whose name our English word algorithm is derived) and Ibn al-Shatir (1304 – 1375), who was the religious timekeeper in the Ummayat Mosque in Damascus. One of the many delights of the book is that it has encouraged me not only to revisit the work of European astronomers whose names are familiar to me but also to find out more about scientists from other parts of the world. I learn, for example, that Ibn al-Shatir rejected long-established theories of cosmology dating back to Aristotle and instead drew on careful observation to develop empirical models of solar, lunar and planetary motion:

By basing models on what you observed,
You revolutionised the way we thought;
Empiricism was no more absurd,
With faded creeds, new facts could not be bought.

In keeping with the crown of sonnets framework, the concluding line of this poem – 

The planets were all tamed beneath your touch

also serves as the opening line of the next, addressed to the 16th century Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus who used mathematical techniques identical to those applied by Ibn al-Shatir. This has led to speculation that Copernicus may have been influenced by al-Shatir’s work – a point elegantly implied by this linear connection between the two sonnets.

Sam Illingworth is an Associate Professor at Edinburgh Napier University who specialises in scientific communication, particularly the use of poetry to encourage dialogue between scientists and non-scientists. Stephen Paul Wren describes himself as ‘a chemistry academic with a passion for words’. The sonnets, which are all Shakespearean in style, are beautifully crafted and a testament to the fruitful collaboration between these two fine poets. Their final, master sonnet not only neatly ties the entire opus together but also resonates with the sense of wonder that we – whether professional astronomers or amateurs – experience as we contemplate the night sky:

With records that were no more than a crutch,
Creating tracks beyond our wildest plans.
Observing truth yet tempered with delight,
You tamed the sky and welcomed in the light.

Sam Illingworth & Stephen Paul Wren (2021) A Celestial Crown of Sonnets 24pp.

Published by Penteract Press.

Posted on 3rd April 2021.

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