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On August 21, 2017, an embattled nation will lay aside its differences for two minutes and forty seconds in observance of a rare astronomical event: a total eclipse of the sun, with a path cutting directly across the continental United States.
Nowadays even most kids know the real cause of an eclipse, though there still may be those who choose to believe wolves or a giant frog are swallowing the sun. These cosmic events have historically served as occasions for meditating on life’s great unanswered questions and the insignificance of our place in the universe. Knowing the science doesn’t dispel the wonder – quite the opposite, as hundreds of thousands of “eclipse chasers” will alter their paths next week to make sure they witness the phenomenon in its totality.
Below are a few choice words from authors intent on capturing the uncanny gloom of that uncertain twilit state, which you may soon experience firsthand, should you find yourself in the eclipse’s path.
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, 1847
“My future husband was becoming to me my whole world; and more than the world: almost my hope of heaven. He stood between me and every thought of religion, as an eclipse intervenes between man and the broad sun. I could not, in those days, see God for His creature: of whom I had made an idol.”
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 35, 1609
“Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud.
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this.”
John Milton, Samson Agonistes, 1671
“Oh dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
Irrecoverably dark, total Eclipse
Without all hope of day!”
Virginia Woolf, The Waves, 1931
“How then does light return to the world after the eclipse of the sun? Miraculously. Frailly. In thin stripes. It hangs like a glass cage. It is a hoop to be fractured by a tiny jar. There is a spark there. Next moment a flush of dun. Then a vapour as if earth were breathing in and out, once, twice, for the first time. Then under the dullness someone walks with a green light. Then off twists a white wraith. The woods throb blue and green, and gradually the fields drink in red, gold, brown. Suddenly a river snatches a blue light. The earth absorbs colour like a sponge slowly drinking water. It puts on weight; rounds itself; hangs pendent; settles and swings beneath our feet.”
Henri Poincaré, Science and Method, 1908
“Why is it that showers and even storms seem to come by chance, so that many people think it quite natural to pray for rain or fine weather, though they would consider it ridiculous to ask for an eclipse by prayer?”
Stephen King, Dolores Claiborne, 1992
“In the end the bright colors always go out of life, have you noticed that? In the end, things always look gray, like a dress that’s been washed too many times.”
Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, 1862
“Nations, like stars, are entitled to eclipse. All is well, provided the light returns and the eclipse does not become endless night. Dawn and resurrection are synonymous. The reappearance of the light is the same as the survival of the soul.”
The Bible, Amos 8:9, 8th century B.C.
“And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord God, that I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day.”
Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Machine Man, 1747
“Since everything depends absolutely on differences in organisation, a well-constructed animal who has learnt astronomy can predict an eclipse, as he can predict recovery or death when his genius and good eyesight have benefited from some time at the school of Hippocrates and at patients’ bedsides.”