06/09/2013 07:50 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2013

When Poetry and Astronomy Meet

An astronomer named Geoff Marcy was recently so moved by the seeming demise of his favorite telescope, Kepler -- which has been dutifully orbiting the earth since 2009 -- that he wrote a W.H. Auden-inspired poem about it. The verse reads:

"Kepler was my North, my South, my East and West, my working week, no weekend rest, my noon, my midnight, my talks, my song; I thought Kepler would last forever: I was wrong."

Marcy's telescope is looking pretty mortal these days. Burdened with two busted wheels (it happens to the best of us), Kepler has been relegated to a "point rest state," one that's apparently hopeless enough to drive even a scientist to the comfort of elegiac verse.

I kid. Poets and astronomers have a connection after all. The two disciplines, so unalike in practice, both attract practitioners moved by the desire to discover and joined by a sense of wonder at discovery. Johannes Kepler -- the man, not the bum telescope -- once wrote, "The ways by which men arrive at knowledge of the celestial things are hardly less wonderful than the nature of these things themselves." And what better way to wallow in your wonder than poetry?

Not that the two sides always get along. Walt Whitman famously claimed to have been driven to nausea by a scientific lecture:

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

And Emily Dickinson only politely tipped her hat to a different sort of scope in this well-known poem:

"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see-
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

Poetry, Marcy has reminded us, can also be prudent when facing an emergency. And I would offer him two lines from John Keats' breakthrough sonnet "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer." Keats, just 18, and joyous to discover what was for him a new translation, could think of no better metaphor for his astonishment than imagining himself a man like Mr. Marcy:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;

Marcy, no doubt, acutely feels the loss of his means to such discovery. But with an eye for astronomy and an ear for poetry, I have no doubt he'll find another one.