Friday, May 02, 2014

`A Strange Thing to Be Roguish Over'

Like his poems, Robert Frost is country-shrewd, sounding most folksy when he has much to conceal. In his Paris Review interview, he swaps tales of boyhood with Richard Poirier: 

“One of the earliest books I hovered over, hung around, was called Our Place among Infinities, by an astronomer in England named Proctor, noted astronomer. It’s a noted old book. I mention that in one of the poems: I use that expression `our place among the infinities’ from that book that I must have read as soon as I read any book, thirteen or fourteen, right in there I began to read.” 

Richard A. Proctor (1837-1888) mapped Mars, where a crater was named after him. Today we would call him a science popularizer as well as a scientist. He was prolific, and published Our Place among Infinities in 1875, the year after the poet was born. The poem in which Frost uses Proctor’s title is “The Star-Splitter,” first published in New Hampshire (1923). The narrator tells the story of Brad McLaughlin who “mingled reckless talk / Of heavenly stars with hugger-mugger farming.” He burns down his house to collect the insurance money, and uses the money to buy a telescope, “To satisfy a life-long curiosity / About our place among the infinities.” No one seems to have questioned the act of arson, and McLaughlin is tolerated as an eccentric by his neighbors (“to be social is to be forgiving”). The worst they can say of him is, “He took a strange thing to be roguish over,” and McLaughlin judges his fraud an act of civic responsibility:  

“The best thing that we’re put here for’s to see;
The strongest thing that’s given us to see with’s
A telescope. Someone in every town
Seems to me owes it to the town to keep one.
In Littleton it may as well be me.” 

McLaughlin becomes the town’s self-appointed see-er or seer, and the narrator joins him. At first, McLaughlin’s arson reminded me of another wayward New Englander, Henry Thoreau, who burned down the woods near Concord in the summer of 1844, and noted in his journal: “It has never troubled me from that day to this more than if the lightning had done it.” But McLaughlin’s loss was only his own, not another landowner’s, and he set fire to his house for a good cause, and spent his six-hundred dollars on a telescope. Besides, reasons the narrator, “If one by one we counted people out / For the least sin, it wouldn't take us long / To get so we had no one left to live with.” After all, McLaughlin, like Proctor, has celestial work to do: 

“That telescope was christened the Star-Splitter,
Because it didn't do a thing but split
A star in two or three the way you split
A globule of quicksilver in your hand
With one stroke of your finger in the middle.
It’s a star-splitter if there ever was one,
And ought to do some good if splitting stars
’Sa thing to be compared with splitting wood.” 

It was Thoreau who said chopping your own firewood warmed a man twice – useful work. We note that one of Proctor’s other books was Half-Hours with the Telescope (1868), and another was titled The Expanse of Heaven (1873). In an unhappy coda to his brief and productive life, Proctor moved to New York City in 1881 and died there of yellow fever in 1888. An astronomical journal, The Observatory, published an obituary signed W. Noble, which concludes with these words: 

“Another stupid slander sometimes uttered was that he had no religion, than which nothing could conceivably be more false. For theology his contempt was supernal; but no one could be more reverent and religious than he who now lies still and cold so far from his native land.”

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