Summer nights

‘The long mild twilight which like a silver clasp unites
today with yesterday;
when morning and evening sit together hand in hand
beneath the starless sky of midnight.’
The Personal Journals of Captain R.F. Scott, Chapter IX

These words, about a summer night in sub-polar country, are written in the middle of a blank page of Scott’s journal. He does not attribute them, because the journals were for his own personal use, but they come from some notes that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had written about a Swedish poem by Esaias Tegnér.*

Strangely, I once heard the words being attributed to Aratus, the Greek author of the Phainomena—a poem about the constellations, their whereabouts and their risings and settings, including the ones of the zodiac. This work was an object of fascination to some Romans, including Cicero, who translated it: and to read his hexameters is to find an unexpected Cicero—and furthermore, a Cicero whose work was alluded to by Lucretius.**

But there is no way that the words quoted above could have been by Aratus, whose floruit was 315-262 BC, and who we can confidently believe had not been outside the Mediterranean, let alone visited northern climes; nor does it seem the kind of sentiment he might have heard from a Phoenician mariner.

Nor does Aratus explain the tilt of the earth’s axis. He says, of the stars:

οἱ μὲν ὁμῶς πολέες τε καὶ ἄλλυδις ἄλλοι ἐόντες
οὐρανῷ ἕλκονται πάντ᾽ ἤματα συνεχὲς αἰεί:
αὐτὰρ ὅ γ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ὀλίγον μετανίσσεται, ἀλλὰ μάλ᾽ αὕτως
ἄξων αἰὲν ἄρηρεν, ἔχει δ᾽ ἀτάλαντον ἁπάντη
μεσσηγὺς γαῖαν, περὶ δ᾽ οὐρανὸν αὐτὸν ἀγινεῖ.
καί μιν πειραίνουσι δύω πόλοι ἀμφοτέρωθεν:
ἀλλ᾽ ὁ μὲν οὐκ ἐπίοπτος, ὁ δ᾽ ἀντίος ἐκ βορέαο
ὑψόθεν ὠκεανοῖο: δύω δέ μιν ἀμφὶς ἔχουσαι
Ἄρκτοι ἅμα τροχόωσι…
Phainomena, lines 19-27

  caetera labuntur celeri caelestia motu,
cum caeloque simul noctesque diesque feruntur:
axis at immotus numquam vestigia mutat;
sed tenet aequali libratas pondere terras;
quem circum magno se volvit turbine caelum:
extremusque adeo duplici de cardine vertex
dicitur esse polus, quorum hic non cernitur, ille
ad Boream, Oceani supera ad confinia tendit.
quem cingunt Ursae celebres…
Cicero’s translation

  These diamond orbs their various circles trace,
And run incessantly their daily race.
Round a fix’d axis roll the starry skies:
Earth, even balanc’d, in the centre lies.
One pole far south is hid from mortal eye,
One o’er our northern ocean rises high:
Round this The Bears, with head to head reverse,
And back to back, pursue their endless course…
Translation by John Lamb, 1848

To Aratus and his peers, the axis and the poles belonged to the revolving heavens: the earth was motionless in the centre; and the operation of the seasons was as yet imperfectly explained.