Thomas Merton
From 1963
Image

In comment: This poem is only a partial and ambivalent statement. It is generated by tensions and perplexities which call, perhaps, for mention, for they express themselves in a general air of disillusionment. But I am not disillusioned with the idea of space exploration as such. On the contrary, this fantastic endeavor seems to me, in spite of various abuses, to be, in the classical sense of the word, “magnificent.” It is a noble, incomparably lavish expression of man’s intelligence and his courage.

I do not regard the exploration of space in itself as a Promethean impiety: quite the contrary. It is something which man should do because he is the son of God and the master of God’s creation. And if the space man is in all truth a sample of what the man of the future might turn out to be, then I think I like him. I find him admirable. By his patience, his humility, his courageous and simple ability to co-operate in infinitely tiresome programs, he is worthy to inherit the earth. Provided he does not forget there are other and deeper explorations to which he is called, with or without the encouragement of his society.

However, that is not what the poem is about. It has really nothing to do with the flesh-and-blood space men who have made the headlines, but about the headlines themselves. It is about the image, the fabricated illusion, the public and international daydream of space and space men. This is less magnificent. It is pitiably shallow, bedeviled with ambiguities and nonsense, a front for great crass power plays and Cold-War chicanery.

The poem is in a minor key because it takes account of this less charming aspect of the second most enormous and second most wasteful of our great international games. The best thing about this game, however, is that it does not threaten our survival. This, at least, can be said in its favor.

Brooding and seated at the summit

Of a well-engineered explosion

He prepared his thoughts for fireflies and warnings

Only a tourist only a shy American

Flung into public sky by an ingenious weapon

Prepared for every legend

His space once visited by apes and

Russians

No longer perfectly pure

Still proffered virginal joys and free rides

In his barrel of fun

A starspangled somersault

A sky-high Mother’s Day

Four times that day his sun would set

Upon the casual rider

Streaking past the stars

At seventeen thousand miles per hour

Our winning Rover delighted

To remain hung up in cool hours and

long trips

Smiling and riding in eternal transports

Even where a dog died in a globe

And still comes round enclosed

In a heaven of Russian wires

Uncle stayed alive

Gone in a globe of light

Ripping around the pretty world of girls

and sights

“It will be fun,” he thinks

“If by my cunning flight

The ignorant and Africans become

convinced”

Convinced of what? Nobody knows

And Major is far out

Four days ahead of his own news

Until at last the shy American smiles

Colliding once again with air fire and

lenses

To stand on noisy earth

And engineer consent

Consent to what? Nobody knows

What engine next will dig a moon

What costly uncles stand on Mars

What next device will fill the air with burning dollars

Or else lay out the low down number of

some Day

What day? May we consent?

Consent to what? Nobody knows,

Yet the computers are convinced

Fed full of numbers by the True

Believers

Thomas Merton (1915-68) was a Trappist monk of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky and the author of numerous acclaimed works of spirituality, including

Comments

MICHAEL MILLER | 8/26/2008 - 9:12pm
"The heavens declare your glory, O God and the firmament proclaims your works. Day unto day pours out the story; night unto night makes known the beauty. Without a word, without a sound, without a voice being heard, their message fills all the earth, resounding to the ends of the universe." Psalm 19:1-4 http://hubblesite.org/

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